Weeds and living with them

It’s been a while since my last post. I’d been busy with the World Cookbook as well as trying to live harmoniously with the diversity of weeds in the garden. Weeds, as my plant production professor once said, should be the first plants a gardener should get to know. The Oxford Online Dictionary defines a weed as a wild plant growing where it’s not wanted or that disturbs the growth of domesticated plants. I take the view that a weed is a plant whose beneficial uses are yet to be discovered. For readers gardening in Germany, I give the German names of these weeds, just in case you should come across them in conversation with neighbours. Take the dandelion (Löwenzahn, Taraxacum officinale), for instance — whose presence is not welcomed by those aspiring to perfect lawns. I love the cheery look they give to my backyard meadow (the ground and grass are too uneven to be called a lawn). It’s bound to become more appreciated now that its healing power has been demonstrated. An extract from its roots has been found by Canadian researchers at the University of Windsor to be effective in killing leukemia cells. DANDELIONS ON LAWN NACHTIGALLEN

Weeds are supposed to be able to tell us a lot about our soil. (However, as I was later to discover, some published information should be taken with a pinch of salt). Stinging nettles (Brennessel, Urtica dioica), ground ivy (Gundermann, Glechoma hederacea), germander speedwell (Gamander-Ehrenpreis, Veronica chamaedrys), corn chamomile or field chamomile (Acker Hundskamille, Anthemis arvensis) and buttercups (Scharfer Hahnenfuss, Ranunculus acris) can indicate nutrient-rich soils. As does red campion (Rote Lichtnelke, Silene dioica). Moist soils are apparently preferred by creeping buttercup (Kriechender Hahnenfuss, Ranunculus repens), of which my backyard has a very big population.

To deter weeds, I have opted not to use any agrochemicals. Glyphosate, which was claimed to be harmless as it breaks down once it touches the soil, has now been found in groundwater, which means that in actual fact it takes a long time to break down.  Its damaging effects, including to DNA and its association with cancer, have caused it to be banned in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. When we moved here last year, weeds had flourished unrestrained in the long-neglected garden. Stinging nettle clumps were almost 2 metres high, ivy thickly covered the tree trunks, and tangled brambles and bindweed were everywhere. A superficial clear-up was all that could be done before winter set in. As a rule I like to leave a new garden pretty much untouched throughout the first year to see what will come up. It was wonderful to have snowdrops, tulips, lady’s smock (Wiesen-Schaumkraut, Cardamine pratensis), vetch, creeping speedwell, clover, and buttercups. I thoroughly enjoyed the cheerful sight of dandelions all over the lawn. Here at the edge of the woods, a wild-flower meadow, wanted or unwanted, just happens. It was, however, more difficult to appreciate goutweed (Giersch, Aegopodium podagraria). While their white umbels set off the pink roses very well, I suspect they stressed them out.


Goutweed umbels look nice in a spring bouquet, but their thuggish manner with the rose bushes is not welcome.

The rose stems were thick with scale, their leaves pale and misshapen, and badly punctured by capsid bugs. I’ve had to cut down the ailing bushes to spare the healthier ones. I tried a weed-fighting strategy recommended by other gardeners. After digging up as much as I could of the goutweed and bindweed roots, I covered the ground with cardboard sheets, topped them with a thick mulch of grass clippings, and just left everything to disintegrate.  I left the stems of the roses free of mulch. In the past months, no goutweed has appeared. Without access to light, it’s supposed to lose its will to live. Come spring we shall see if this has really worked. Goutweed was once an anti-gout remedy, and its leaves are edible (if you haven’t sprayed them, that is). “If you can’t beat them, eat them” can be an alternative strategy. The country-life magazine Mein Schoenes Land (May/June 2012) featured a Wild Herb Strudel with a filling made from leaves of stinging nettle, goutweed, and wild garlic (Bärlauch, Allium ursinum). Young, tender, unsprayed leaves of stinging nettle and goutweed can be prepared much like spinach.

There was a low edging of flowering wild geranium or herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), that brightened the path alongside the house, but the city council slashed them, which was a pity. On the other hand, they left the stinging nettles on the opposite bank untouched. Later I was glad they did, as among the nettles I discovered corn cockle (Kornrade, Agrostemma githago), considered rare here now, cornflower (Kornblume, Centaurea cyanus, and red campion. I’ve trimmed the flowers off the stinging nettles to encourage new leaves so that certain butterflies can lay their eggs. It won’t be long now before the weeds stop active growth. This first year of living with weeds has taught me that despite the received wisdom that stinging nettles, vetch, clover, and speedwell grow on nutrient-rich soil, I realize now that the soil in this garden is so very far from rich. The wildflower seeds that I’d sown, which are supposed to do well even on poor soil, had really struggled. My soil is definitely poorer than poor. For the coming seasons, I shall have to supply the garden generously with compost.