Q: I see a lot of “stuff” growing by the roadside – the plants are pretty enough to put in the garden. Then just what is a weed? Some smarty always tells me a weed is “just a plant that is out of place,” but I see beautiful bunches of roadside flowers for sale at farmers markets — even some with goldenrod. Can I grow any of these plants in my garden? Can I just dig them up or is there a place to buy them?
A: It is said that a weed is just a plant that is out of place. I love my weeds! Who’s to say what a weed is and what it is not? Weeds are beautiful, but grow too easily. Weeds are plants that have, without any help, acclimated themselves perfectly to our climate, temperatures, moisture and soil conditions in New England — that’s why they’re so hardy. They’ve happy here, so why fight them? Join them and you’ll enjoy your weeds. Before running out and adopting them, remember that they could easily take over the garden. Are you worried about what people might think? “What are you really growing in the garden?” your friends may say. “You paid what for that? It’s a weed!” Price is not the criteria. A weed to one gardener is a wonder to another gardener. How we have changed our ideas about gardening! Why not grow these hardy plants? They’re most often perennials and biennials — or at least, easily self-sewn annuals that reappear, without your help, year after year after year.
How did they get here in the first place? Some are Native American plants that have been here for centuries. Many escaped from Europe and were carried to the New World as valuable medicines and herbals. Seeds from these plants escaped into the fertile landscape of the Americas and grew, well, just like weeds! Weeds are found surviving in the most difficult growing conditions. When you adopt them and place them in your fertile garden with plenty of moisture, food and tender care, they’ll take off and thrive, rather than survive!
Some weeds I won’t weed out of the garden:
Tansy: A stalk of button-shaped flowers top this old time fumigant. It has been a staple as a valuable wild weed. First cultivated, then escaped, and now being cultivated again. Also called “Stinking Willie,” the very attractive dark green foliage has a spicy scent, and is known to repel insects. Try rubbing it on the dog — it will smell good and repel the flies and bugs! Tansy is a 3-foot tall plant and spreads easily. It can be root-divided every year or two, and it dries well for winter arrangements, where it retains a bit of the spicy scent through the winter.
Queen Anne’s lace: My favorite weed! The delicate, lacy, flat flower heads have become the darlings of florists everywhere. In the winter months, this weed is imported from Southern Europe for a dollar a head and more. All summer you find it growing wild in dry fields, along railroad tracks, and in piles of construction rubble. After this sort of Spartan treatment, Queen Anne’s lace will thrive in your pampered garden. When it gets into your garden, it takes off with a vengeance, adding the touch of airy white we all love in a perennial garden. They are great for cutting and adding to any summer bouquet. The flowers are sometimes dried for winter arrangements, although they will turn brown and curl as they dry, losing both shape and color. They are not bad dried as a pressed flower. Queen Anne’s lace is hard to transplant since it has a long, deep taproot — it isn’t called wild carrot for nothing! It re-seeds with ease.
Milkweed: If you have a butterfly garden, you want and need milkweed. It is the primary food for the monarch butterfly. The pods are great for drying. Milkweed is easy from seed. I have had trouble establishing mine, because it kept on getting weeded out. Sure it is a weed, but since it is the primary food for the monarch butterfly, I want it! Another large weed, milkweed clumps towers to six feet with ease.
Silver fleece vine: A flowering junk vine that provides cover in a single season, this weed can be bought from nurseries at about $10 a pot –– it is as expensive as any other bought vine, any clematis or hummingbird vine. It has become very popular in the past decade because it can grow as much as 20 to 30 feet in a season, and is covered with stems of tiny, foamy white flowers from mid to late summer. It may be a weed, but we love it for instant gratification. Silver fleece vine will not become invasive because it dies back during the winter. Be careful where you put it – the bees love it!
Goldenrod: Mistakenly blamed for hay fever, its pollen is no worse than any other flower. (The real culprit for hay fever sufferers is ragweed, which blooms at the same time, beginning in mid-August.) Goldenrod, with yellow plumes of flowers on tall arching stems, is widely grown in European gardens.
Common orange day lilies: These are weeds, or are they? You will hardly notice that the flowers last only a day because of the profusion of buds which follow each day. Day lilies have literally no preference for growth. You will find them from the cold regions of Canada to the warm south of Florida, or in the high altitudes of the Pacific Northwest. Our acid soil accentuates the color, making the oranges particularly strong, while the alkaline soil of Texas causes the color to be slightly less intense — but they grow anywhere. The thick roots multiply with ease. After a year or two in the garden, large clumps of foliage become established, making them an ideal foundation planting as well as a regular in the perennial border.
North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger is a periodic feature of Friday’s Living section. Reach Barbara at email@example.com or write c/o Gloucester Daily Times, 36 Whittemore St., Gloucester, MA 01930. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.