There couldn't be much more difference between my garden and those on either side. I'm exceptionally laissez-faire about weeds, or Interesting Plants as I describe them when defending the somewhat shaggy, overcrowded look of the beds. Meanwhile, my neighbours amble around their garden, spray bottle in hand, eyes on the exposed soil, ready to squirt anything undesirable.
Of course, some might point out their patience. Fewer weeds on my side of the fence might reduce the use of weedkiller on theirs. But...why use chemicals when you can pull something out?
And need it be pulled out in the first place?
This is definitely a question you'll be asking yourself on reading John Walker's Weeds, to be released at the end of this month. Weeds are, it quickly becomes clear, there for a reason. After all, where is soil naturally bare, and what moves in first to newly bare soil when, say, the wind has torn a tree out by the roots?
Weeds aren’t there to deliberately frustrate our gardening efforts; they are simply doing their job. Just as new skin forms after we’ve caught ourselves on a rose thorn, weeds help heal wounds in the earth. Look at it another way: it’s us who are causing the problem by insisting on bare, neat-looking soil – open wounds, if you like.
And, points out John, bare soil not only sends earthworms deeper to escape the sun, but also microscopic organisms - all of which are necessary to create good soil. It begins to be clear that in fighting weeds, we're not only never going to finish the battle, but are actually potentially doing harm.
Early chapters celebrate the success of weeds - how they spread (useful for understanding how to control them), their contribution to wildlife, what they tell us (do you, for example, take their appearance as an indicator of when it's warm enough to sow in spring?) and how we can live with them.
An alternative title could easily have been Working with Weeds. After reading, I found myself checking through the beds, looking at weeds more closely and assessing them more carefully. Observing weeds gives us information on the soil we have. From there, it's a short step to working out what to do about it. If creeping buttercup (which I have) thrives in moist, poorly drained soil, the answer is obviously to amend the soil so that it's better drained, not labour to remove something that finds it so attractive. Other plants, of course, will thank you for the improved soil and move in, but in my experience, the better the soil, the less obnoxious the weeds and the easier they are to pull up.
Elsewhere you'll find a useful list of weeds to grow in a "bug bank", attracting pollinators to your garden, and one of edible weeds, which I intend to work my way through as I do wonder why I put so much effort into feeding slugs with lettuce when wild saladings are there for the taking.
Once past these chapters, you move into an alphabetical and illustrated directory of sixty common garden weeds, with a traffic-light warning system. John doesn't advocate complete weed freedom but rather containment and judicious choice (he has a Dutch hoe of "razor sharpness" to dispatch the unwanted) so those marked in red should have action taken against them immediately because they're serious perennial weeds, those in amber are moderately easy to control, and green, easy.
Each entry has a clear photograph of the culprit and gives details of how it spreads, where it likes to grow, its habit, and the best way to get rid of it, should you wish to. Entries also note when it's edible or poisonous.
The final chapter is dedicated to an earth-friendly approach to preventing, clearing and controlling weeds, which by now, anyway, seem rather less threatening. If you're already familiar with John's approach, you'll know weedkiller is out.
Uprooting a weed, rather than spraying it with some synthetic chemical weedkiller, might not strike you as a profound gesture we gardeners can make to ‘save the planet’, but imagine if hundreds, thousands or millions of gardeners did it: that’s an awful lot of weeds and a mighty amount of weedkiller staying put in its bottle.
Here you'll find plenty of ideas for clearing ground of weeds while barely lifting a fork to do so, rather employing a variety of ways such as mulching, burning, or choking out. Proper attention is paid to effective use of a hoe. There's also sensible advice on how deal with undesirable weeds that are getting the upper hand in a lawn. The chapter winds up with a table of the best methods for attacking weeds in various parts of the garden with page references so you can easily refer back to information earlier in the book.
Experienced, organic gardeners aren't really the audience for Weeds, although the weed directory is useful and you may well encounter several "I hadn't thought of that" moments. However, if you're feeling your way in gardening or if you're wedded to weedkiller, this is required reading. It makes the taming and maintaining of a garden seem much less of a chore and is likely to open your eyes, not only to a Nature that we can work with, but a Nature that, given a chance, is willing to work with us.
Weeds was first published in 2003, and this is an updated edition. Pre-order by July 31st from Earth-friendly Gardener (where you can also read an extract) and you'll receive a discount on the £15 cover price, as well as a chance to win a copy of John's excellent How to Create an Eco-Garden.