On my shelf of most-treasured gardening books is one called How to Enjoy Your Weeds. As "how to" books go, this is right up there. It's got a pale green cover in truly 1970s aqua with an assorted set of pretty wildflowers, but author Audrey Hatfield's main emphasis, once you get inside, is on providing a range of recipes and recommendations for how, literally, to enjoy your weeds – often in the form of alcoholic beverages. (Clover wine, yes, but daisy whisky, anyone?)
However, Hatfield does have serious points to make. She is passionate about weeding not as an aggressive fightback against nature, but as a tolerant process – using composting and hoeing to keep things in check rather than laying on weedkiller.
I was thinking about How to Enjoy Your Weeds this summer on holiday, when, in a French bookshop, I picked up a copy of Noémie Vialard's just published Le Jardin Spontané, (€19.90, Delachaux et Niestlé).
Le Jardin Spontané promotes a version of enjoying your weeds that's about recognising and welcoming what Vialard calls, rather poetically, "vagabond plants". The vagabonds might be plants that have seeded themselves from elsewhere in your garden; they might be more your proper old-fashioned weeds. Yet, for the most part, the philosophy is the same: not fighting what's there, but using it.
Vialard is a sweetly red- haired lady in a fisherman's cap who also sports that essential Frenchwoman uniform of scarf-well-matched-to-outfit. In his foreword, Patrick Blanc, the acclaimed French master craftsman of those 100ft green walls you see around Paris, explains his friendship with Vialard, which grew through their shared interest in plant-hunting and botany – so they clearly enjoy a bit of vagabonding themselves.
Most of the book is a sort of dictionary of vagabond plants: the ones that will spread themselves happily around a garden when allowed: columbines, ferns, fennels, poppies, valerian. What is particularly nice, and useful to the less expert gardener, are images of every baby plant just as they appear after first seeding themselves, so that you don't inadvertently weed them out of existence.
I have a lot of self-seeded plants in my garden: I let valerian and honesty go wherever they want, for early summer pinks and purples. And my gigantic blue echiums must be left where they fall, for they don't ever seem to transplant well to a new position. Euphorbias also occasionally relocate themselves from one bit of the garden to another. There's a wild caper spurge, native to Britain, that loves to pop up out of the gravel outside my back door; I even have a wild rose that came in and seeded itself, growing up my pear tree.
Of course, there are also a lot of really annoying weeds in the world. I never, ever get to the end of pulling out alkanet, the local taprooted bully of my particular ecological niche. I have won the battle against bindweed in the front garden, by annually improving the soil until it's thick and rich and the roots just pull out easily. Nonetheless, the struggle continues at the back. And despite Hatfield and Vialard's best efforts, I'm never going to enjoy elder and sycamore seedings, which never pull out properly, bending under my hand with a slipperiness that suggests their determination to elude final extermination.
So weeding continues, and the occasional bit of judicious, precise weedkillering too. (It proves to be more difficult than first appears to eradicate those invasive Spanish bluebells, for example, which plague London, and which you may love but which drive me mad.) But all in all, I'm mostly at peace with my weeds; and one of these days, at a 1970s aqua slightly French pinch, I may even enjoy them. 1
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