Weeds and wildlife
Weeds can help boost biodiversity in your garden – so be a little lazy and let a few weeds grow!
Tackling weeds in the garden can sometimes seem like a never-ending battle. The spring sunshine and showers that are so beneficial for our flowers, fruit and vegetables are, unfortunately, just what weeds need to thrive too. Weeds can rob other plants of light, water and nutrients – and some homegrown vegetables, such as onions, will really struggle if not kept weed-free.
Weed killer can harm wildlife so is best avoided. Annual weeds, such as fat hen or chickweed, are easily dealt with using a hoe, but this must be done before they flower and set seed – there's plenty of truth in the old saying: “one year's seed is seven years' weed”.
Hoeing isn't much use for the larger, more persistent weeds, however – taking the tops off just seems to make them grow back with increased vigour. Nettles, bramble and bindweed all have strong root systems that need to be dug out with a spade or hand trowel.
But before you head off to the tool shed, remember that not all weeds are bad news. Many weeds are good for wildlife, providing a source of food and shelter for all sorts of creatures, including birds and beneficial insects. So being a little lazy in the garden, and letting a few weeds grow, is actually a pretty good idea.
Dandelions are often not tolerated in lawns, but they are brilliant for bees. The bright yellow flowers start appearing in early spring, and continue right through to autumn, so are a readily available year-round source of nectar. Butterflies and hoverflies like them too, and goldfinches feed on the seeds.
Other lawn weeds such as daisies, buttercups and clover also attract bees, butterflies and hoverflies, so leaving a small area of your lawn uncut is a good way to help wildlife and attract vital pollinators to your patch. Long grass is an excellent habitat for nesting bumblebees too – and it won't take so long to mow the lawn, giving you more time to sit back and enjoy your garden!
Top and above: dandelions
Above: buttercups; red clover
Another great wildlife weed is the common stinging nettle. A single nettle patch can support over 40 species of insects, and the plants provide food for caterpillars so are particularly good for butterflies, especially small tortoiseshells and peacocks.
If the idea of weeds in your garden doesn't appeal, why not have a 'weedy corner', hidden from view by a trellis or screen? Allowing weeds like nettles, teasels and thistle to grow in an area like this will encourage wildlife without spoiling the look of your garden.
If you can't beat them, eat them!
It's not just wildlife that can benefit from weeds. Many weeds are edible for humans too – and some are surprisingly nutritious. So if you can't beat them, why not eat them?
Dandelions, for example, are high in anti-oxidants and act as a diuretic, flushing toxins from the system. They're rich in vitamins, calcium, potassium and iron – and are good for your bones and skin too. The young leaves and flowers can be eaten raw in salads, or make delicious dandelion fritters: dip washed flowers into a batter made from flour, egg and milk, then fry in a little sunflower oil until crispy and golden. Dust with icing sugar or drizzle with syrup to serve.
Above: bumblebee on a teasel; peacock butterfly on a thistle
Nettles are edible too, and have a similar nutritional value to spinach: they're high in iron, magnesium and calcium. But what about the sting? Fortunately, the acid that causes the nettle's sting is destroyed during the cooking process, so cooked nettles can be used as a painless substitute for spinach. Just don't eat them raw in a salad – that would hurt – and be sure to wear some thick gardening gloves when harvesting your crop. Use the young tips in the same way as spinach, blanching for a couple of minutes in boiling water then adding to risotto, quiche or soup. Or blend blanched leaves with garlic and toasted pine nuts for a tasty pesto.
Garlic mustard is another common weed, also known as Jack-by-the-hedge or sauce-alone. As the name suggests, the young, tender leaves have a mild, garlic flavour that can add extra oomph to salads. Or finely chop leaves and stir-fry in sesame oil before adding to potato salad or white sauce for an oniony zing.
Remember that whenever harvesting weeds or wild plants for the kitchen it's essential to know exactly what you are gathering – so use a guidebook to identify plants, and if in any doubt at all leave well alone. Only gather from areas where you can be sure no pesticides or herbicides have been sprayed.
Mozarella and nettle mezzaluna
Making homemade pasta from scratch is quite easy and great fun. The nettles add nutrition and give the pasta its wonderful green colour – if nettles are not available, you'll get the same effect by using spinach.
Bowlful nettle tops
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 eggs, beaten
200g plain flour
125g mozzarella, cut into small cubes
Put the nettles into a large sieve and rinse thoroughly under the cold tap, then blanch for 2 minutes in boiling water to remove the sting. Drain well, then put into a blender with the olive oil and blend until smooth.
Add the nettles to the eggs and whisk together. Sieve the flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the spinach and egg mixture a little at a time, mixing well, until a dough begins to form. If the dough feels sticky, add a little more flour.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for a few minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. Roll out to a thickness of about 2mm, and use a small flute-edged biscuit cutter to cut out circles. Brush the edges of the circles with a little water and place a cube of mozzarella in the centre of each. Fold each circle over into a half moon shape – “mezzaluna” in Italian – and press down along the edge with your finger to seal each pasta parcel.
Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and add the pasta parcels. Boil for 2-3 minutes until just tender. Drain and serve with butter or a splash of olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
Above: garlic mustard
Little Green Space May 2017