If I am honest, I must confess to occasionally casting an envious eye on those neatly planned and well mulched gardens. Sissinghurst comes to mind! Continuing my honest comments, however, I also know this is not the kind of gardener I will ever be! My garden is basically a loosely organized collection of weeds! I love it, my neighbors love it, and it is a favorite gathering place for countless birds, pollinators and other fascinating critters. Over the past 40+ years what has come to be replaced the mowed lawns shown above. It is an embarrassment of riches that I enjoy every day.
So be it!
I think it all began when I was a kid, picking Sunday bouquets for my mom from the semi-wild area she called her “Garden of Eden” where any flower was beautiful to my young eyes. Mom was an excellent gardener who, with five kids, didn’t find much time for being fancy about things. Aside from planting cannas, which I hated digging up every fall, her flower gardens, much like mine, were mostly wild with occasional areas of intentional perennial planting.
In my agriculture classes at Michigan State University, I learned a weed is “a plant out of place.” I also was horrified to learn of all the deadly ways the Ag Dept. had developed to kill weeds! That caused me to explore organic gardening—something I’d grown up with even if we did not use that term to describe it— and a growing love of wild flowers. Not long after, I began to enjoy “weeds” in my early gardens, especially when a few “non-weeds” were interspersed. My definition of “weeds” is more about the fact that these plants are “gifts,” serendipitously appearing as reminders that they are not “our” plants, but living things all of their own accord. I also find these weeds to be easy to manage and, if not, I keep them out or well at bay.
The list of weeds I enjoy in the garden is long and spread across the whole growing season. Even before the snow melts, one of the first of weeds, Pulmonaria, has sprouted and begun blooming, often supporting an early arrival of a hummingbird. I do plant a lot of crocus and daffodils, and a very few tulips (deer food) of various sorts (especially species tulips) and, they’ve naturalized nicely. As these begin to bloom, so do the Forget-me-not (Myosotis) in waves that last well into June; these I “plant” by ripping out the old plants and casting about their ripe seed later in the spring. About this time come small bouquets of Violets and Lily of the valley (Convallaria), followed by Batchelor’s button (Centaurea), a pollinator’s favorite, and lots of Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla). Dare I mention that I leave some Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium), both for the foliage and the flower? I do and have never found it to be overwhelming.
As the season progresses, Cypress Spurge (Euphorbia) quickly finds a place or two in the garden, again both for the soft, lovely foliage and then for the flower, and it continues to have a spot until hard frost. I am not shy about pulling it out by the handful as necessary. In my gardens Hosta, as much as I love them, are weeds! I pull them out by the shovel full and add them in to empty spots as needed. The same with various colors of Scented geranium (Pelargonium), another plant who’s foliage can continue to look great through early October. One evil weed that finds room here and there is Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus). Why? For the simple yellow flower. It also accompanies the California poppies (Eschscholzia), seeded in the early spring on snow or frozen ground (using last year’s collected seed) and Opium poppies (Papaver ) that easily come back year after year on their own.
Good old Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus) is another plant I find useful for both foliage and flower and find they can grow into magnificent, large clumps that last throughout the summer. The true joy of the late summer, however, is Jewelweed. It is easy to control, grows everywhere there is damp soil, spreads its seed by popping, and is cherished by the hummingbirds and pollinators. Among the Jewelweed I also “plant” fireweed, though it can get ahead of me and turn into dozens and dozens of 5 foot tall plants in no time, all easily removed as needed. Adding more summer color are Evening Primrose (Oenothera) and Wild blue phlox.
The only plant I’ve totally banished from my garden, or at least tried to, is Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum); I planted one plant for one season twenty years ago and still have to pull dozens of volunteers out every year. I have relegated the very aggressive Gooseneck Loosestrife (Lysimachia), a plant I love, to a large pot buried in the ground and thus far it has behaved itself. I allow Yellow Flag Iris but every year pull much of it out as it tends to spread quickly. The same for common Orange daylily, a flower I enjoy but am careful to manage. Jerusalem Artichoke also spread but are easy to control and are most delightful when the Goldfinches alight on them to eat their seeds.
A bit more easy to manage are clovers of all kinds, oregano, and calendula. Seed for the later came from a friend and now, with some simple deadheading, provides a yellow-red-orange palette all summer long right through hard frost.
Yes, I do plant many “store bought” perennials and some annuals to make up for seasonal shortfalls, but the bulk of the garden is, plain and simply, weeds or tame plants gone wild. Among these are: Sedum, Bee balm (Monarda), Sundrops (Oenothera), Cranesbill geranium, Cushion spurge (Euphorbia), Sea holly (Eryngium), Columbine (Aquilegia), Lupine, Lobellia, Morning glory (Convolvulaceae), Spearmint (Mentha), Virgin’s bower (Clematis), Mallow (Malva), Alpine strawberry (Fragaria), three or four kinds of native ferns, Yellow loosestrife (Lysimacha, Bouncing Bet (Saponaria), Goldenrod (Solidago), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum), various wild Asters, several spring ephemerals, Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus), and Virginia Spiderwort (Tradescantia). Is it any wonder my garden won’t conform to a neat plan?!
Curiously, there are two plants, both common roadside weeds, I’ve tried to get established, with no luck: Milkweed and Chicory!
The way I garden is simple: if I plant it and it grows, it stays. If I find it growing and enjoy it, I leave it. If it doesn’t grow, so be it! This is NOT for everyone, I know, but I love it!
A special thanks to the Hardy Plant Club for taking time to visit my gardens yesterday! While there were many flowers that had come and gone, others appeared just in time to delight and come again to see even more as summer progresses. This piece about “My Garden of Weeds” appeared in their bulletin last fall. I’ve selected a few of many photographs I’ve made of these gardens to illustrate the piece here. I hope you will enjoy.