Embrace Your Weeds


I am as guilty as the next person of considering plants in the garden that I, myself did not plant to be weeds. In the beginning of this incarnation of the Fairegarden, there was a totally blank slate on the steep slope behind the main house. It had been a mass of tree seedlings that had grown quite large, blackberry brambles, honeysuckle and Japanese privet that was untameable by chainsaw, black plastic or lawnmower. It took the backhoe that was on site to dig the foundation for the addition to the house, to remove all vegetation, build terraces and also make a flat bit of land for the several large dump trucks to get back there to mulch the whole thing. Trees, shrubs and perennials that had been brought in the gas guzzler from the Texas garden and those things planted where the addition would be built that were excavated by the backhoe were all planted according to the sketches I had made for the Grand Design. Above: The garden as it is today, October, 2011.


But soon the natives started returning to this pristine spot, popping up univited in the new scheme. They were pulled without remorse for several years until the growth of the newly planteds covered and filled in the garden. Passalongs, seeds and propagations helped cover the bare mulched earth. There was less time and inclination to keep the weeds at bay and a system of laissez faire took over. Crabgrass was defeated with a singularity of purpose unmatched, for that is the thorn in my gardening side, after poison ivy, that is. The other inherited plantings were watched and allowed to bloom, better to identify them with the new wildflower book. Added: The new wildflower book is “Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians” by Dennis Horn and Tavia Cathcart. Those things we knew to be weedy, like henbit, were pulled when they were large enough to grasp but most others were given a treatment of benign neglect. The main objective became to keep the gravel paths passable if not perfectly groomed. Tall stuff was removed, the rest was left to fight it out amongst themselves with maybe a violet eradication session on occasion. Life is too short to be obsessive about weeds. Above: The garden in spring of 2001. The wall has not even been built yet, solid red clay holds the whole thing up at the bottom of the shot.


Who is to say what is a weed, anyway? Two groups of plants that appear regularly are asters and fleabane with tiny white flowers. They make the most lovely of backdrops to the mums, muhly and goldenrods, another weed profligate here, in fall. There are simply too many of them is the problem. But the light bulb in the gardener’s cranium finally switched on this year. Squinting, thinking without blinders and noticing the beauty in the surrounding wild fields and hillsides has provided enlightment.

August 18, 2009 024 (2)
The lawn/meadow has been a source of constant adjustment and tweaking ever since the decision was made a few years ago to allow it to grow unmown with only walkways around and through to be kept short. The planted lawn grass, a mix of blue grass and tall fescue was not removed. Bulbs were planted, continue to be planted and spead about in spring while in bloom, the only time one can see what is where and what is needed. After the burst of blooms the lawn/meadow sadly looks like just what it is, unmown grass, although it gets cut down to lawn height in January. Plants were needed that would flower, add color and be able to compete with the grasses. Without breaking the bank.


The first successful additon was Verbena bonariensis. Tall enough to rise above the grass, perennial enough to return without replanting every year and best of all, free with the multitude of seedlings in the gravel paths available for digging. Like so many self-sowers here, babies can be found in the gravel and not the beds where the plants reside, a good lesson in propagation if only I could solve the mystery of it. The purple blobs wave in the wind, butterflies feed on the nectar happily, the bloom period is nearly the entire growing season and we have found that regular snip snipping keeps the height in check and the blooms a’comin’.


When trying to photograph this scene, it is chronic failure no matter the time of day or lighting. The realization of what was needed occurred when tiny white dots appeared as the weed seeds of asters and fleabane that had blown into the lawn/meadow began blooming. Once again, nature shows the way.


Now, whenever a weed suspected of being one that produces tiny white flowers is found growing in the gravel paths, we don’t even care about identification, into the lawn/meadow they go, along with all of those Verbena bonariensis. It is like plant recycling, win win win. It makes the effort to dig them up worthwhile because a troublesome area is being enriched with beauty. And, dear and gentle readers, these plants are free.

Frances

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19 Responses to Embrace Your Weeds

  1. It’s all wonderful!

    And what’s a weed? Nothing more than a name.

    Esther

    Thanks Esther, and well said. Once the light bulb in the brain was switched on to accept these free plants that do so well here as good garden citizens rather than unwanted weeds, life became more simple.
    Frances

  2. Gail says:

    Frances, I totally embrace what others call weeds and let them have at it! Asters and mistflowers are two of my favorites,. I’ve just overseeded the lawnettes and am now thinking~thank you dear-that Verbena bonariensis would look good there! Btw, love the pattern you’ve mowed in your lawnette. xxoogail

    Hi Gail, thanks. What would we do without the asters, goldenrod and mistflowers in fall? The gardens would be a sadder, plainer and less bee-friendly place. I love that they are free, too. That Verbena bon. looks good everywhere. In full disclosure, there are now only two sections to the lawn/meadow. We decided to let the center paths on either side fill in. It was easy, we simply stopped mowing there.
    xxxooo
    Frances

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Nothing better than a free plant. Your garden has come a long way quite beautifully. It will be interesting to see how your meadow develops.

    Thanks Lisa. The lawn/meadow has had a steep learning curve, but we are finally understanding the conditions and plant needs in there. Bulbs in spring are great, the grass is low then and we are spreading what has been planted already and adding more of the same. It should be perfect next year. Getting it to look nicer after spring has been the hard part, but I think we have seen the light with the Verbena and white bits.
    Frances

  4. Layanee says:

    It does seem to be weed season but a weed is only a weed if you deem it so. Lovely meadow mowing. You are an artist in all respects.

    Thanks Layanee. So true about the weeds. It has just taken me a while to understand. Good thing age brings such wisdom, eventually.
    Frances

  5. commonweeder says:

    A weed is only a weed if you deem it so. However, while I don’t mind the weeds – er wildflowers – in my lawn – er – flowery mead, but I still have entirely too many in the lawn beds. I am making headway though.

    So true, Pat. The lawn/meadow is a work in progress. Headway is good.
    Frances

  6. Wendy says:

    Beautiful!! What do you recommend now and/or what did you choose THEN to go under those steps all the way up the slope. I have a post semi-similar and I just cannot decide! It is mostly shade rather than sun in my area though.

    I often let anything that looks ‘different’ keep on growing for a bit.. just because I want to see what it turns into! If it is something I don’t enjoy, it gets pulled before it gets to the seed stage.. but I almost always let whatever it is get to the point of flowering. The thorn in my side is old monkey grass that went wild when my mom was ill, along with the gooseneck loosestrife that has sent runners all throughout the main beds. Privet and Poison Ivy always try their hardest to make homes in my beds as well. Definitely an ongoing process, but I have new ideas for next year.. and definitely a bed expansion, because, well, grass is just grass and who really needs it, right? lol

    Thanks Wendy. The original planting on the step risers was creeping thyme, then ajuga was added and has taken over. Then golden creeping jenny was added and fights it out with the ajuga. Dianthus from the sides has seeded a bit, and creeping charlie, a weed!, has joined in. It is different each year. Let the strongest come out the winner. I pull the tall stuff, but leave the occasional painted fern that pops up. The hellebores that seed there have to be dug out, they will get too large. All but the thyme would work for a shady set of steps. As for your grass, I am loving having the lawn/meadow with only paths mowed. A perfect place to experiment and the whole thing gets cut low in winter to start anew.
    Frances

  7. Laurrie says:

    I love the evolution of this garden and of your gardening style. A nice lesson in experimenting, watching and adapting. I’m finding myself on the same path as my garden moves from new installation (5 years ago) to maturing system. Thanks for a thought provoking post — it has me thinking about how I too am adapting to what wants to live here.

    Thanks Laurrie. It brings to mind, if I only knew then what I know now! HA It is gratifying to see the trees and shrubs growing larger and the perennials filling in. There has been constant tweaking, including removing some of the original design plants for various reasons. More winter colorful foliage turned out to be more of a priority, too. Gardening is a wonderful way to spend our lives.
    Frances

  8. Barbarapc says:

    Frances, I’d had an odd-ball weed that I’d tried to remove year after year – it was a two-handed, put your back into it sort of plant – the root was under a ginormous rock. Well, this year I gave up, and guess what, it’s quite pretty. It’s white. It’s daisy-like. And, it looks perfect with the nearby grasses. I’m glad it returned year after year so I had the opportunity to learn that the decision to leave things be, can be the best decision of all.

    Thabks for sharing that happy ending story, Barbara. This was obviously a plant that was meant to grow in your garden!
    Frances

  9. I like the happy surprises in the garden….weeds? …..all in the eye of the beholder!

    Me too, Janet. It’s all a matter of classification. Knowing the names, thanks to the wildflower book helps alot. But if they turn out to be pretty, who cares what the heck they are!
    Frances

  10. They are not all wonderful and useable- I disagree. There are weeds in my yard which will smother all other plants, pine tree seedlings by the tens of thousands, weeds that are prickly, itchy and otherwise generally unpleasant. And of course they all spread like weeds! I am on constant weed removal here or my property would totally revert to the wild.

    You are absolutely right, Jill. Not all are wonderful, particularly the tree seedlings that would make the garden disappear in a very short time. One has to stay on top of them, for sure. I am talking about the ones with small white flowers, asters and fleabane. Some must be pulled, but not all. I believe they can be allowed free reign in the lawn/meadow, for the grass will be in charge for some time to come. We shall see.
    Frances

  11. Your field with walkways is so nice and such a good idea. Weeds can be beautiful…just an interpretation depending on which area one might be. Sometimes I am very diligent about weeding, and sometimes I am not.

    Thanks Sage Butterfly. Looking out of the roadside weeds and fields at this time of year, they far outshine any garden beds. Keeping those things formerly known as weeds under control is an effort, but worth it.
    Frances

  12. yazoolady says:

    I was interested in your mention of a “new wildflower book.” There is a wonderful book that was produced by the Tennessee Native Plant Society several years ago, “Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians.” If you don’t already have it, run out and get it! It has greal color photos, and 1250 species are described in detail. Have a look at it on http://www.tnps.org. All sales benefit the organization.

    Thanks yazoolady. That is the exact book to which I was referring, a gift from my friend Gail. I will add the title to the post, so everyone will know. It was listed in my top five gardening books post, as well.
    Frances

  13. Gardentina says:

    Thanks for sharing, Frances! I have an untamed slope as well. Based on your photos, I would say mine is a similar size and degree of slope. (Unpictured as of yet on my blog.) Have let nature take its course, and at times wondered if it was the right tack to take. It’s encouraging to hear you are doing the same!

    Thanks for visiting, Gardentina. But to say that I have just let nature take its course is misleading. Great amounts of treasure and back-breaking labor have gone into the creation of the garden over more than ten years. I am now letting some weeds be considered desirables, but there is still work involved in keeping it up.
    Frances

  14. nuttygnome says:

    Are Asters weeds then? Well gosh, I never knew that! They grow rampant in my gadren and I just let them get on with it as I think they’re lovely! 🙂
    I was interested in your bit about the new wildflower book as I’ve just done a book review over on my blog anout a brand new book of British wildflowers! http://nuttygnome.blogspot.com/2011/10/book-review-sarah-ravens-wild-flowers.html

    Hi Liz, thanks for dropping by and joining in. If weeds are defined as something growing in your garden that you did not plant yourself, yes, the white flowered asters are all weeds. The sheer numbers of them were scary, the flowers came so late in the season, I pulled them, every one! Until good sense took over, that is. I will check out your review, for the British wildflowers are favorites of mine. Your review is hilarious, thanks for bringing it to my attention!
    Frances

  15. Although I don’t think I want to physically embrace my weeds, some are quite prickly, I have learned to love the wild things which sometimes creep in. Like, Virginia creeper for example. It has great fall color. I love your sunshine mowing in your lawn.~~Dee

    Thanks Dee. I think literal interpretation is probably best not done in this case. HA The Virginia creeper is having the best year ever here, as well. I have to look very closely and count the leaves though. Poison ivy is quite beautiful at this time of year.
    Frances

  16. Weeds? Weeds? What weeds? I agree, life is too short to be obsessive about weeds. Besides, if they bloom, they’re bee food! Actually, when I first moved here I was afraid to do any weeding. I didn’t know my native wildflowers well enough to know what I might be pulling up. Most of my ‘weeds’ were eventually promoted to wildflowers over the subsequent years, and the remainder, especially the dandelions and thistles, have a stay of execution because the bees love them so much. It’s fabulous, I have so much more time to do other things in the garden now!

  17. Lola says:

    That sure was a difference with your garden. It looks lovely. The black eyed Susan, goldenrod & others growing wild are blooming here. Those Susan sure are attention getters. Only a pink here & there {name unknown} can be an attention getter too. I would like to find it’s name. Just traveling around is candy for these old eyes.

    Thanks Lola. It is fun to look back at the old, hard copy photos of the beginnings of this garden. I wish we had taken more of them, but why take a picture of something that isn’t pretty? Or that was the thinking back when we had to pay for processing for each. Digital makes such a difference in record keeping. The wildflowers along the road make my heart sing, as well.
    Frances

  18. Frances, I just don’t know what to say about weeds! I am constantly trying to rid my small garden of them but I do know that they are just plants that we don’t want in our specific gardens. Just think, there are many invasive plants that are still sold at the nurseries!

    Eileen

    Hi Eileen, thanks for joining in the conversation about weeds. There are still many, too many plants that get pulled here, especially in the gravel paths, or there would be no space for human feet to walk the garden. I cringe at the Nandinas, etc. still being sold.
    Frances

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