Harnessing the power of the weed


It’s garden walk time in Western New York, where it’s hot, but not too hot to snoop around in other people’s backyards. We have three or four different garden walks in various neighborhoods/suburbs every weekend, culminating in the big Buffalo one at the end of this month.

Yesterday, I covered part of the Lockport walk, which takes place in a small city about half an hour north of me. The yards are generally much bigger than one would see in Buffalo’s urban center, many with huge, beautiful trees. One property in particular was fascinating, not only because of the well-managed plantings of various perennials (rudbeckia maxima at top) and the healthy vegetable plots. This is a truly brave gardener. She knows how to use her aggressive plants/weeds wisely.

First I noticed the houttuynia (chameleon plant) weaving through the back border of shade plants. Then I saw the variegated aegopodium podagraria (bishop’s weed) adding another color accent in the same area. Then I saw a huge stand of commelina communis (Asian dayflower) under a little sculpture.

So I asked the owner of this attractive and otherwise well-tended garden. Why use so many plants that send most of us into a frenzy of whacking, hoeing and hand-pulling? As she explained, the texture and foliage of these plants provide variety throughout the entire season, no matter what may or may not be in bloom. She controls them as best she can, keeping them just on the verge of unruliness. She didn’t plant all of them on purpose, but they’re working.

I was particularly interested in the commelina, which I eradicated from my garden very soon after moving in. But now I’m kind of sorry. Supposedly it blooms all summer and the blue flowers are pretty. There are places where the name of this plant is described, but here’s my favorite, from a Missouri plant site: the genus name is in commemoration of two Dutch botanists, Jan and Kaspar Commelin, who had a brother who died at an early age and contributed nothing to botany. The three petals of the flower represent these three brothers.

And last year I did stick some chameleon plant in the hellstrip, hoping it would successfully invade this most inhospitable area, but no luck so far.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I love the concept of the Garden Walk as opposed to the Secret Garden tours that cost $25 and up just to look at someone’s flowers. A walk (don’t know what if any cost) fosters a sense of community instead of driving around an entire town or county at your own speed.

    The TROLL

  2. Stay well away from the Commelina! I had a friend give it to me 12 years ago and I let it grow one season….and every year since I fight its seedlings in beds as far as 30 feet away. It is otherwise known as a “Common Dayflower”. Do not be enticed by the small pretty blue flowers! One of the most invasive monsters I’ve ever seen and BTW, its resistant to Roundup.

  3. I inherited a bunch of variegated bishop’s weed in my backyard and keeping it under control has not been that difficult. I do make a point of removing the flowers when they appear. It’s supposed to revert back to the non-variegated species, which they say is much harder to keep in check.

    Oh, and thanks for the warning on the commelina! I was just thinking of letting it go to see what happens.

  4. Some of my favorite plants have been volunteers. For instance, the viola flowers — one of the few edible flowers that’s worth eating — propagate themselves wildly, but they’re a nice groundcover when they’re small and are easy to pull when they crowd another plant. Every year one cucurbit volunteer manages to flourish so nicely that by the time I notice it, I can’t bring myself to pull it. This year’s is a beautiful 30-inch mound, one of the most beautiful cucurbits I’ve grown! I don’t recognize the fruits yet; maybe an acorn squash. Last year’s was mini pumpkins.

    I’ve planted comfrey, nasturtiums, and nettles on purpose. I use the comfrey stems, after they’ve bloomed, to mulch tomato plants. I eat nasturtium flowers and cut back when they invade the space of other plants — an easy plant to sculpt. I eat the nettles in early spring and usually let one or two volunteers stay for the summer (for pollinators and other beneficials), until I get tired of being stung as I brush by.

    The handful of plants that I consider weeds include bindweed, bermuda grass, ivy, vinca, privet, and euphorbias (from the little spotted spurge to the larger self-seeding ornamentals).

  5. I just pulled up a large, gangly, spreading patch of common dayflower. If mine had been that tidy, I might have left it.

  6. I dug up some Bishop’s weed from a friend’s garden and lovingly planted it in mine. when my Horticulture Daughter saw it, she nearly had a fit! “Invasive, invasive, will revert to all green” dire warnings ensued. None of that’s happened yet. I do keep it in check and use the stuff I uproot in window boxes as a “spiller” and like it .

    Now if I could get my slope covered with Queen Anne’s Lace…..

  7. I have heard of using weeds in this positive way but have never seen it put in to practice. I think it looks really nice, particularly like the Asian Dayflower. Unsure I can get my hands on these though in the UK.

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