What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic, 1878.
Algarve Wild Flowers collected for identification
I have spent my gardening life fighting for the rights of “weeds.” I have met people who hate weeds with a complete vengeance and twitch whenever they pass one in my garden and I have met people who have said to me “If I know its name, it’s not a weed”. One thing I have learnt is that if you let weeds make you unhappy for a minute, they will. If you learn live with them and even to love them, at least a little, you will be more at peace and happier in your garden. Or at least, that’s how I feel. However, I must add that I am not the most thorough of gardeners, so this philosophy is partly a defence!
I had the great fortune to spend eight years gardening on an allotment in South London. It had an active allotment committee and on the whole, not full of rules and regulations as some are, but we had regular debates in the potting shed at monthly meetings about how to define a weed and how tolerant we should be of them on people’s allotments. As you walked around, there were some plots with not a weed in site, all the vegetables growing in serried rows and others where the nettles were growing in profusion amongst the spring cabbages, the rosebay willow herb billowing amongst the fruit trees and bindweed scrambling over the trellises alongside the runner beans. Interestingly, in terms of production, the vegetable gardens which were slightly weedier, often produced the best vegetables. The birds ate the raspberries from the tidy plots where they could see them better, the sun beat down on the bare ground and shrivelled up the lettuces and the blackfly went for the beans more readily on the neater plots. I fought hard for my rights to have nettles on my plot and comfrey. Without these I would have not been able to make the nettle tea fertiliser I used all the time, or attract the benefical insects. I even ate the nettles occasionally. The weed resisters amongst us were fervent in their protests. They must die! Kill the weeds! The gleam in their eyes scared me on occasions. I sometimes felt weeds were a hanging offence! Mind you, I have to confess to being a bit of a wind up merchant. Allotment committee meetings sometimes needed spicing up and to be fair, I was a naughty, laid back kind of gardener, whose weed seeds regularly encroached onto my long suffering neighbours’ plots!
“Weeds”-my garden last Spring.
As a child, I loved to walk along the banks of the river Wye, popping the Himalayan balsam pods and laughing as they exploded everywhere. But it is an invasive monoculture, and damaging to the banks of the river, causing erosion, and detrimental to other, less invasive species. My sister-in-law and brother are busy growing a native wildflower meadow near to the river and they are very choosy about their weeds!
One of our regular allotment agenda items was “The Japanese knotweed is coming out of the woods!” These huge giants are almost impossible to kill and we had regular workparties to try to stop them encroaching on our plots. There is a similar situation in Portugal, with plants such as Agave Americana, Mimosa and Pampas grasses romping away at the expense of slower growing indigenous species.
So, a line has to be drawn. Here in Portugal, some beautiful plants have been considered invasive and a danger to the native species and this is where, I guess, we have to stop and think. There are obviously some weeds which are so invasive you can’t have them all over the place. On the allotment, couch grass was one of these; here in my garden in the Algarve, even though it is beautiful,Chrysanthemum Coronium is one,wild spinach is another.
I don’t use any weed killer in my garden, so what to do? The spinach is fine. The chickens love it, but they don’t eat the chrysanthemums, so I have resolved to let them grow, just not fifteen feet tall as they did last year. A gentle strim every now and then suffices. In the vegetable garden, I am trying to keep weeds at bay with a straw mulch, which seems to be working fairly well. I also use the chicken bedding, which is wood shavings, mixed with chicken poo, being careful to rot it down first. Although the shavings can rob the soil of nitrogen, I reckon the chicken poo puts it back. So we end up evens. And where I really want things to get a head start, I have used permeable weed suppressant material and a thick mulch of gravel. This keeps the weeds out and the water in (called Brita here) A word of warning though, if your soil is very heavy clay as mine is, as the roots can get waterlogged. Put some gravel into the hole first before planting for drainage.
In my quest to understand the flora and fauna of the Algarve, I have made some wonderful discoveries about the “weeds” in my garden. I have found Alexanders, a beautiful plant, edible in all its parts (Although great care has to be taken in identification, as it is in the umbellifer family and related to the deadly Hemlock) I have left them to flourish in a corner of my vegetable garden.Wild asparagus, a prickly, but beautiful plant with edible shoots is present and Borage growing everywhere…a great bee attracter. I even have some wild Delphiniums and six feet tall Mallows! I have left areas for the natural flora and fauna to grow as it will, although I have had to protect it from the chickens (see last post)
Alexanders (Smyrium Olusatrum)
To the aged and wise Portugese “Donnas” who live in this little village, the “weeds” are their medicine chest and their flavourings …this one’s leaves as a tea for constipation, that one if you can’t sleep, this one has roots that you can use to bring down a fever, that one for flavouring your olives.
A mulched area in its infancy, planted with succulents, and other drought resistant plants
It’s a race against time whether I can learn enough Portugese to try and understand their wisdom in these things. And sadly, you have to be very wary nowadays where you pick your medicines. The men are already out with their yellow tanks on their backs…spraying things to hell.