I thought I’d better bring this up and explain it up front, because I’m going to refer to weedscaping a lot when talking about my own projects. Weedscaping is, simply, using weeds to your advantage and encouraging weeds that are helpful or useful to you. I do it a lot because it saves me time, effort and resources and generally makes the garden healthier.
Technically, a weed is merely a plant growing in the wrong place. I think a lot of people use the word “weed” to mean something that’s a pest or annoying, but most of the plants we call weeds are fantastically useful plants with long histories of human involvement. They’re just not the things we planted. The thing about weeds too is that that’s not accidental, even though we often think it is. I use the word “volunteers” a lot more than I do the word “weeds”, because they are plants that have volunteered to grow somewhere. They’re stepping up to the challenge without waiting for the sergeant-I-mean-gardener to blow the whistle and order them forwards.
One of my little pleasures is to go poke around in vacant lots and see what plants are growing as weeds there. It gives me hints to who lived there once, the kinds of things they grew and ate, whether they liked to garden, where they came from, what the soil is like underneath. Weeds don’t just grow anywhere. Their seeds have to come from somewhere, and they have to have conditions that suit them. The plants you see growing apparently randomly aren’t nearly as random as you think. One of the things that makes a good weed is a plentiful seed supply that’s easily spread. So you can find seeds of various weed species all over the place. Why do some seeds sprout and survive to become adult plants but not others? Soil types, little dips that catch moisture or shade, the timing of sunshine and several other factors all affect which species take over each square foot. With a little practice, and familiarity with the weeds’ preferences, you can read backwards from the plants you see to extrapolate those factors.
The next important thing is that weeds don’t exist in isolation from their environment any more than anything else does. They interact with the soil, moisture and air around them, and just by living somewhere they change it. You can use that. Some weeds provide shade and cooling to the soil below them, protecting moisture content and blocking hydrophobia. Some weeds provide supports for climbers and raise the height a garden can grow to. Some weeds break up clay soils, bind sandy soils, force holes through moisture barriers or hammer up hard soils. Some weeds drain moisture at depth or bring deep nutrients within reach of shallower-growing plants. Some fix nitrogen or absorb excesses of nutrients to rebalance the soil. Some have roots and leaves and stems that break down quickly after the plant’s death to make good soil humus both under the surface of the soil and on top. Some only grow in disturbed soil, and produce sufficient thorns to keep future disturbance out. Some convert petrochemical pollution into simple sugars. Some simply provide extra habitat and food for butterflies, lacewings, ladybirds, bees.
This is not to say that all weeds are fantastic all the time. But they are invariably serving a purpose, even if it’s not yours.
So, weedscaping for me has several components. I use the weeds to teach me things I need to know about a place, its soil, light and moisture – and about problems that might have suddenly come up. I use the weeds to do some of the work of the soil for me, so that I don’t have to spend time or money applying various substances to fix problems the weeds could have done for me, nor build blisters with extra digging. I harvest the weeds, because many of them are useful plants in their own right. And I encourage certain plants to become weeds, to volunteer over and over again in a garden or in a particular bed, because having them there makes the other plants I’ve planted grow much much better.
Weedscaping gives a lot of benefits. My favourite? That I don’t have to weed very often, or very much.