Gilles Lapalus and Jude Anderson put weeds to good use in their Chewton garden.If a weed is a plant growing where we don’t want it, what is it if we do want it? Is it still a weed, do you think? Some weeds are bad to the bone, no doubt: noxious ones that – even with legislation, stringent quarantine measures and publicity campaigns – spread, strangle and suffocate.
Some weeds with bad (albeit not as bad) reputations are still sold in garden centres, all the better to foil the unsuspecting gardener and self-seed forever.
But then there is the suspecting gardener, who has weeds and instead of waging war against them uses them somehow, nurtures them even. Inheritors of privet hedges, say, who don’t rip out this potentially invasive wall of green but keep it on a tight leash instead.
Or, in artist Jude Anderson and winegrower Gilles Lapalus’ case, pines. The couple bought a pine plantation in Chewton 10 years ago with earth so rocky, dry and depleted that it was essentially Pinus radiata – recognised in Australia as a potential weed – and nothing else.
The couple employed loggers to remove enough trees for a house and garden and thin out the rest. Then they sat back and observed, noting what grew in the spaces the loggers left.
Having previously spent a decade living and gardening in Burgundy, the couple have been much influenced by outspoken French ecologist and landscape designer Gilles Clement. Clement, who designed Parc Andre-Citroen in Paris and many other parks, has written extensively about the plants that spontaneously reclaim abandoned land and how gardeners might carve a place for themselves within such vegetation.
Rather than romantic notions of leaving alone what comes up, he writes of timely pruning, trimming, clipping and mowing. He’s all for intervention but it’s selective. It’s about choosing what to move, what to remove and what to keep.
Before the pines were planted on Anderson and Lapalus’ property, it was used to run sheep, and Anderson says the hooves sliced through all the native grasses.
The grasses have started to return, though, along with correas, thelionemas, sticky everlasting (Xerochrysum viscosum) and a host of other annuals, perennials and shrubs. Cassinia arcuata, an Australian native known to colonise disturbed sites, and a noxious weed in New South Wales, has emerged in abundance. The finely scented Hakea sericea, recorded as a naturalised weed in Victoria and elsewhere, has also come up. So have the notoriously weedy willows and blackberries.
”You don’t just leave them,” Anderson says. ”Things get out of control and become a menace if they are not managed. But it’s about being intelligent about it rather than hysterical. It’s about powers of observation, looking at what’s going on and when it’s going on and working with that.”
Anderson has been spreading the wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia species) and kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra), neither of which are considered weeds, that have come up but has been pulling out another one with a fluffy purple seed head that started growing in the garden beds. This same grass has recently grown up, wispy and pretty, in the gaps between concrete pavers outside their house and – for the moment anyway – Anderson is leaving it.
She and Lapalus are also experimenting with their Cassinia arcuata – using it as both a hedge and as a barrier to reduce water runoff. They assiduously remove the noxious weed Stinkwort (Dittrichia graveolens) and are actively getting the blackberries and willows under control, with Lapalus using the willow branches as a tie for his espaliers. But he has kept – not far from the vegetable garden where they slow water runoff – a cluster of indigenous rushes that are potentially invasive in waterways.
Then there are the weeds Anderson and Lapalus spread as mulch (pulling them out before they flower) or dig back into the garden as green manure. Stinging nettles (Urtica urens) are soaked in water weekly to make liquid fertiliser.
”A lot of people don’t have the time or inclination to work like this,” Anderson says. ”If you like neat and tidy, this sort of gardening is not the way to go.”
Mark Dymiotis is not particularly obsessed by neat and tidy. He has been growing fruit and vegetables in his Hampton garden for 35 years. He calls it an ”old-style” garden that reflects his enthusiasm for the traditional, everyday diet of Greece, weeds included.
Dymiotis diligently removed all of the oxalis and couch from his garden by hand but recently dug up catsear (Hypochaeris radicata), an environmental weed that was growing in front of his house, and put it in one of his vegetable beds.
Like many before him, he boils stinging nettles and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) that he picks out of his lawn, and adds them to pies and omelets. He has now typed up several pages worth of personal growing and cooking notes on all manner of wild greens, from amaranth to purslane to thistles. And in an (even more contentious) extension of this, Dymiotis would also like to see us eating – ”like the Aboriginals did” – those other garden dwellers, possums.
With possums having eaten through three grapevines, an apricot, plum, mandarin and most of his lemon tree, as well as the leaves of his tomatoes and beans, Dymiotis wants to see them out of the city and restricted to wilderness areas that have been ”extended and restored” for them. There, he maintains, they could be culled for meat as ”an environmentally friendly alternative” to animals raised on cleared land. ”The Greeks have a saying that hunger makes you inventive,” he says.
In 1986, the late English writer Patience Gray, who developed a penchant for weeds while living in Greece in the 1960s, wrote of how through ”instinct, habit or prejudice” we pursue our own way. ”Edwardian Englishmen laughed at French governesses for picking wild chervil, dandelions and sorrel in spring for salads … the governesses ridiculed the Englishmen for their addiction to stewed rhubarb.”
And in some ways, it will always be so.Mark Dymiotis will teach several gardening courses, including ones on wild greens, at the Centre for Adult Education in 2013. cae.edu.auThe case against
In his new edition of Garden Weeds – first published in 1982 – Bruce Morphett outlines how to control the more common ones. Straightforward and scientific, Morphett, one suspects, has no time for the different ways in which weeds might be put to use in the garden but does provide the sort of useful information – and warnings – required for gardeners wanting to tackle weeds in all manner of ways.
With photographs, drawings and detailed descriptions about how nearly 120 invasive annuals, biennials, perennials and woody plants spread in Australia, Morphett’s book is accessible for the beginner but also contains the sort of meticulous detail about plant structure that will appeal to those with more experience.
While advocating prevention and timely control to reduce the use of herbicides, Morphett discusses the limitations of non-chemical approaches and outlines how herbicides might be best used (or avoided) for each plant. Hailing from Adelaide, Morphett notes those plants that are noxious weeds in South Australia but directs readers to the internet for other states.
Garden Weeds, Revised Edition by Bruce Morphett, published by Bloomings Books, will be in bookshops from January 1, $19.95.
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