Kate Wall is a Gardener of Weeds
Kate Wall is a gardening consultant, environmental scientist and passionate advocate of sustainable gardening. Her Brisbane garden is a place where common plants are celebrated and weeds are welcome. Tomatoes grow among chickweed and brassicas are neighbours with soursob. Insects and bugs have free reign.
“A garden is an extension of ourselves. I have a very messy personality, so I have a messy garden. In a messy garden you’re creating your own ecosystem. It’s not tightly controlled, so you can’t be sure what you’re going to find when you go out there.”
One of Kate’s most popular workshops educates people about the uses and benefits of weeds.
Gardening is so much more fun when weeds are no longer your enemy. I really want to change people’s attitudes to these plants, because they’re valuable and they have so much to teach us,” she says.
Kate has been living in her house in a riverside suburb of Brisbane for 20 years. There were only two lilly pillies in the back yard when she arrived. Today it hosts a wonderful array of plants, taking up every inch of space, in a perfectly imperfect way. There is so much to look at – nasturtiums barrel out onto pathways, succulents sit contentedly in pots with geraniums and native trees mix with grasses, tropical flowers and herbs. Fruit trees are planted in car tyres, and old gates and furniture create borders and spots to sit amongst the greenery.
Over the years Kate has made her garden from shared cuttings, propagating plants and by sourcing additions in sustainable ways. Her philosophy is to work with what you have, to ‘bloom where you are planted’, and to embrace the here and now. “Work out what you have and make the most of it. Focus on the positives,” says Kate.
Propagation is one of her loves. “There was a time when everyone used to swap cuttings in the garden. These days, everyone goes to Bunnings. What we need to do is get back to understanding how to propagate. Buying every plant to fill a garden from a nursery is cost prohibitive and it puts people off. I want to make life easy for people.”
So how do you fill up a garden in a sustainable, thoughtful way? “Buy a few feature plants, learn to propagate, share with your friends and neighbours, go to markets and roadside stalls. The advantage of doing that, is that you’re far more likely to source a local plant that’s going to grow in your garden.”
Gardening has been part of Kate’s life since she was a child. “I was seven when I had my first plot, and I was in heaven. I took it very seriously.” She studied environmental science at university which she says has had a huge influence on the way she gardens today. “It was very ecology focused. It’s amazing how much of what I learned is used in my sustainable gardening workshops.”
For a long time, gardening was just a hobby for Kate. But in 2011, Brisbane experienced significant flooding, which greatly affected the area Kate lives in. At the time, she was working in the water industry and found herself without work. “I had time, a small child, and the one thing I knew was gardening.”
Kate noticed a garden on her street and how it had been inundated by the floods. “No one ever came back to this garden after the floods. I thought to myself, if I could go in there, I could save the garden.”
She started a volunteer group and went from garden to garden, giving people advice and helping them clean up. They took donations of plants, tools, mulch, and the group visited about 150 gardens in six months. “I saw how gardening can be therapy. I could see the difference it was making with people.”
That experience led Kate to the business she runs today doing garden consultations and running workshops on sustainable gardening.
Kate shares her extensive knowledge about weeds in her workshops and weed feasts where she shows a group how to create a meal out of weeds, which they enjoy together afterwards.
She believes weeds are an untapped resource that we should be using, not only to feed us and for medicinal purposes, but also to help us be better gardeners.
By understanding our weeds, we understand the conditions in our gardens. Then we can adjust them to our advantage.”
“Weeds stop erosion by holding the soil in place. They keep it cooler and more alive, protecting the microflora in the soil. Also, weed flowers create important habitat corridors to allow insects to move from one garden to another.”
At her weed workshop, Kate passes around different types of weeds, such as chickweed, peppercress, green amaranth, plantain and others, talking about their many uses.
She encourages the group to make a daisy chain out of clover flowers and shows how to make bullets out of plantain seed heads, evoking childhood memories for many of us.
She hopes her workshops not only open people’s eyes to the benefits of using weeds, but to change attitudes. “If we look at an important food source, like tomatoes, as a weed, it shifts our focus on defining a weed, and suggests to us that a weed can be something we value. As soon as we do that, our perspective on gardening shifts.”
Kate is a dedicated educator with a clear mission – to raise awareness of sustainable practices in the garden, including a sensible approach to weeds.
“Instead of walking out in to the garden and seeing problems, I want people to see solutions,” she says.
Kate’s top five weeds:
Cobbler’s Pegs: my favourite eating weed. A great way to improve soil. Good eating, it’s one of my best micro greens.
Plantain: It’s nickname is white men’s footsteps, because it grows where people walk. Plantain is one of nature’s band aids – it is useful in treating cuts and wounds. It is also a very good respiratory supporting herb.
Blackberry nightshade: a great decoy plant. Insects will often go for the weeds first. The 28-spotted ladybird likes this weed and the ripe black berries are a delicious snack.
Sow thistle: Very good for you. Highly nutritious as it is high in minerals and vitamins, good for pesto, curries and stews.
Chickweed: High in vitamin c and other vitamins and minerals. Good for many health issues including skin conditions and strengthening blood vessels. Use it in salads, pesto and on pizza.