Give weeds a chance – how ragwort and other garden misfits could transform your flower beds – Telegraph.co.uk

give-weeds-a-chance-–-how-ragwort-and-other-garden-misfits-could-transform-your-flower-beds-–-telegraphco.uk

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It’s the kind of news that would make many eco-sceptics shiver: a garden full of weeds has been awarded a gold medal by the Royal Horticultural Society. In July, the people of Derbyshire-based farm Sunart Fields were as surprised as many of the attendees of Tatton Flower Show when they were handed the gong for a border that brimmed with things people usually pull out of their flowerbeds; among them, the controversial ragwort – a yellow flower beloved by pollinators but feared by horse owners.
After decades of inspiring the nation with pristine roses, immaculate edging and enormous, spotless vegetables, is this move from the RHS the latest in an attempt to appeal to the new, organic-loving generation of millennials or simply a much-needed turning point in how we view horticultural beauty?
It’s probably somewhere in-between: the fact is, “weeds”, as many see them, have been creeping into our gardens, in some cases by stealth, for years. And we’re all much better off for it.
Admittedly, I’m speaking as an organic gardener who happens to be a (geriatric) millennial. But since graduating from six years of gardening on inner-city balconies to getting my own garden last summer, I’ve totally reassessed my understanding of and relationship with weeds. I’ve ushered in white deadnettle into dry shady patches, coaxed herb-Robert into the cracks between my concrete steps and allowed yellow corydalis to brighten up drab corners.
In my flowerbeds, meanwhile, all sorts of things that some may have considered weeds have been allowed to prosper: the green froth of Alchemilla mollis, or lady’s mantle, sit beneath the tall, pink baubles of Common Knapweed. Foxgloves, which arguably made the graduation from “weed” to “wildflower” some time ago, burst forth from whatever gap they can. Ivy-leaf toadflax is a welcome visitor, as is shepherd’s purse. Even green alkanet was entertained for a while – I like it as a cut flower. If it turns up, puts up with the increasingly strange weather we’re subjected to and flowers nicely, it can stay.
Some people will say that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. Others have been elevating some to “wildflowers”. What we consider a “weed” has always been pretty subjective, and continues to be so, but in essence they are often plants that don’t ascribe to a traditional idea of beauty, that rapidly grow in spots in the garden and can be difficult to remove, and are very good at persistently blooming when our more prized plants fail. You can, of course, buy the more desirable “weeds” in pot or seed form. In pristine beds, weeds can make their presence felt all the more keenly. But they can be very useful for filling empty spaces in between the seasons, and make gorgeous ground cover in difficult spots.
It’s also not the first time weeds have turned up at an RHS Show. Cow parsley was a persistent feature of the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which should have kept Monty Don happy – it’s one of the things he misses the most when he swaps his Herefordshire home for London to report on the show for a week. In the same year Jo Thompson created a beautifully wild garden for Wedgwood at Chelsea, which featured daucus carota “Dara” – alongside foxgloves – and took home a medal.
When one opens their mind to “weeds”, it becomes clear how adept they are at finding exactly the right spot to thrive in. Think of sprays of red valerian bursting forth from rustic walls across the country, from Cornwall to Cumbria – it’s a form of garden design that humans would never contemplate on their own.
There’s been a distinct shift towards embracing the wild across floristry and horticulture over the past five years. Foxgloves and cow parsley are increasingly bedecking pew ends at weddings, while wild and loose floral arrangements are popping up everywhere from the dinner table to the catwalk. Move away from the show gardens and you’ll notice the gardens at grand estates such as Forde Abbey in Somerset, or Stillingfleet in Yorkshire, adopting a more relaxed approach to weeds and wildflower meadows.
This is down to more than just lax standards: in a time of eco-crisis and plummeting insect populations, we have to understand that our gardens are about more than just our own enjoyment. The debate about whether ragwort harms horses or not will continue to rage, but what is undeniable are the number of insects it provides much-needed food for. Often weeds turn up just at the time when wildlife needs them; that lesser celandine that brightens lawns in late winter, for instance, gives vital nectar after the dark, cold months.
Granted, there are some that even I draw the line at: bindweed, for instance, is worth cutting back and digging out early (yes, you can be rid of it without chemicals) and while Japanese knotweed does make a surprisingly versatile addition to a salad or stew, it’s not worth nobbling a mortgage for.
But for the rest? Give them a chance. Even if the gentle beauty and wildlife benefits can’t persuade you, then think about all the time that can be saved by allowing them to wander where they like in your garden. Perhaps it’s time to swap that foam kneeler and hand fork for a recliner and a G&T – all the better to watch the bees and the butterflies with. 
The five pretty weeds your garden needs
Eleanor Steafel

1. Red Valerian
Latin name: Centranthus ruberAlso known as Kiss Me Quick, it has little clusters of fuschia, trumpet-shaped flowers. The RHS recommends growing it in well-drained chalky or stony soil. It does particularly well on walls and in coastal, sunny gardens. Sow the seeds in spring (Buy from: chilternseeds.co.uk £1.95 for a pack of seeds).
2. Wild Carrot
Latin name: Daucus carotaOften called Queen Anne’s Lace, wild carrot has frothy white flowers atop a strong, straight stem that can grow up to 75cm. Occasionally you will get a single red bloom in the centre. Consider planting it in your borders, sowing the seeds in autumn (Buy from: naturescape.co.uk £2.50 for 10g seeds).
3. Dog Rose
Latin name: Rosa caninaA wild rose native to Britain, dog rose has pale pink or white flowers that appear in early summer and red-orange rose hips in autumn. It doesn’t mind poor quality soil but does require full sun. It’s a climber which tends to weave its way around other shrubs, using them to support its growth. You can use the hips to make a syrup which is high in vitamin C (Buy from: forestart.co.uk £2.00 for a pack of 210 seeds).
4. Cow Parsley
Latin name: Anthriscus sylvestrisWith its pretty sprays of small white flowers, you’ll no doubt have seen cow parsley on country walks. The Woodland Trust say it's a great early source of pollen for bees and provides nectar for orange-tip butterflies. Careful, though, as it spreads very easily and can quickly take over (Buy from: wildflowersuk.com £2.90 for 2g).
5. Common Knapweed
Latin name: Centaurea nigraCommon knapweed has a purple flower which looks a lot like a thistle. It attracts all kinds of butterflies and can grow up to a metre tall. It prefers a well-drained fertile soil in a sunny spot. Watch it if you don’t have masses of space as it self seeds and can become invasive (Buy from: wildflower.co.uk £7.00 for 10g). 

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