Friendly weeds

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Lorna Paterson from Wanstead Climate Action encourages gardeners to get to know their friendly neighbourhood weeds and appreciate the vital role they play in London’s environmental corridors

To quote Pooh Bear creator, AA Milne: “Weeds are flowers too, when you get to know them.” On the other hand, many gardeners see weeds as problem neighbours encroaching on their space. This is a pity because private gardens make up almost a quarter of London’s green land, and when they connect with each other and public parks, they create environmental corridors for wildlife.

Many of the native garden plants we call weeds are invaluable sources of food for bees and butterflies. I am going to tell you about three common weeds I think deserve a place in our gardens. I will also describe a few ways to remove invasive weeds without using commercial weedkillers, which are lethal to pollinator insects.

Dandelions are one of my favourite plants. In early spring, their cheerful yellow flowers sustain honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bee species. Holly Blue and Peacock butterflies love them too.

Henbit or Dead Nettle is a low-growing hedgerow plant. It makes fine ground cover, and in March and April, its attractive purple flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees.

Green Alkanet keeps me busy pulling out seedlings, but I allow it to sneak into my garden because all kinds of bees feed from its pretty blue flowers in April and May.

Late spring and early summer is the best time to get rid of unwanted herbaceous plants, because they have not had time to set seed. Weed thoroughly at this time and there will be less to do later. Wear gloves to protect your hands. Grab the weed just above soil level. Grip the stem firmly, wiggle it and shake it about until the soil loosens, then pull it out, root and all. If the root of the weed is too deep to pull out easily, use a trowel or hand fork to loosen the soil around it. A digging fork can be used to lift the soil and make it easier to remove weed roots. Turn the surface of the soil over regularly with a long-handled hoe to uproot surface weeds.

Home-made salt and vinegar weed killer is one of many recipes available. You will need one litre of ordinary white kitchen vinegar, three tablespoons of table salt, one large tablespoon of washing-up liquid and a spray bottle. Put the mixture into the spray bottle and shake well. When the salt has dissolved, add the washing-up liquid and shake it again. The mixture must be applied on a dry, sunny morning. Being careful not to get it on your skin, apply it directly to the weed, because it will also kill surrounding grass and plants. 

Our friend Winnie the Pooh also said: “When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is to not let the bees know you’re coming.” Here, we must differ – let’s make sure the bees know they’re welcome here!

For more information on Wanstead Climate Action, visit wnstd.com/climate