(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 10, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Goldenrod, Ironweed, Dutch Clover, Sumac and Ditch Lilies. These are names that are associated with plants that are undesirable. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these so-called weeds are welcome in my gardens.
I tend to take a less formal approach to my gardens. There are no measured military rows of annuals standing at attention here. An unorganized jumble of whatever feels right is my only garden plan.
Weeds endure whatever weather throws at them They survive winters without a flinch. Drought doesn't faze them, and flooding merely slows them down a bit. Over thousands of years they have flourished, and basked in the extreme conditions that make their more cultured cousins shrivel and die.
So many of these weeds are the essential elements of survival to a great number of insects. Often, they are host plants for butterflies to lay their eggs on, and the resulting caterpillars eat for food. Many times there is a limited variety of plants that a caterpillar species can eat. Without these specific weeds, that butterfly becomes endangered.
Late February and early March finds me searching for the first signs of Spring. Most gardeners never notice these first few blossoms. As winter struggles to hang on, Chickweed and Bittercress are usually the first to appear here in western KY. They are tiny little blossoms that will go un-noticed by the casual observer, and while I'm not overjoyed at seeing them in my flowerbeds and vegetable garden, they do draw a smile on those last dreary days of winter. There will be time enough to become frustrated by their enthusiastic reproduction when it becomes warmer.
Spring brings the arrival of Dutch Clover. People who love perfect lawns despise it. They spend untold hours and money trying to banish it from their flawless green carpets. However, I have a yard, not a lawn, and the clover is a cheery sprinkle of white that I happen to enjoy. The honeybees enjoy it too They stay busy going from one bloom to the next, and anything that will benefit the lives of honeybees is welcome in my book. They are in such a decline that any plants that they use should be encouraged.
Summer is an explosion of Ox-eye daisies, and Ditch Lilies. All of these have been considered weeds at some point, and depending on what part of the world one is from, they can be labeled invasive and harmful to crops. Left on their own in this area, they simply create a slight nuisance to farmers, but nothing serious.
Autumn is when weeds shine best. Roadsides are ablaze with Sumac and Poison Ivy. Ageratum and Goldenrod grow in drifts. The colors are bright and cheerful late in the summer when everything else is gasping and struggling to survive. Gardeners banish goldenrod like it is nuclear waste, thinking that it is responsible for allergies and hay fever. Goldenrod pollen is not even airborne. It is the pollen of Ragweed that is responsible for the sneezing and itchy eyes. Goldenrod gets blamed and shunned from the garden, and it is simply an innocent bystander.
Purple Ironweed and Downy Asters are like jewels shining in fields and fencerows. Each clump adorned with the extra embellishment of butterflies fluttering atop the bright blooms. Only the arrival of frost will dull this tapestry.
There may be parts of the country where these plants are cultivated with much love and care. But here in west KY, they are simply pasture weeds that cattle refuse to eat. It's all a matter of perspective, and some plants, like Poison Ivy may be best when enjoyed from afar.
With just a little research, local weeds can be tamed and taught to play nicely among their more well-bred cousins. Planted in the back of a border, the taller wild selections can be quite stunning mixed in with commercial plant material. The added benefit of attracting butterflies, hummingbirds, and nectar drinking moths is just icing on the cake. Give some of your local pasture weeds a chance in your garden. They are pretty much kill-proof, and give a lovely show for very little work. If you live in a rural area with pastures and fencerows, then, these are also free plants. Most property owners will be more than happy to allow you to collect seeds. Just be sure to ask permission first.