For any gardener, some tasks are a joy and others are more of a chore. Weeding certainly comes under the latter heading, though it can be quite relaxing to zone out and listen to the birds and the crickets while you work.
Here on our smallholding we are experimenting with something I have termed ‘wild gardening’. This is a long-term experiment, a way of hopefully building biodiversity and resilience into the areas where we grow our food, as well as the meadows and copses that surround our land. As a practice, it shares much with organic gardening. We use no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides of any kind. We try to make as much of our own compost as possible, and if we do have to buy some in we make sure it suitable for organic growing. We try to grow with the land and the seasons rather than attempt to bend them to our will.
One way in which we are going a little further is in the way we deal with weeds. When we moved in, the front garden was a pristine gravel driveway and a well-manicured lawn, essentially a two-tone desert. Over the past couple of years we have carefully and methodically done absolutely nothing.
Well, that’s not exactly true: we’ve dug vegetable beds, planted fruit trees and bushes, filled the property with sheep and chickens and bees. What we haven’t done much of is weeding, and this has brought some lovely results. The driveway, especially, has been a real surprise. The gravel and the thin, poor soil underneath have gradually been colonised by all kinds of flowering plants, meaning there is colour and insect-buzz outside the front door for much of the year. Wild strawberries have appeared along the front wall. Letting these plants flower and self-seed has meant they have spread quickly, and this year there has been a noticeable increase in the number of pollinators; bees of diverse forms, hoverflies, butterflies, hummingbird moths. It is also softer underfoot and more pleasing on the eye, though our neighbours and friends think us untidy.
We have seen (or, more precisely, heard) an increase in frog numbers, their weird old-man croaking filling the dusk, counterpoint for the nightingale’s song. There have been more of the larger mammals such as hares and coypu, and this year brought brightly coloured bee-eaters, snow-white egrets, red kites in numbers I hadn’t imagined, as well as a pair of storks striding like dinosaurs across the meadows. Not all of this is down to our efforts, of course – though I like to think we have played a part, and our property is certainly more lively than when we arrived.
The veg patch still needs weeding, however, and our approach to the weeds and the wild things does bring with it more work in this respect. The very plants we have encouraged to grow in front of the house have no respect for borders, and pop up everywhere. No matter how pretty these flowers and plants may be, they can out-compete and choke a tomato plant with ease, and it is still necessary to get down on hands and knees and work over the beds to free them of encroaching invaders. Happily, many of these ‘weeds’ are edible, indeed delicious. (A weed, of course, is simply a plant growing somewhere you’d rather it didn’t.)
Yesterday as I worked to free my (finally germinated) parsnip seedlings from competition, I filled a basket with purslane (Portulaca oleracea). This succulent-looking plant has been cultivated and used as a food for centuries. It features in the cuisines of Mexico, Spain, and Iran, amongst others, and the seeds have been used by some aboriginal Australians to make bread and seed cakes. In many gardens in the UK and here in France it is simply uprooted and disposed of.
Purslane is nutritious, being an excellent source of Vitamin A and Vitamin C as well as the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids of any leafy plant. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly delicious, though it has a pleasing fresh green flavour and an excellent texture that lends itself well to salads and stir-fries. We ate it chopped into some rice, stir-fried with courgettes from the garden and seasoned with soy sauce.
In letting things run wild, run away from us a little, we have increased the biodiversity of our little patch. Eating edible weeds – and there are many – is another way to ensure we utilise as much as possible from the land that we share with all the flying things, the scuttling things, the flowers and the fungi and all manner of living beings. Wild gardening indeed.