Using weeds in landscaping

31 May 2017

Bad or beautiful plants? Weeds are often victims of their reputation. However they can serve a purpose – provided you understand them! To find out more, we asked the advice of landscaper and Master Gardener Luc Echilley, winner of the Carré des jardiniers in 2013.  

Luc Echilley, what exactly is a weed?

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© M. Boigontier

Quite simply a weed is a plant growing where we don’t want it to! As we didn’t plant it there it is in the wrong place at the wrong time! But you may find it in the right place! Like reeds in wet places. They can be beautiful and make spectacular fields… in this universe they are very welcome.

However in gardens they can quickly become invasive! They colonise and prevent the growth of other plants. And are no longer welcome. So somebody else’s weeds can be useful plants. If I say poppies are weeds you might reply that they can be pretty in a garden! But for farmers, poppies are weeds – especially in wheat fields.   

So in fact, weeds are not as bad as all that. They may even improve soil quality. Is that true?

It all depends on the weeds. Some do, in fact, improve soil quality. When they decompose weeds return to the soil what they sucked up before. But all plants do that … 

It is also said that weeds attract auxiliaries. Do you agree?

That’s true, but all other plants do too! Some weeds attract insects which prey on other insects which are harmful for the garden… So they can be useful. And weeds can attract other weeds. Look at a forest, for example, firstly you get pine trees. They grow and provide shade which holm oaks enjoy. Under the oaks, box flourishes. And so on. Weeds work in the same way. The first weed creates shade and moisture – beneficial for other varieties which start to grow. 

So should we always eliminate weeds when landscaping?

What’s sensible is instead of fighting plants that come back each year in the wrong place and going against nature we have to learn to work with it! The idea is to work around the weeds. To make them a feature to use them profitably so they look good. Gardens and landscapes should always be good-looking! 

How do we make them into features?

Well, a good example is blue-flowering borage (starflower) often considered as a weed. Instead of thinking that it is a nuisance as it always grows in the same place, perhaps we should incorporate it into the garden. Use its blue flowers to make the landscape even more attractive. The concept is to make the plant interesting so it is no longer a weed but something we want in the vista. 

Should we let weeds grow on their own?

You have to strike the right balance! If you just leave weeds to do their thing you can end up with a monoculture. You have to prune them so that they flower and to restrict seeding. What is essential is to observe weeds. You have to note how they behave and see how they develop. That way you can learn how to control them and use them as features to the best advantage. As I said, rather than fighting them as unwanted, make them wanted! And the only way to do that is to observe them.  
 

Thank you for your comments, Luc Echilley.  

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