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Opening your garden to the public (which we used to do some years ago now, and a different garden), is far more exhausting for the owner than the visitor. Not only because of the hard work, but dealing with the crushing blows that visitors can deal out without the slightest concern for the owners' egos. You perhaps know the sort... In full flow of apparent admiration, they pause, lose interest in your desperate attempts to explain what you have been trying to achieve, their lips go thin with dispproval, and then they stoop in silence to pull a weed from your choicest clump of flowers. As you blush with shame, or flush with anger, they put the offending plant neatly beside the path or on the garden seat. Very refined examples don't touch the offending plant at all; a willowy Cambridge don, vowels suitably strangulated, once asked 'And do you have a policy about weeds?' There are several responses. A sharp kick on the shins is quite good, and easy to administer en route for the wheelbarrow. Alternatively, look horrified, and say how much you love wildflowers (the Cambridge willow was looking at a really lovely sward of a pale-flowered fumitory), or claim that it was a rare variant and carefully cultivated. There are quite a few of these and many are delightful. Someone here once pulled up a huge clump of plantain seedlings, and looked extremely pleased We pointed out that they were actually seedlings of the medieval 'rose ' plantain. This nice thing, instead of throwing up those narrow dingy ratstails of flowers, produces leafy green 'roses' of great charm. When well grown, the se can be almost two inches across, and I'm surprised it's not a wild favourite of the flower arrangers (we think they look nice with lemon yellow marigolds and fennel leaves, all plonked in an old green glass jam jar).
There's als o a red leafed one (no roses, alas) which is worth looking out for. Again, it responds to high feeding, producing handsome beetroot coloured foliage ideal for a bit of contrast in either border or vase. It does produce ratstails, so beware the millions of seedlings. Less weedy, less vigorous, but not that much less fun, is a nice plantain with variegated leaves, a plant more for the determined collector than the designer-gardener who swooshes past things. It needs a few moments observation to reveal its charms, though only the most clued-up weed-freaks will notice that it's not actually one of the 'weed' species. However, there are plenty of real and nice variegated weeds. Why not start looking for the variegated ground elder (or bishop weed to some)? Now there's a plant to make make weed-freaks faint with horror. However, in this variant, the leaf, with large splashes of cream inside green margins, is very handsome indeed. To be honest, the variegations don't entirely stop the plant's desire to spread, and it needs watching if you want to plant it in the border (we've now got it in the lawn as well...). However, if you've a piece of dark shrubbery, a corner of woodland, or a heavily shaded yard, the leaves would bring some glitter to the shadows. There is also a good variegated form of the common and weedy 'oat-grass' (Arrhenatherum elatius, though usually listed, incorrectly, in catalogues as 'A. bulbosus'). It too is a wonderful 'weed' for shady corners and, unlike the much more common 'gardeners garters', it doesn't run. We have it with hellebores and Hydrangea arborescens, backed by the wonderful honeysuckle Lonicera japonica 'Halliana'.
Fancy 'weed' climbers seem much harder to come by. I've heard about a double flowered form of the marvellous 'old man's beard' (Clematis vitalba), which is reputed to have an even stronger perfume, though I've not come acoss it. We do have an amusing variegated form of the common bryony, which if any weed freak touches, will cause more than a kicked shin. Very much weedier is the variegated bramble, each dark green leaf silvery edged. Alas, it doesn't seem, with us, to be as vigorous as the usual sort, and needs a bit of care to keep it growing. However, it's just as prickly (if that's a characteristic you need), and keeps its leaves into deepest winter. Then they develop a deeper hue, as if they've been dipped in red wine. A far grander bramble still is the double flowered one. Well, grander when it's in flower, for when it's not even you'll have difficulty telling it from the seedlings ramping at the back o f your borders (yes, I bet there are plenty). The flowers are gorgeous flat tassels of slightly purplish pink petals, and a hedge of them is quite a sight. Weed freaks will be appalled.
And then there are all the marvellous double- flowered forms of wildflowers that aren't weeds, from 'bouncing Bet' to 'Lady's smock'. But that's another article. What I desperately need now is a prettily variegated form of the awful annual Poa, a double flowered one of the little 'ha iry bittercress' that lobs its seeds everywhere as soon as you look at it, and a nice and fancy form of our old friend the chickweed. Have you got anything that would do?
Copyright david stuart 2004