THE FIRST chore I usually give to new volunteers at Lea Gardens is a spot of hand weeding.
It’s somewhat nerve-racking for the individuals, especially for those who’ve never done any weeding before, as I usually hover nearby to watch how they tackle the job.
Having, in the past, lost many precious seedlings to overzealous weeders and tidiers, including a whole pan of young martagon lilies, mistaken for “broad-leaved grass”, this is nerve-racking for me also.
Before I launch into the subject, allow me to stress, once again, the importance of mulching. A wide range of materials can be used, milled peat for moisture and acid lovers, grit or shingle for alpines, bark for shrubs and trees, and grass clipping for vegetables. None will suppress weeds completely, but any that manage to push up through these mulches is easily dealt with.
Some novices have a natural ability, while others hack, pull and tear away aimlessly. The advice I give the latter may also be useful to those of my readers who find weeding a frustrating and thankless task. It doesn’t have to be like that. Only a very few weeds respond to a simple pulling up action: bitter cress, groundsel, and pineapple weed, and in my garden, foxglove seedlings.
Almost anything else, with the exception of a few annual grasses, needs to be – not exactly dug up – but dislodged with a tool. Chickweed, when grown in rich soil, can form huge mats, and trying to tear them up is a pointless exercise. Go to the centre of the plant, search for its crown, then sever it from its flimsy roots with a stab of your trowel, just below the soil surface. What seemed to be an impossible tangle will unravel miraculously before your eyes.
Creeping buttercup is a pain in the neck, and I pity the gardener who has to battle it. If you have a large patch of this weed, approach it systematically. Mark off a small area with some sticks and string, or a few stones, then make yourself comfortable.
Sit, kneel, or lie on your side and start digging – not with a spade. That is far too back breaking. Use a sharp trowel, held at a shallow angle, and start to work your way into the soil and underneath the creeping roots. You’ll be amazed how quickly you progress and your reward will be a nice patch of perfectly clean soil, ready for planting.
During dry and windy weather you can leave the plants lying for a few days, and when they’re truly dead and shrivelled, you can compost them. Live ones are best burnt or binned. I’ll return to the subject of creeping buttercup later on.
Awkward patches of grass can be dealt with in a similar way. Push your trowel horizontally underneath the grass so it severs the top growth from the root. If you meet any resistance you’ve come upon a creeping grass that needs to be dug out from a deeper level, making sure you follow up and remove all those white, subterranean shoots.
Creeping or sheeps’ sorrel can be limed into oblivion, but that isn’t a solution for those areas of your garden where an acidic soil is essential for the growing of heathers, rhododendrons, and other calcifuges. It’s one of those cursed plants capable of growing new plantlets from scraps of root left in the ground. Loosen the soil some distance from the plant, then work your way in towards the crown, making sure you leave nothing behind. A small hand fork is ideal for this job.
Deep-rooted weeds, such as dockens, hawksbit, and dandelions are the only ones you need to use a spade for, making sure to remove the entire root system.
Weeds on the verge of dispersing their seeds should always be at the top of the gardener’s priority list for obvious reasons. Trying to dig or pull them up often compounds the problem, as the action usually triggers what we want to avoid at all costs: the dispersal of the seed.
Poppies, polemoniums and columbines might not strike you as weeds, but please bear in mind the definition that a weed is a plant in the wrong place. These are best dealt with by carefully snipping off their seed pods with a pair of sharp scissors, then placing them straight away into a bag or bucket.
Wear rubber gloves to tackle the downy or fluffy seeds of dandelions, thistles and willow herbs. Grab the seed head firmly with one hand then, using both hands, crush and mush it until the fine fibres are broken and can be rolled into a harmless ball. Dispose of them into a bag or bucket.
From now on it gets a little more complicated, as we start to deal with weeds that have a knack of seeding themselves or creeping into the crowns of other plants. Most trowels, even narrow, sharply pointed fern trowels, are useless for this job. Get yourself a proper garden knife, the kind that has a short, broad, but sharply pointed blade. Failing that, a sturdy vegetable knife from your kitchen will do.
If you’re dealing with the dreaded creeping buttercup, trace the runners back to the largest, most prominent one, more often than not growing right inside the centre of a desirable plant. Extract it as best you can, and more often than not, the runners, not yet securely attached, will come up with it. This works well in my garden where one of the nightmare scenarios is creeping buttercup among other creeping ground cover such as Lysimachia nummularia (creeping Jenny).
Surface-creeping grasses can be dealt with in much the same way, but when it comes to real thugs, such as couch grass, more drastic measures are called for. Dislodge as much of it as you can from among your plants, using a sharp knife, then mark the affected plants with large labels.
Dig them up when they go dormant in autumn. Shake off any loose soil then set to teasing out every bit of couch root you can trace – you’ll be amazed how much you’ll find. Thoroughly fork over the ground, removing every scrap of this dreadful grass, then repeat the exercise the following year.
Pot the plants you’ve lifted into suitable containers, and keep them under observation for at least a year, preferably two. You could use them as a portable garden, artistically arranged wherever there is need for adornment. If no more grass shows up after that, it’s safe to replant in a border. The same procedure is recommended for ground elder and hemp nettle.
So far we haven’t used any weed killers, and I’ve yet to come across one that satisfactorily tackles couch grass. Glyphosate, often sold as “Roundup”, works quite well on ground elder and to a lesser extent on hemp nettle. Use it only as a last resort, in places where hand weeding is out of the question, or to spot treat any re-growth.
As always, prevention is better than cure. Think carefully before introducing new plants to your garden. Find out what their habits are and be cautious about any that reproduce by runners, both above and below ground, and those with a free-seeding habit.
Also beware of Trojan horses. The most innocent looking plant can harbour future disasters. Both hemp nettle and ground elder arrived in my garden as stowaways, completely invisible, hidden in the large root balls of plants I received as gifts from other Shetland gardens.
Such gifts are still very welcome, but nowadays I cut the plants back to stumps and wash their roots, teasing out any that look the least bit suspicious, i.e. different from that of the plant in question. . Prunella vulgaris (self-heal) is a handsome Shetland native with numerous spikes of showy violet-purple flowers in July. All too soon those flowers metamorphose into hop-like seed heads, capable of dispersing millions of seeds.
This plant, highly tolerant of a wide range of conditions, seemed the ideal crevice dweller to clothe the spaces between the stone flags of The Temple Terrace. It filled the paving cracks in no time, looked ravishingly pretty for a few weeks each summer, less so afterwards, then proceeded to colonise all the surrounding beds with its progeny. Dislodging it from the crowns of the beds’ rightful inhabitants took me the best of a day and as far as I’m concerned, from now on the only good Prunella in my garden is a Prunella on the compost heap.
While I pull up truck-loads of unwanted foxgloves in my garden every year, a friend enthused about hers the other day. At last they’d found a foothold in her garden; they’re setting seed and are well on the path to becoming permanent fixtures.
Some Lea Gardens visitors leave with a time bomb in their pockets – Welsh poppy or Jacob’s ladder seed. Good luck to them. One woman’s weed is another woman’s orchid.
Perhaps this should be one man’s weed is another man’s orchid. The other day I received a phone call from one of my male readers who assured me that my estimated 10 per cent male readership was way off the mark. He assured me the percentage was at least twice that, and rising. I shall experiment with more masculine slants in the near future.