Uninvited, untamed and under our noses!

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Shouldn’t we be welcoming weeds into our gardens to grow alongside their cultivated cousins, asks resident wildlife columnist Jane Adams

Ivy mining bee in Jane’s garden – the species only arrived in Dorset in 2001.
Images: Jane Adams

Earlier this year, TV gardener and Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) vice-president Alan Titchmarsh caused quite a stir when he urged the RHS to stop ‘pandering to current trends’ that seem to welcome weeds into gardens.
But what exactly is a weed? The Cambridge Dictionary defines them as ‘any wild plant that grows in an unwanted place.’ I assume Mr T was making a stand for cultivated plants, and isn’t against wild plants per se. In spite of that, does it really need to be an all-or-nothing debate? With 53 per cent of our native plants in decline, surely there’s room for both wild and cultivated plants in our gardens.
Take my garden.
It’s a mishmash of garden-centre-bought plants and long and short grass with quite a few wild flowering plants (cough weeds) in between.
I love my garden – and so, it seems, does the wildlife; more than 300 species call it home. Most of us will never have (or even aspire to) a ‘perfect’ garden, with neatly tended flowerbeds, zero weeds, neatly trimmed lawns and perfectly clipped hedges. Personally, I think that’s okay.
Take ivy. A weed, yes? I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it for years. It creeps through the garden and, if I don’t watch it like a hawk, it makes a dash up the walls of the house.
But at the bottom of the garden where it has climbed a long-dead apple tree, it explodes each autumn with a firework display of blooms that fizz with pollinators (more than 100 species of insect feed on ivy).
At this time of year, my ivy is a veritable smorgasbord for them; from honeybees to angle shade moths and ivy mining bees to holly blue butterflies, they can’t get enough of it. Not to mention the blackbirds that eat its berries, and birds and insects that nest and hibernate in its dense foliage.
Not bad for a weed.

Hornet on an ivy flower

What might help?
We won’t fix the massive declines in flying insect populations (a shocking 60 per cent in the last 20 years) by allowing a few dandelions, ivy plants and nettles to grow in our gardens, or by letting the grass grow taller in places. But neither are these things ‘a trend’ or wrong. They’re just the evolution of everyday gardening.
Shouldn’t we instead be more worried about the garden centres and DIY stores still promoting the sale of weedkiller and insecticide?
Shouldn’t we educate ourselves on how to use natural pest deterrents in our gardens? Everyone’s outdoor spaces can be beneficial to disappearing wildlife and wildflowers, as well as attractive and useful places for their people.

Further reading:
There are 23 million gardens in the UK, covering 433,000 hectares (an area a third the size of Wales) according to estimates.
A total of 87 per cent of UK households have a garden.
In England alone, gardens cover an area four and a half times larger than National Nature Reserves
For advice on gardening for wildlife, visit the Wildlife Gardening Forum wlgf.org
The ivy mining bee arrived in Dorset in 2001, more at bumblebeeconservation.org

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