In defence of weeds and other “useless” things

In defence of weeds and other “useless” things

Many years ago a friend of mine rented a house somewhere in Surrey (it may have been Epsom) along with another girl. The other girl was quite keen to make their little garden a wild-life haven and one spring planted a packet of wild flower seeds in the border near the boundary fence. The flowers duly came up and bloomed: scarlet poppies, golden corn marigolds, inky-blue cornflowers and many others. She was very pleased with the beautiful show of traditional corn-field flowers. One day, she went out to see her next door neighbour leaning over the fence, pouring liberal amounts of weed-killer over her lovely blooms.

Them’s weeds,” he said, with the big smile of someone who is sure they have done their good deed for the day. “You don’t want them in your garden. They’ll be dead by tomorrow.”

(As an aside, I had something similar happen recently, and I’d like to add that if you want to do someone a good turn, make damn sure that you ask them first. Your idea and my idea of what a good turn is might well not be the same thing.)

Weeds. It’s such a pejorative term. And as Wiki says, it has no botanical meaning.

A weed in one place is a valuable plant in another. I love weeds. Our garden is packed with them. It’s also packed with more wild-life than you tend to find in neatly manicured gardens. Someone recently complained to me that despite putting out food for the birds, she only ever saw crows, pigeons, magpies and jackdaws in her garden. Every inch of said garden is manicured, trimmed, tended, weeded and dead-headed. There’s nothing there for most birds: no seeds or caterpillars, no grubs or worms, no fruit, and nowhere to roost.

Nature is not tidy. That’s why many people hate it. It’s messy and disorganised and unpredictable, untameable and impossible to control fully. That’s why I like it.

Our garden is not a gardener’s garden. To someone who likes to be in control, it would look a mess. But we get flocks of goldfinches because they eat the seeds from the thistles and they come to bathe in the pond. We get clouds of butterflies because we let the lawn bloom with clover and hawkbit and self-heal and yarrow. We have hives of honey bees, but their cousins the solitary burrowing bees and masonry bees and bumblebees all enjoy the space we have for them to live undisturbed too. We never use pesticides because the blue tits come and gobble up the greenfly the ladybirds are too full to devour, and the slugs and snails get munched by visiting hedgehogs who leave their calling cards on the grass. We don’t worry about ants’ nests because great green woodpeckers come and probe the grass and lick up all the excess ants and grubs and leather jackets.

Melissa grows in the gaps between paving, and in cracks in the walls; a swift handful makes a soothing tea for anxiety. A crushed handful goes into the smoker when bee hives are inspected; the herb cools the smoke and stops it incinerating unlucky bees. The fresh juice rubbed into the wood of a new hive is said to attract swarms. Dandelions are plucked to feed to Tiko our guinea pig, and sometimes get put into salads. Crushed mint is used to treat headaches and what Culpeper called “a passing heaviness”. Most weeds are actually valuable medicinal herbs; if you have an interest, I can point wholeheartedly to Susun Weed’s stupendous book Healing Wise:

which uses only seven plants (weeds) for almost every ailment. (Dandelion, burdock, nettle, chickweed, oat-straw, violet and seaweed. Really, check it out. If I had to choose only one herbal, this would be it)

Many of the creatures that inhabit our garden are ones that folks object to. Wasps are almost universally loathed; yet people forget what excellent work they do in pest control, and also some pollination. Not only that, it was a wasps’ nest that inspired the discovery of paper. Spiders too are hated, yet their webs reduce the amount of troublesome flies and mosquitoes, and since the spider is the totem animal of the weavers of words, I find them lovely too. The song of the grasshopper is for me the song of summer, yet it has no use but to recall the drowsy days of distant childhood where lying in a meadow of long grass I would while the afternoons away cloud-busting or day dreaming.

Every creature, every plant, every rock, every breath of wind, all have their place and their right to be without having to be “useful” to humankind. The kindness of nature is that treated rightly, and viewed with respect, all can indeed be of service to us. But it cuts both ways; if we honour and respect nature, we will joyfully share our spaces with it, invite it in and nature will flourish. Cut it out, exclude and revile it, and it will fight back and believe me, nature will eventually win.

Gaia does not need humans; humans need Gaia.