Weeds: Friends or Foe? A Guide for Natural Garden Diversity

By Christie Johnson

Weeds are considered the horticultural heretics of the plant world. They are persistently pesky shrubs. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But what if we have been too quick to uproot these feisty floras? What if they serve a higher ecological purpose we’ve stifled for too long?

This article will challenge the ingrained cultural stigma attached to weeds by celebrating certain species that have historically been given a bad rep.

No more ripping, thrashing or poisoning these beautiful botanical beings.

It’s time to rethink our obsessive tendency to colonize nature.

Can we begin to live and let live?

History of Weeds

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

Did you know that UK gardens create a larger ecosystem than all the National Nature Reserves combined? So creating localised safe havens for wildlife has never been so important.

Yet the eco-gardening narrative can be misguided. We’re told to scatter pollinator-friendly seeds while simultaneously sloshing around weed-bashing poisonous pesticides. Weeds – and the powerful properties they contain – have somehow been lost in translation.

For thousands of years, weeds have been a significant part of the human experience. From biblical metaphors right through to symbols of patriarchal and capitalist resistance, you’d be surprised at the central role weeds play in our cultural landscape.

On a practical level, weeds hold powerful medicinal properties. For example, the common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is often considered a gardener’s nightmare due to its long, enduring roots yet a small tincture can stop bleeding. Hence this long-standing plant is nicknamed “soldier’s woundwort”.

From seasoning meats and salads with chickweed to goosegrass seeds used as a coffee substitute, so-called “weeds” can also be colourful and healthy food alternatives.

Yet our biophilic tendencies to gravitate towards nature as a source of nutrition and healing have buckled under the incredible weight of industrial agribusiness. Agribusiness is responsible for intense environmental degradation with the UN warning our global food system is the “primary driver for biodiversity loss.”

We’re now faced with a diminishing natural world where weeds are brutally sacrificed in the name of modern civilisation.

With the right maintenance and care, it’s possible to reap the benefits and live in harmony with weeds.

Benefits of Weeds and Why We Should Protect Them

Letting weeds thrive comes with huge benefits. Here is a quick rundown of why we should love and protect weeds:

  • Weeds are an essential food source for pollinators and other animals.
  • Weeds prevent soil erosion and are a good indicator of soil health.
  • Weeds provide nutrients to other plants.
  • Weeds contain natural healing properties.
  • Weeds can be a nutritional food source.

Weed Varieties You Should Know About

Weeds: Friends or Foe?
Dandelions – By Viridi Green on Unsplash

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)

How to identify:

  • Sunflower yellow flowerhead made up of a mass of florets
  • Yellow sunflower head closes during the night
  • Usually found in grassy areas
  • Flowerheads turn into fluffy white balls (“clocks”) to disperse seeds
  • Bloom May – October

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you are likely familiar with the sight of these hardy floras. When the spring flowers start to bloom, so do dandelions in droves. At certain times of the year, your gaze invariably falls on blankets of bright sunshine-yellow flowerheads peppering your garden, local parks and road verges.

Did you know dandelions are an essential early source of nectar for many pollinators? Boasting up to 100 florets, the likes of day-flying moths, bumblebees and butterflies rely on dandelion’s tenacious flowering to see them through the first months of spring.

Plus, dandelion greens are edible and packed with nutrients. Cooked or raw, they contain vital vitamins, minerals and fibres.

It’s time to stop demonizing dandelions and let them grow for humans and wildlife alike!

Weeds: Friends or Foe?
Nettles – By Paul Morley on Unsplash

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

How to identify:

  • Slender stems that grow to 6-8 feet tall
  • Edges of the leaf are toothed and can sting if touched
  • Prefers damp, fertile and disturbed ground
  • Can be found in gardens, hedgerows, fields and woodland
  • Grows March – September

It’s hard to feel much joy when faced with these prickly perennials. Not only are nettles unpleasant to look at, but they also can cause skin irritations if you happen to brush against them.

Irritating as they may be, nettles are an integral part of your garden’s ecosystem. If you have room to leave a few nettles you’ll likely attract a colourful cornucopia of insect species from butterflies right through to caterpillars and ladybirds who eat the aphids that shelter on them.

What’s more, nettles are a good indicator of soil health. Nettle leaves are rich in nitrogen and potassium which is a strong sign the soil is healthy and fertile.

Although nettle tea might not sound appetising, it’s worth considering adding nettles to your diet. Nettle leaves are bursting with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and can be used to treat ailments and illnesses such as ​​eczema, arthritis and muscle pain.

Weeds: Friends or Foe?
Ivy – By Madison Inouye on Pexels

Ivy (Hedera helix)

How to identify:

  • Evergreen, glossy oval leaves with light veins
  • Produce yellow-green flowers between September and November
  • Fruits ripen between November and January

Ivy is often branded as a pernicious and parasitic weed that can bring down trees and buildings. However, a study by Oxford University found ivy can be a fundamental asset to a building’s structure from moderating extreme temperatures to trapping pollution particles and improving air quality.

Look closely at a wall of ivy during the summer months and you’ll notice a bustling ecosystem within. Ivy produces a plethora of berries, nectar and pollen that wildlife fiercely depend on. Woodpigeons, thrushes and blackbirds thrive on the berries while bees, wasps and rare golden hoverflies gather nectar ready for the winter months.

Couch Grass (Elymus repens)

How to identify:

  • Tuft-like grass
  • Flat green blades and dense roots
  • Found on cultivated ground, wasteland and verges
  • Grows in spring and autumn

Couch grass, or twitch grass, has historically been a gardener’s worst enemy. All-consuming by nature, couch grass will happily drain all soil nutrients causing other delicate plants to quickly perish.

Although ruthless in the flowerbed, couch grass has long been viewed as a medicinal marvel and is used to treat high blood pressure, kidney infections, fevers and water retention. Plus, couch grass can provide food for a variety of butterfly species.

Dock leaf (Rumex obtusifolius)

How to identify:

  • Large green spearhead-shaped leaves
  • Curled docks have leaves with curled edges
  • Found in green and grassy areas
  • Grows throughout spring and summer

Widely known as a remedy for nettle stings, dock leaves are unrelenting and can grow almost anywhere from waste ground to water verges. While dock leaves can cause problems for livestock grazing, they provide food for hundreds of wildlife such as ladybirds, weevils and beetles. If kept under control, dock leaves are a vital addition to any garden ecosystem!

Weeds: Friends or Foe?
Ground Elder – By Sora Photography on Pexels

Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria)

How to identify:

  • Triangular green leaves, similar in shape to elder tree leaves
  • Can reach a meter in height flowering white blooms in spring and summer
  • Grows May – July

Ground elder is often a loathsome sight for gardeners. Due to the underground stems growing horizontally, it can be notoriously difficult to control. But if you’re willing to give these tricky perennials a chance, you’ll attract a brilliant buzz of wildlife to your garden.

Likely introduced by the Ancient Romans, ground elder was traditionally used for herbal medicine and culinary purposes.

Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

How to identify:

  • Tall growing plant with flowering yellow clusters and jagged green leaves
  • Found in pony paddocks, waysides and wasteland
  • Grows mid-June – November

Common ragwort is a vastly misunderstood flora. It’s a powerful plant that provides an abundance of food for the likes of bees, moths and birds.

Unrelenting hysteria from the upper echelons of society has branded ragwort as a heretic which led to the mass genocide of this important daisy-like biennial.

Why? Well, ragwort contains poisonous properties which means it poses a risk to horses and other livestock. However, horses are astute creatures and generally avoid ragwort. They tend to eat it only if there’s nothing else in the paddock or it’s been accidentally mixed in with hay.

Weeds: Friends or Foe?
Chickweed flowers – By Imad Clicks on Pexels


How to identify:

  • Green oval leaves with tiny white flower heads
  • Often grows in large patches on a tangled mat
  • Grows January – early March

Chickweed is a good indicator of soil fertility. It can adapt to many conditions so it’s a dominant and widespread plant. But this means chickweed can quickly overtake a garden if not maintained properly.

However, many insects and birds rely on chickweed as a source of food. Chickweed contains high levels of vitamin C and is used to treat muscle pain, skin irritations and stomach problems. It’s also great to cook with!

Edible Weeds

Here are some ideas of how you can use weeds as part of a healthy diet!

  • Dandelions: Wine, salads, sandwiches, stir-fries or other vegetable dishes.
  • Nettles: Soups and tea.
  • Chickweed: Meat seasoning, salad dressing and coffee alternatives.
  • Goosegrass: Vegetable dishes, soups and stews.
  • Ground elder: Soups, baked goods, stir-fries.

Weeds: The Bottom Line

Too often weeds are sacrificed under the lawnmower’s blade.

While it’s important to maintain some control over weeds, we must learn to love them too.

As human beings, we’ve become obsessed with colonising nature. It’s time to change our approach and revise the narrative.

Everything is connected and weeds are an essential part of our thriving ecosystem.

It’s time to say goodbye to obsessive clinical gardens and hello to wild and wonderful nature.