My in-laws visited yesterday to share a cup of tea and a homemade muffin in the garden. My father-in-law asked me what my philosophy on weeding was, as he “knows I won’t spray them.” But he wasn’t really interested, he was just saying that he thought my garden was weedy and he didn’t approve. It’s the second time he has made a similar comment this year.

His timing sucks. I invited them to visit so that they could see I was doing OK after a surgeon took a lump out of my leg on Tuesday. I am hobbling around the garden on crutches. I did manage to weed the asparagus bed on Friday morning, but only because Ryan was distracted and I had done it before he realised what I was doing! In my defence, a shark’s fin melon had taken root there and was threatening to grow right over the shed and escape out into the car park. They grow a mile-a-minute.

It’s only two weeks since a biopsy confirmed that the lump wasn’t cancerous, so you can probably imagine that the preceding weeks were a little fraught. This is on top of living through an unprecedented global pandemic that has made life tougher for everyone this year. And it didn’t stop raining until April, and then there was a heatwave, and I still have a day job, so when, exactly, was I supposed to do all that weeding?

Bee on dandelion

My outrage has worn off a little bit (although if he’s lucky enough to be invited back, he’s not getting a muffin!). So I have been thinking about my philosophy on weeding, which is more complicated than a conversation with my FIL can encompass.

I have always been an organic gardener, so no – I don’t spray weeds. I use other methods to control them, including bark chip mulches (not available this year with the garden centres closed). Usually, I pull them weeds by hand, which is easier to do because I have raised beds, and the soil is generally pretty loose.

Strawberry blite or strawberry spinach (Blitum capitatum, syn. Chenopodium capitatum)

In my garden, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between unwanted weeds and welcome volunteers. I have self-seeded wild garlic, strawberries and leafy greens. There’s some borage emerging underneath the French beans, and in the spring we ate some of the hairy bittercress that comes up everywhere for a couple of weeks and then disappears again. In the front garden, there’s a salad burnet plant that seeded itself from one I put in a planter. The original was unhappy and died; its offspring lives on somewhere it likes better.

So my definition of “weed” is a lot less clearcut than most people’s. However, I do try and remove anything that threatens to overwhelm the crops, or which spreads with wild abandon.

Borage & bee

Except… I don’t pull up the early dandelions because the bees need the flowers. And I don’t pull up the nettles around the water butt because they’re a food source for caterpillars. Two years ago we had elephant hawk moth caterpillars feeding on rosebay willowherb.

Elephant hawk moth

Everyone complains there are no butterflies any more. But they don’t want caterpillars munching on their plants, and they won’t tolerate weeds, so there’s nothing left on which butterflies and moths can lay their eggs. The bees are in trouble because we grow frilly flowers they can’t feed on, and all of the little weedy flowers are killed off. And there’s a whole host of other insects we don’t ever think about that also depend on weeds. And if there are no insects, then the birds struggle, and you won’t see a bat swooping over your garden at dusk.

Caterpillar on the comfrey

The official gardening advice is that weeds compete for water and nutrients. They may shade out a crop and reduce the yield. They can harbour diseases and should be removed. But they can also confuse potential pests, and shield and feed garden friends.

So my philosophy on weeding is… it’s complicated. Each weed should be assessed for opportunities and threats. If you just pull them out, willy nilly, you risk removing a source of joy from your garden. And in these hard times, who would want to do that?