The Importance of Weeds

dogwooddays
Published on October 19th 2019
11
a cuckoo flower in a field
Earlier this year I read Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald. His ideas on rewilding the landscape has transformed my whole approach to gardening.

Habitats

Previously, I’d thought of a wildlife-friendly garden more in terms of its nest boxes, bird feeders and hedgehog houses, rather than focusing on the natural habitats that it might offer.
While it is helpful to provide nest boxes and supplementary food, these should be additions to an already existing healthy and natural environment. When gardens are stripped of their overgrown shrubs, their long grass, rotting wood and untidy margins; when native self-seeders are weeded out and climbers clipped back, wildlife has nowhere left to go. This makes our gardens immeasurably poorer. Macdonald calls this modern compulsive need to tidy: ETD (Ecological Tidiness Disorder).
an incredibly tidy garden
Although it may look good, tidy gardens can be bad news for wildlife

Ecological Tidiness Disorder

Since I’ve become more aware of the devastating effect of ETD on biodiversity, I’ve started to see my garden in a completely different light – more as a collection of habitats and ecosystems.
As my lawn, flowerbeds and margins have become more spontaneous and filled with life, my garden has become far more attractive to my eye, even though it looks less conventional and tidy than before. Native plants have self-seeded in the borders, and I’ve added more plug plants to areas of our small lawn that we’ve avoided mowing throughout the summer.
When I saw the delicate orange heads of fox and cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca) covered in bees, I marvelled that a few years ago I would have weeded this beautiful flower out of the lawn without a second thought.
A red and yellow flower with green leaves
Fox and cubs

Lifecycles

I still maintain some areas of the garden with a traditional mix of native and non-native plants (a good combination for pollinating insects). But I have dedicated other areas and my margins to what I would previously have considered ‘weeds’.
These native wildflowers are valuable in supporting all stages of invertebrate life, not just the adults, which pollinate. Many pollinating insects can feed on a range of nectar-bearing flowers as adults, but their larval stages often rely on only one or two native plants.
Without these plants in ready supply, the insect’s whole lifecycle is in danger.
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Wonderful Weeds

Whether you are leaving self-seeders, sowing a wildflower meadow or adding plugs, here are a few plants that will help you rewild different areas of the garden:
Lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) – these elegant pinky-white flowers prefer damp ground and make a good addition to a wet meadow area or pond bank. It is an essential plant for both the adult and larval stages of the green-veined white and orange tip butterflies. Other plants for damp areas include devil’s bit scabious, purple loosestrife and ragged robin.
Bird-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) – this low-growing member of the pea family loves a well-drained, hot spot and is a key food plant for the caterpillars of the common blue, silver-studded blue and wood white butterflies. Other plants for sunny areas include lady’s bedstraw, ox-eye daisy and common mallow.
lady's bedstraw
Lady's Bedstraw
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) – this woodland and hedgerow plant is perfect for more shady areas in the garden. We grow it under the apple espaliers and this year it has been host to the caterpillars of the orange tip butterfly. The leaves also make a delicious pesto. Other plants for partial shade include primrose, red campion and sweet woodruff.
Male-fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) – this semi-evergreen fern is ideal to plant around a shady log pile to create a habitat for toads, hedgehogs and insects. It is also one of the food plants of the angle shades moth caterpillar. Other native ferns include hart’s tongue fern, maidenhair fern and common polypody.
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For more information and to source seeds and plants, try Naturescape, Emorsgate and The Wildflower Nursery.

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