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7 July 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 9:09am

Weeds are perceived as gatecrashers – but what can they do when left to their own devices?

Though I used to wrench "self-seeding" plants out of my garden, I am learning to see them in a new light

By Alice Vincent

A year ago I gained access to a garden. After six years of growing plants on balconies, I got to play with the earth itself – something one can never take for granted after hefting it up six flights of stairs in bags. At first, I was scared of this big new space: it took me a week or so to acquaint myself with the soil. I knelt down, rubbing the sun-baked clay between my fingertips and wrenching out weeds. This was my first act: to pull things out.

That feels a bit barbaric now. Twelve months have passed and the garden has changed: fuller, busier. Goldfinches and foxes and aphids all visit. And there are weeds among the foxgloves and the fennel – herb robert, mostly, but also chickweed, shepherd’s purse, ivy-leaved toadflax and white dead-nettle. Buttercups, dandelions and tiny pink flowers mingle in the lawn. I am fascinated by their tenacious growth, their ability to adapt. And I am quite happy to leave them be, fun gatecrashers at a good party.

I’ve been rethinking the word “weed”, too, and trying to come up with a replacement. The best I can do so far is “self-seeders”; admittedly, it needs work. In Wild, Jay Griffiths’s book about indigenous cultures, climate catastrophe and colonialism, she points out that many indigenous cultures don’t have a word for “weed”, “pest” or “vermin”. Since reading it, I haven’t been able to shake the colonial associations of weeding and of what we consider to be weeds. Knowing that colonists compared indigenous people to “pests and weeds” reframes the idea of yanking plants out.

[See also: In my newly wildlife-friendly garden, damselflies mate to a soundtrack of London traffic]

Self-seeded things get a good showing where I live in south London. To walk around most neighbourhoods is to enjoy an exhibition of what plants do when left to their own devices: a harmonious blend of bluebells and yellow dandelions smothering a front garden; a rogue foxglove in a tree pit; the glorious pink trumpet of valerian creeping from a crumbling wall. While our “cultivated” plants bake in the sun and demand deadheading, this lot carry on regardless.

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They are also the subject of a new book, Gardens – Observations, by India Hobson and Magnus Edmondson. It contains mostly photographs, and most of those photographs are of what many might consider weeds: Welsh poppies smothering kerbsides, the drifting colour chart of overgrown grass. It is a gorgeous thing, witty and quietly political: it makes me long for a designer to stick a skip full of rubble in a Chelsea Show Garden and grow things between the cracks.

Hobson and Edmondson write that they wanted to show “the gardens that are often overlooked and understated but brighten our everyday”, and isn’t that what self-seeders do? Look out for “weeds” and you’ll see life: pollinators, butterflies and caterpillars. Once the council has been past with weed killer, this is reduced to a dry, yellow graveyard.

Gardens – whether window box or sprawling estate – are political spaces, no matter how some try to neutralise them. The decisions we make in them (whether to use pesticides or peat; whether to let the lawn grow long) are reflected in the broader ecosystem, both in terms of the climate and in our societal attitudes to gardening. Which is why I’d rather leave some self-seeded things and let them grow alongside the plants I introduce. It’s easier to appreciate something once it’s had a chance to thrive. And as Hobson and Edmondson show, most plants can be beautiful if we change our way of looking.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

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This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust