A Necessary Evil
Weeding is a major part of garden maintenance. A necessary, back-breaking endeavor and an often tedious task.
Traditional landscaping design focus on specimen plants and the clumping of species. The benefits of this approach are clear: gardens are very simple to maintain, and minimal skills in plant identification are required. However, one obvious drawback to the clumping is the resultant gaps between plantings which create the very openings weeds need to invade.
How to Avoid Weeding with Highview Creations
A newer aesthetic approach—and Highview Creations’ preference—trends toward naturalistic plantings intermixed throughout the planting plan. Aside from the integrated, ‘natural’ look, these gardens have the added benefit—if designed properly—of reducing maintenance input.
Gardens built in this fashion are naturally better at suppressing weed growth. However, plans must take into consideration spatial coverage not just over the ground, but in terms of height cross-section, and with consideration to the ways in which the garden will develop and change over time, from season to season. While the overall effort may be lower, gardens of this nature do require more skilled labor to maintain.
Here are some examples from our portfolio:
The long beds shown above, at One Duffield, incorporate a mix of ferns, Solomon Seals, grasses/sedges, heuchera, tsuga, and climbing vines.
The courtyard at 74 Maujer shows that the front bed might benefit from grasses. The middle beds would benefit from replacements for grasses and other plants that are beginning to get shaded out by larger plants.
Using Ecological Niches in Design to Minimize Weeding
Full, rich plantings that evoke lush, natural habitats are increasingly popular. When it comes to urban rooftop gardens, where space is limited, dense plantings provide valuable privacy, and the dense plantings contrast delightfully with the rigid lines of the city. An added benefit of these extremely dense plantings is that they can help to reduce weed maintenance.
Plants we don’t want in our garden are often simply responding to unfulfilled ecological niches. Most planted landscapes have fewer plants in them than would naturally occur. Picture an unmowed meadow, young woodland, or even an empty lot. When allowed to grow on their own, plants compete with each other and fill almost all the available space. In traditional gardens, it is common to space plants so far apart that there are wide swaths of bare ground in between them, which creates the perfect opening for weeds to exploit.
Seasonality, Growth, and Bloom Timing
Plants have different growth habits throughout the growing season, and therefore take up space differently at different times of the year. Some plants that particularly love hot summer weather are slow to start growing in the spring, and some of the most brilliant plants of spring completely die back by early summer. During this time, their dormancy provides an opening for weeds to get established, so plans should be made to incorporate plants that will overlap with these periods of dormancy.
In the planting shown above, in about 6 inches of green roof soil on a rooftop in Downtown Brooklyn, growth gets started in the early spring with ferns, heuchera, and Solomon’s Seal. Later, as weather warms they are joined by grasses and sedges: little bluestem, panicums, and Pennsylvania sedge. Along the back of the planting, a mix of wisteria vines and dwarf hemlock provide shade and robust shrub root systems. The plants above represent a variety of shapes and growth habits. Heuchera is broad and bushy with large thick leaves. Solomon’s Seal and the ferns are vase shaped: slender at the base with spreading tops, excellent for coming out of narrow spots to catch sunlight. And the grasses are bushy, aggressive rooters with wide bases that are great at taking up real estate on the soil surface.
The varying shapes of these plants complement each other. This bed gets weeds, of course, as almost all gardens will, but they are sporadic and few, and tend to be rather wispy and reaching for the light. No matter what their preferred growth habit might be, they face competition both below and above ground.
Below is another example of a planting that was done with good principles of ecological design.
However, gardens are never static and this planting, being a few years old, needs some tweaking based on its new environmental conditions. This is also an example of how weeds can best be defined simply as ‘plants in the wrong space’. Some of the more aggressive plants we use in our gardens can become ‘weedy’ by spreading out of their intended boundaries, usually through reseeding and/or rhizome activity.
Good Plants and Bad Plants
‘Indeed, as I learned, there were on the planet where the little prince lived—as one all planets—good plants and bad plants. In consequence, there were good seeds from good plants, and bad seeds from bad plants. But seeds are invisible. They sleep deep in the heart of the earth’s darkness, until some one among them is seized with the desire to awaken. Then this little seed will stretch itself and begin—timidly at first—to push a charming little sprig inoffensively upward toward the sun. If it is only a sprout of radish or the sprig of a rose-bush, one would let it grow wherever it might wish. But when it is a bad plant, one must destroy it as soon as possible, the very first instant that one recognizes it.’
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
While the colloquial term ‘weed’ really denotes a plant we just never want to see in our garden, we tend to label these tweeners or otherwise desirable plants when behaved, as ‘volunteers’. However, in most cases we need to treat them—weeds and volunteers alike—the same to ensure we maintain the desired look, density, diversity, and function of our garden. Most often, this means simply removing and discarding the offending plant, but sometimes volunteers can be redeployed to other parts of the garden where they can help fill in gaps or fill a void left behind by a recently removed actual ‘weed’!
Pulling weeds disturbs soil and further encourages weed growth. The best, or, rather, our preferred, strategy for weed suppression is to plant them out of existence in the first place!