Casual Gardener: only weed out the worst offenders

Before you tar all weeds with the same brush first sample the delights of teasel, writes John Manley...

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) plants have colonised a corner at the end of John's driveway

I'VE used the phrase ‘a weed is just a plant in the wrong place' countless times during the lifetime of this column.

Whatever that number, you can multiply it by 10 for the times I've uttered those words in my lifetime as a gardener – and in most cases it definitely rings true.

While there's a certain type of person that feels compelled to control nature – disproportionately male DUP members – who will tell you that our road verges have become ravaged by weeds this summer, they are wrong. The road verges in most places have instead flourished with native flora, creating a much needed habitat for insects and small mammals, which in turn support other wildlife that lives elsewhere.

The verges haven't been cut and yet the sky hasn't fallen in. As far as I'm aware – and I'm sure we'd have heard about it pretty quickly – not a single serious road accident has resulted from an overgrown verge. In fact, it's very possible there has been a fall in the number of collisions on rural roads because drivers are exercising greater caution.

But enough politicking, let's talk weeds – real weeds. The worst weeds are those which have become classified as ‘invasive alien species‘.

The notorious Japanese knotweed would be the most extreme example, with giant hogweed, Himalayan balsam and floating pennywort, a vigorous aquatic weed, following close behind. If the above selection constitutes the Weed Premiership, in the second tier are the slightly less maligned invaders, whose impact on the human population is less immediate and severe yet they have created eco wastelands in areas where they have flourished.

Three examples from this category are Rhodendendron ponticum, Cotoneaster integrifolius and Gunnera tinctoria.

Weeds are plants that end up in the wrong place because they are those species that are stronger and less fussy than others. Sometimes, though, these are plants that we may tolerate and even welcome, such as foxgloves, Aquilegia and poppies – let's call them the benign weeds.

Like their less-benign namesakes they too, by definition, choose to go where you don't want them but sometimes by an accident of nature they can cluster in manner that looks like it was deliberately engineered.

This year, for example, a group of teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) plants have colonised a corner at the end of my gravel driveway. It's perfect for them – full sun along with well-drained, infertile ground, ensuring they are tall (up to 1.5 metres) and erect.

Bettered only in my opinion by the equally tall great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), teasel is a biennial plant prized for its architectural impact and prickly, thistle-like pinkish purple flowers, which appear in mid-to-late summer. The flowers are beloved of bees in the warmer months, then as it turns cool they attract goldfinches, which are said to be the only bird that can feast on the seedheads.

Dried whether in situ – mine feature in the ‘dead' garden – or inside the home, the seedheads and rigid stalks will maintain their shape for years and even lend themselves to spraying with gold or silver-coloured paint to enhance their festive appeal at Christmas.

Those primeval-looking egg-shaped seedheads are the source of many seeds, enough for both the birds and you. To get them to grow, synthesise the conditions you get at corner of a gravel driveway where there's little fertility and the soil is dusty.

Because it's a biennial, teasel will never become invasive but it can be a nuisance.


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