weed garden

Chicory and fennel on boulevard

Beautiful Weeds

Back in June we went for a drive around our region, and returned via a ferry that crosses a local water body. The crossing takes less than half an hour, but we had to wait quite a bit longer than that for the next scheduled sailing. During that wait I took a couple of photos of roadside weeds, because I thought they were beautiful.

Dock plant, maybe Rumex occidentalis near Mill Bay ferry June 2021
Dock plant (maybe Rumex occidentalis?) with Himalayan blackberry and grasses in bloom behind it
Grasses and other roadside weeds near Mill Bay ferry, June 2021
Assorted grasses, Himalayan blackberry, and buttercups

Don’t these scenes look gardenesque? I’ve thought for a long time that an aesthetically pleasing garden may be made of any plants, even weeds. The blackberry is an alien invasive of the worst kind here (never mind that it produces delicious berries). Dock is also a weed, and I suspect those lovely grasses are as well. Buttercups are pretty, but many gardeners labour mightily to weed them from their lawns.

Some of the most dependable plants in my garden are quasi-weeds. I’ve blogged about them many times. Gardeners who welcome weedy plants must learn how to manage them. Diligent deadheading is the key for the ones that seed abundantly. Weedy plants that spread underground by roots or runners are really best avoided.

I actually have a small area that comes close to being a garden of weeds. It’s part of the municipal boulevard. The lawn grass there was pretty pathetic, and deteriorated to the point it was an eyesore. So I introduced a few plants I had admired while biking to work on a trail parallel to a highway–chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, and California poppies. I let the existing grass grow and trimmed it manually when it started to look tired. A couple of plants found elsewhere in the garden ended up there too–a white campion, a bronze fennel, a couple of mulleins, and a small plant of Erysimum “Bowles Mauve.” Sometimes I think the whole project was a mistake, but in the right light, it can look fairly good.

Boulevard Project with Mullein July 2021
The “Boulevard Project” weed garden

I think weed gardens work only if all the plants in them are weeds, equally tough and equally rustic looking. Introducing a few tough plants into regular borders can be effective, but the gardener has to keep a close eye on them. And some weeds have no place in civilized gardens–those blackberries, for example, and any form of bindweed. Horsetails too are wonderfully architectural and different, but I understand they spread relentlessly and are nearly impossible to dig up.

Image by Analogicus from Pixabay

All this leads to a conclusion: plants are plants. Some are beautiful. Some are weedy. The gardener observes and selects, makes mistakes and learns (usually in a bent-over position, clutching a spade).

The Boulevard Project in August, featuring chicory

Boulevard Project Update: Success!

Three years ago, I decided to do something different with a scruffy patch of weedy grass on the municipal boulevard next to my driveway. The actual grass was losing the battle with weeds I didn’t like — dandelion (Taraxacum) and hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata ). It occurred to me to introduce a better class of weed and make the spot look better than bad. So began the Boulevard Project.

Chicory and Queen Anne's Lace on boulevardMy plant choices were inspired by the plantscape along my cycling route to work, a bike path parallel to one of the main highways into Victoria — chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, red clover, beach pea, and St. John’s wort. These plants in bloom made the roadside quite ornamental in July and August, with no watering at all. So far, I’ve established only two of them on my boulevard — chicory and Queen Anne’s lace. Beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus) now grows in a couple of other spots in my garden (not sure how that happened). I’ve harvested seeds from those plants, and will make a better effort with it on the boulevard next spring. I didn’t manage to collect viable seed of either the clover or St. John’s wort. However, white clover has established itself quite nicely. I have to admit the flowers of hairy cat’s ear on a neighbouring part of the boulevard provide the same shade of yellow as St. John’s wort. (I’m pleased to say my dandelion tool and I have succeeded in keeping hairy cat’s ear out of my patch. Impressive when you consider the mass of airborne seeds those nearby plants produce.).

Chicory flowerChicory (Cichorium intybus) is definitely the star of the show. It’s amazing to find such beautiful blue flowers on a plant that’s an utter weed. I’ve noticed some chicory plants have dark red stems, while others are green. They seem to vary in height too, and harmonize nicely with Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota). My original intention was to cut the chicories down to six inches or lower, and force them to flower near the ground. So far I haven’t had the heart to apply this brutal treatment, but now that the plants are established, I think I’ll do that next year, at least to those growing close to the public sidewalk.

Chicory flower and green bee

Chicory flower visited by a small green bee.  Apparently these are called “sweat bees.” not a very flattering name. Why not “emerald bees?”

Establishing the chicory was a little tricky, because the nonflowering stage of this plant, called a “rosette” in botany — looks a lot like common dandelion and hairy cat’s ear. I had to pay close attention when extracting dandelion and hairy cat’s ear not to extract the young chicory plants by mistake.

Both plants will need to be cut down before they seed wildly and form thickets. I want to retain the idea of grass supplemented with flowering weeds, not a solid weed patch. Let’s not forget that this adjoins a suburban sidewalk, not a rural lane. Every now and then I go out and do some snipping to show that yes, this is a cultivated spot, not a neglected one. I’ve even had one or two compliments from passers-by.

Chicory and fennel on boulevard

A plant of bronze fennel has established itself at the edge of the driveway.  I’ve been tossing California poppy seed pods onto the boulevard, and one tiny plant actually bloomed this summer. I’ve seen a creeping form of broom (Genista species) growing in all sorts of exposed spots, such as highway medians. Perhaps I’ll manage to work that in as well. And I must not forget the aster mentioned in the original post.

The project continues!




The Boulevard Project

On the north side of my street, for some reason, there are wide sections of municipal land between the sidewalk and private lot boundaries. (The south side has no boulevard, which doesn’t seem fair, but there it is). On most of the boulevards there is some form of lawn, because it is supposedly illegal to grow anything else there, apart from official municipal street trees such as flowering cherries. Ironic, because cherries aside, these are prime plots for vegetable gardens, being sunny and relatively tree-root-free. Hardly anyone waters the grass on their boulevard; in our dry summers they end up looking pretty bad.

The 8 by 12 foot patch of boulevard to one side of my driveway is a small wasteland. There is some sad-looking grass which we mow occasionally, so it qualifies as a “lawn,” but its other denizens are weeds, specifically dandelions (Taraxacum), hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata), which I think of as “summer dandelion” or “leathery dandelion,” and some kind of small mallow with rather attractive tiny pink flowers in spring. (A note about the hairy cat’s ears — I have managed mostly to hoick them out of the area with my handy dandelion tool, but my neighbour’s part of the boulevard is solid with the things, so it’s inevitable that a few manage to seed themselves in my patch).

At present, the site looks rather unappealing.

A blank canvas?

A blank canvas?

There is no point in spending much time and treasure to turn this spot into a decent lawn, so my plan is to supplement the existing weeds with more attractive ones. I got the idea from bicycling to work along a trail called the Galloping Goose (after a railway that used to be there; the trail was built where the tracks used to be). Along parts of this trail are attractive plant communities consisting largely of weeds. Some of the shrubs, such as the native Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), were planted deliberately (because the trail is actually part of the regional park system), but the rest just showed up, as weeds do.

So my intended plants include: chicory (its sky-blue flowers will look great with the yellow hairy cat’s ear flowers), red and white clover, Queen Anne’s lace, St. John’s wort, beach pea, and a tough form of aster with light purple flowers. The chicory and white clover bloom even when mowed quite short, so will occupy most of the space. The taller plants will be at the back, forming a transition zone to the bed on my side of the property line. From July into October, I envision this area as a tapestry of blue, yellow, white, pink and purple in varying degrees. Much better than balding lawn and hairy cat’s ears.

Imagine all those colours here.

Imagine all those colours here.

There are already a couple of chicory plants I grew from seed spreading their seeds over part of the boulevard. I plan to introduce the others over the next 6 months.

Just to avoid ending with a depressing sight, here is the main perennial bed in the front garden as it was before a recent heavy wind-and-rain storm.

Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass "Little Bunny"

Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass “Little Bunny”