Gardening With Weeds

Much has been written about creating wild flower meadows in recent years. Many gardening magazines infer that somehow you must be lacking in something if you don't rush out there and then and rip up your precious lawn to create the daisy and orchid studded turf depicted in medieval tapestries. There is much to be said for doing this (and I've done a few in my time too). However, the reason why most of us don't do it is purely down to lack of space and time, and also most of us still like to see a reasonably weed free patch of green grass at the centre of our gardens. Now don't get me wrong, anything that reduces the amount of chemicals used and encourages wildlife has got to be a good thing and our gardens, collectively, could - and should - make one vast nature reserve.

But why restrict yourself to wild flowers in grass? Very few articles suggest using them in herbaceous borders, or amongst shrubs, but I have been planting them like this for some years now and the results can be terrific. This flower border in the photo was taken 14 months after planting and looks very much like a traditional, English flower border. But there are some differences and those are the wild flowers intermingling with the more usual garden plants.

Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, grows wild in boggy places and by stream edges so seems an unlikely candidate for the border. I have found it to be a great choice which copes well with ordinary soil conditions. In the hot, dry summer we have had this year they have only grown to about half their normal height of 3-4ft but their cerise colour and longevity have still made them a worthy addition. In the photograph above they are the bright pink 'blob' in the centre, growing separately to the surrounding plants.

Here they are being grown as a companion to a bright pink ground cover rose, a combination that I'm not so keen on (even though I did plant them myself). They are a bit too strident and close in colour for my taste but others have stopped and admired them so there they remain.

I have also experimented growing them in containers where, of course, you can easily give them the moister conditions they would naturally prefer. Here, their colour makes them quite an exotic addition to the matching colour petunias, the purple leafed coleus and tropical looking (but hardy) palm.

Another reason for growing wild flowers is that, of course, they are great attractants of the local insects. A clump of the herbaceous St John's Wort, this one is Perfoliate St John's Wort, Hypericum perfoliatum, always are covered, when in flower, with bees and other beneficial, pollinating insects. The flowers are miniature versions of the shrubby Hypericum 'Hidcote' and all the better for being small. In the wild, they grow (as many wild flowers do) quite happily amongst grass and other plants. In the garden, I find they combine well with Wormwood, the tall, shrubby Artemisia.
The pale blue flowers of the Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis, continue for months on end and combine well with most other colours. Growing them in the garden gives you the opportunity to notice them in detail. In the wild, it is less likely that you would see how the outer petals of the flower uncurl before the inner ones. Grow them with exotic looking Icelandic poppies or, like here, with tall, purple, Salvia.

Wild flowers often are generous with their flowering, not only in the quantity of blooms and their exuberance. Sometimes, they offer a 'sport'. The most common variant from the norm is white and this pure white version of scabious was a delightful bonus. I like the way the buds start off a creamy colour.

Recently, I have tried growing Lady'd Bedstraw, Galium verum. It is working quite well and the rather acid yellow looks good with lavender. In fact, this flower is all the better for propping itself up against its neighbours as it is a bit inclined (in an unlady-like way) to sprawl, otherwise.

One word of caution about introducing wild flowers into the garden: sometimes, they like garden conditions just too much. If in doubt, plant a small number of plants in an area where you can control them should they take off. I didn't do this with one of my childhood favourites, Toadflax. It took me three years of painful weeding to extract the final pieces from more delicate plants. I have gone back to admiring it where it belongs - along roadside verges and on waste ground.

And one final plea: please grow and enjoy our native, wild flowers but do source them from a reputable nursery. Apart from being illegal to dig or uproot a plant in the wild, as gardeners we are supposed to conserve plants ......

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  1. The wife of former President Lyndon Johnson, appropriately nicknamed "Ladybird," was a great champion of native wildflowers. She encouraged people not only to grow them in their gardens, but to seed them along highway rights of way and in fallow ground. In Texas, she established a garden devoted to native wildflowers. This garden sells "pure" seed by plant, as well as packets of "mixed" seeds of multiple varieties. Two unanticipated bonuses of this scheme are that people tend not to throw trash where there are beautiful stands of flowers, and the highway department doesn't have to mow quite so often.

  2. Hi Johnson, that was a very interesting post.
    Our garden was neglected for 10 years and I have been pleased to find vetch and ladys smock, amongst others.

    My friend Silve has a plant that appeared in her Bucks garden, maybe gifted by the birds. We would be interested to know what it is?

    If you have a minute will you take a look and tell us if you recognise it?

    I'm missing She-dog by the way :-D

  3. WOL - I had heard of Ladybird Johnsons ighway plantings but not the Texas garden. Sheffield University in the north of England have done a similar thing with roadside verges.

    Kath - I think Sylve's plant could be Verbena hastata. I've left a message for her.

    She-dog is fine and fully recovered from the ordeals of motherhood. She will appear on the blog again I am quite sure!


  4. I love the way you have used the wild flowers. I've been doing this for many years and like yourself have had joy and suffering!! I'm a softie at taking out the evening primrose and as a result it is scattered all around the garden!

  5. Your border looks lovely. I'm with you, wildflowers are a delight in with other herbaceous plants. I especially love when they find their own way here and gently take their place (though as you note, some are not as gentle as others) and of course those ones are almost always happy in their chosen spot requiring little care. We've had a dramatic drop in beneficial insects this year but at least those that have survived have plenty to gorge on in my garden, and yours.

  6. It is a sad fact that gardens could be a great refuge for beneficial insects and other wildlife but, quite often, they are not. There are still plenty of gardeners that squirt every moving thing with pesticides quite unnecessarily.

    Thanks for the comments - keep them coming!


  7. Lovely to see the English wild flowers. I was born and raised in Bedfordshire. I now live in Michigan. Thank you for a wonderful blog

  8. I guess Bluebell, from your name, that you still pine for the sight of an English woodland in springtime!

    Sometime still to wait for the bluebells but the snowdrops and winter aconites are just starting to flower.

    Thank you so much for your kind comment.



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