Weeds – Earth’s Sticking Plaster

Why do we get so vexed by what we term weeds – going to huge lengths to eradicate them from our gardens? And why do we categorise some plants as weeds and some not?

I have always suspected that it is because of man’s obsession to control everything it can; to impose its will on its surroundings and a presumption that man is a superior being that has a divine right to do what it will no matter of the consequences. We take on a piece of land, ‘tame’ it with digging and clearing, often using chemicals, and attempt to impose our order on it.  We then proceed to use a lot of energy battling with weeds and ‘pests’.  However, it is our  industry and intervention which causes our problems in the first place.  Enlightened gardeners know that gardening organically helps to build up and maintain an eco-system which results in a balance between beneficial insects and so called pests but there is still the issue of weeds.

However it is our, man’s, actions which encourage weeds to spread and proliferate. Weeds are opportunists and will colonise empty land wherever there is an opportunity.  You only have to look at the way the bombed areas of London were colonised by weeds after the Blitz to see how this works.  Richard Mabey in his book Weeds explores this further. He discusses how Agent Orange was used by the US as a defoliant in Vietnam so the Vietcong had nowhere to hide.  Once the forest was destroyed it was colonised by cogon, a tough grass which flourishes when clearings appear and then recedes as the forest regrows.  However because of the scale of the deforestation the cogon took control and has repelled any attempts to control it since.  This is an extreme example of ‘weeds’ colonising empty ground and not a positive one.

But in many cases ‘weeds’ can be seen to be earth’s sticking plaster; colonising and healing empty spaces.  In Detroit the empty lots left by the car industry are being populated by wild vegetation and this has promoted a new group of residents, young environmentally interested Americans, to move to and re-colonise the declining city.  In the UK in an area outside Basildon, the Plotlands, which was abandoned 30 years ago, the lawn weeds flourished and the perennials in the gardens initially thrived but as time went on the native trees and other plants started to take hold and the land is now reverting back to native woodland.  As Mabey says this shows that in ‘temperate Britain …, the occupation of disrupted land by weeds is rarely permanent or inexorable.” He goes on to argue that weeds’ role is to fill empty spaces, to repair the vegetation destroyed by natural occurrences such as landslides and forest fires but also the spaces caused by man’s intervention.  Weeds stabilise the ground, “conserve water loss, provide shelterfor other plants and begin the process of succession to more complex and stable plant systems.”

So whilst we may curse the dandelions, couch grass and creeping thistle that invades our allotments and veg patches and bemoan the daises and clover in our lawns as Mabey says weeds are “the tithe we paid for breaking the earth.”

If you are interested in botany or plants generally I would really recommend Richard Mabey’s book – an excellent read which I was really pleased to receive as a Christmas present.


16 Comments on “Weeds – Earth’s Sticking Plaster

  1. Richard Mabey and I go back a long way – my copy of his ‘Food for Free’ book is pretty yellow and dog-eared now. I also recently read his autobiography (the title alludes me at the moment) so I am not surprised that his new book is as good as you say. Definitely one to borrow from the library

    • Hi Elaine – I will have to have a look at some of Richard Mabey’s other books

  2. I think this would be a book I’d enjoy reading. Living as I do by a railway line, weeds are a fact of life – especially horsetail which I have the greatest respect for it’s ability to flourish. I don’t try and eradicate all weeds from the gardens here (it would be like painting the Forth bridge!), preferring to clear a patch when I need it. I like your description of weeds being the earth’s sticking plaster and am rather comforted that vegetation of any kind will persist long after we’ve gone.

    • Hi Carolyn – I agree it is nice to know that vegetation will persist long after we have finished meddling

  3. I’m deeply grateful that nature returns green, despite a neighbour who sprays his abandoned backyard regularly. The cogon grass is a frightening lesson. How sad is that story!

    • Hi EE – the cogon is a sad story, the Vietnamese call it American Grass!

  4. Weeds is in my To Be Read pile…many weeds are actual native wildflowers but our sin of disruption of habitat or clearing the land has caused true weeds or invasives to take hold…I actually love many of the so-called weeds..can’t wait to read the book.

    • Hi Donna – its a good read. Covers all sorts of things including literature, history etc

  5. I too appreciate weeds and I like his take on them, “the tithe we paid for breaking the earth.” So true, but so unavoidable too. The weeds always win, so they have nothing to really fear from us. Even if we almost destroy everything, weeds will find a way. It only takes seeing the most inaccessible and uninhabitable places they colonize to understand.

    • Hi GWGT – I suppose it makes you realise that it doesnt matter how much we weed unless we replace the weeds with something else the weeds will be back very quickly

  6. Like Elaine, my copy of ‘Food for Free’ is old and yellow and the cover torn. I used to do voluntary work on the South Downs – lots and lots of scrub bashing. It is astonishing how quickly plants can establish themselves including so called ‘weed’ trees e.g. birch, willow – the colonisers. The Downs are a beautiful and unique landscape and yet left to their own devices (not grazed, not farmed) they would soon be re-colonised by scrub and then deciduous woodland.

    Nice post, Helen.


  7. Helen,
    Love love love this wonderfully written post. Thanks so much for recommending a book I knew nothing of. I’ll be adding to my reading list.

  8. We went to see Richard Mabey talk at the Garden Museum about this book/topic. It was fascinating. We got him to sign the book as MrB is a member of the wider Mabey/Maybe/Maybey family

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