Friday, 30 June 2017

To Weed or Not to Weed...? by the Fairweather Gardener

When approaching the gardener’s eternal task of weeding the first question is, what is a weed?  The simple answer is, a plant in the wrong place. Nettles are great wildlife habitats under hedges and on road verges, but do they belong in a strawberry bed? Probably not, although I’ve been known to let a few flourish between my tough old blackcurrant bushes and the big leylandii hedge. Grubbing most of the nettle roots out every autumn stopped them spreading.

Campanula on the steps
That leylandii hedge was another matter. I didn’t plant it, I didn’t like it, I definitely didn’t want to have to trim it three times a year, though somehow it got cut. So was that a weed? To dig it out would be a massive project and the wildlife loved it. Sparrows and wrens and spiders nested, so it served a purpose. I partly screened it behind a pear tree and a hazel, do I didn’t have to look at it too much.

Now I have a newer garden, smaller and 250 miles south. Actually it’s an old and overgrown garden, though new to me. Dandelions and nettles are the least of my problems, in fact there aren’t any nettles. I spent my first season here, which was spring into summer, battling massive brambles which took over a corner by the conservatory. They were so strong they were forcing their way through the seals on the windows and into the conservatory itself. These were undoubtedly weeds! And l have discovered that there’s more than one type of bramble, my Sussex ones have very tough stems and stiff, hooked, red thorns. I needed thick clothing and even thicker, leather gloves – they still got me. They made the West Yorkshire brambles I was used to seem like wimps.

overgrown with hops
The following season – summer into autumn, I realised there was a problem even bigger than the brambles, and much harder to get rid of. Hops. Not a calm little golden hop which you can see growing along civilised little picket fences beside charming, whitewashed cottages, this was a massive thug of a tough, green, bristly hop. And don’t tell me to make beer, the hop was smothering a grape vine and I prefer wine. To begin with I couldn’t tell the difference between the hop and the grape, their leaves when young look quite similar. It’s taken me two years but I now do know.

The thuggish hop bind was also binding its way around and through a fence above a six-foot retaining wall, it was crushing a small , sorrowful apple tree, trying to demolish a huge, beautiful rambler rose and flattening everything in between. It had to go. I slashed and dragged and tugged and disentangled. I filled sack after sack and took to the tip. Hops have incredibly tough roots/rhyzomes which go everywhere just under the soil and pop up little shoots wherever you’re not looking. And if you chop then up in the soil they have no problem whatever, I’m now in my third summer of hop destroying. Give me ground elder any day – and yes I’ve got that too!

After all the battles, one of the pleasures of a new garden is watching what unexpectedly comes up. I’ve never seen red valerian before, when it sprang up in awkward places I thought it was a strange seaside weed and I didn’t even know what it was called. Gardeners World list it as a weed, however it is interesting to look at and has some lovely names - kiss-me-quick, fox's brush, devil's beard and Jupiter's beard! It seems to love dry places and I’ve encouraged it in a couple of places, especially around the stone steps at the front of the house. The other plant there was a small, dense and ferocious climbing rose with misleading little pink flowers and vicious, which had been deliberately twined around the railings and handrail – making them unusable as a support for human-kind if you valued your hands. So the strange valerian stayed, the snarky little rose has been cut down. Which was the weed?

Of course the garden has all the usual, more unassuming weeds; groundsel, bindweed, goose grass, milkweed, sow-thistle, plantain, scarlet pimpernel, buttercup etc. All easy enough to pull out of the sandy soil. Apart from the afore mentioned ground elder I'm in luck, I haven’t found the tougher stuff like docks or either of the two banes of a former garden, creeping cinquefoil and wood avens. Creeping cinquefoil is quite a cheerful little thing, looking a bit like a small strawberry plant with yellow flowers when you first see it, but don’t be fooled. Turn your back and its runners have covered half the garden and set deep taproots which have to be dug or pulled out whole or they joyfully re-sprout. Mowing only encourages them. Wood avens has similar leaves but less initial charm and sheds its sticky seeds everywhere; if you let one seed this year, you’ll have two hundred next year.
How many weeds here? Dandelion, bramble, bindweed, goose
grass, couch grass and the elephant in the garden... ground elder!

I only have a little lawn now, small enough to be kept under control with a strimmer and hand weeding. In every lawn I’ve had, I always leave a certain number of dandelions because I like them. They cheer me up especially in early spring when the grass sulks and everything around is bare. I’ve always admired their stunning yellow flowers, fluffy seeds and toothed leaves, they are beautiful plants and great for insects; they spread like weeds... They’re also quite happy growing out of the cracked concrete on the patio, no matter how often I think I’ve pulled them up.

And I positively encourage daisies in my lawn, childhood memories of collecting armfuls of these delightful little flowers may be colouring my judgement! Anyway, the only time I really tried to have a weed-free lawn, some 20 years ago, I used a product called Feed n Weed. Everything grew twice as fast, weeds and grass, so the only result was far more mowing. I don’t like mowing.

So grass is a weed too, in the flowerbeds, under the lavender and beneath the new pergola. The grass here is couch-grass which is easy to pull, some oats have sprung up and some very tall, tough grass which I think has come from some birdseed. Then there’s the pink oxalis which isn’t really wanted there, it’s another one which springs up in determined clumps all over the place and has tough roots. Then there's the purple campanula which I’ve never had in any other garden. Here it grows prettily along the edges of paths and up the steps but is not really invasive, I don’t have to weed it out. I just trim it back if it’s coming out too far and pull the top off at the end of the season. I’ve decided that’s not a weed.
the amazing alien poppy
The last new ‘weed’ I’ve found is a poppy. We have moved a small amount of soil and rubble to an area by the front of the house where we eventually want to build the ground up. It’s hidden from the road by the steps (denuded of small angry rose) and a fuchsia bush, so I don’t look at it much. But it’s visible, just, from the front window, or rather the three foot high poppy plant which unexpectedly sprouted up from the debris is. Unlike the small, jolly yellow and orange poppies with green stems and leaves which I’m used to, this giant has silvery grey foliage and produced four huge many-petalled, carnation-like flowers in a delicate shade of mauve. It must have been seeded by birds, there are no poppies elsewhere in the garden. Neighbours down the road have purple poppies in their front gardens, but none with the same many petalled form.  This amazing weed now has four huge seed-heads developing, I’ll keep the seed. I wonder if they’ll come true to type, or if they are just some kind of wonderful alien mutation.

No comments:

Post a Comment