Wild Gardens are becoming an increasingly popular trend for home gardeners. Many people are no longer interested in the traditional lawn surrounded by exotic shrubs, with over 1/3 of U.S. gardeners stating that they buy plants to benefit wildlife and over 25% are buying native plants, according to a 2022 survey by the National Gardening Association. The "No Mow May" campaign to encourage homeowners to leave their lawns unmowed to become a wildflower meadow to benefit pollinators has seen huge participation in the UK where the campaign was launched by Plantlife in 2019. In this year's Chelsea Flower Show, garden showcases featuring wildflowers, native plants and a more natural planting scheme were the main attraction.
I watched some of the daily TV shows for the Chelsea Flower Show and noticed the more senior correspondents referring to these wildflowers and native plants as "weeds". This seemed a bit negative, as though they are not considering such plants to be worthy of cultivation in a managed garden. After the show ended, there has been a lot of discussion about whether wild gardens are really gardens or just people "letting it go" and not making any effort to manage the garden. Celebrity gardeners Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don were both on record describing wild gardens as "puritanical nonsense" and not real gardening, as simply letting a piece of your land grow wild requires no real work as a gardener.
As a Garden Designer that specializes in using native plants to create more natural looking gardens, I feel stuck in the middle of this argument. A wild garden in many places is not going to happen naturally, in fact it requires substantial effort in most cases. Where I currently live in California, any empty plot of land that is left for nature to take over will quickly be crowded with invasive non-native plants such as Cheat Grass and Black Mustard that provide little benefit to wildlife. Many of these weeds are successful in colonizing new areas because they are very fast growing and suck up water and nutrients from the ground and starve other plants. These are the real weeds, and to manage a wild garden does require you to prevent these from taking over your garden. If you don't manage these, then you have a garden full of invasive exotic plants. A wildflower or native plant that was planted or encouraged to grow from seed is not a weed.
We need a better definition of what a weed is. According to Wikipedia, a weed is generally described as "a plant considered undesirable in a particular situation, growing where it is not wanted". The term "weed" should be further defined as a plant that has a detrimental effect on your garden due to its aggressive nature and is a threat to native species. All other native plants should be addressed differently. Currently they are labeled as "beneficial weeds" which given the above definitions seems like an oxymoron. In the context of a California Garden, I consider Algerian Ivy as a weed because it is not native and can invade into other planted areas, quickly taking over other plants and even cause damage to nearby structures, yet is commonly found in plant nurseries and planted in residential gardens. I find it laughable that Algerian Ivy can be tolerated, yet some people will get cited for replacing their turf lawn with a yarrow lawn, even if is kept tidy and mowed short. A yarrow lawn does no harm to the local ecosystem, but it is a change from the norm that conservatively minded folks have a hard time accepting. People have been conditioned to think that certain plants are weeds, regardless of context and will always see a garden containing such plants as unattractive, the same way I see a California garden that contains Algerian Ivy. Save the name "weed" for the truly undesirable plants like kudzu or Japanese Knotweed that can wreak havoc outside their natural range.
Cultivating a wild garden is not "letting the weeds grow", instead it is the process of nurturing a native garden that mimics natural conditions. I think a lot of the negative feedback about wild gardens is a misunderstanding of the work required to create these. Most homes built in the last 100 years or so will have soil that is not like the native soil of the region. Newer homes will have heavily compacted soil that needs conditioning by amending the soil or using a permaculture method such as sheet mulching. Even some older homes suffer from excessive soil compaction where it has been covered by lawn for decades. The site preparation for a wild garden can be more effort than needed for installing a lawn.
A native wildflower garden will need to be cleaned out to removed dried flower stalks after the blooming season is over, and native groundcovers used for lawns still benefit from occasional mowing or deadheading for vigorous growth. While it may look wild and unkempt to an outsider, native gardens do require a lot of work to maintain. Titchmarsh's argument against wild gardens contained this statement: "Gardening is about growing things, sowing seeds, taking cuttings and beautifying our little bit of earth to feed us body and soul", which can be as equally applied to a wild garden that has been cultivated in an urban garden. While I think the pushback against wild gardens is mostly a resistance to change, there is a valid point being made here. A "wild garden" still requires stewardship and can still provide the same sense of fulfillment in nurturing the plant life as much as a traditional garden with a neatly manicured lawn and topiary hedges. Anyone that creates a wild garden by simply letting nature take it's course is not gardening, however traditionalists need to recognize the significant effort required to manage a cultivated wild garden. We need to meet in the middle here.
What do you think? Is a wild garden a real garden or just puritanical nonsense? Let us know in the comments.