Was Buying a House Called ‘Brambles’ an Omen? (Part Two)
There is a famous quote by Thomas Fuller (English Churchman and historian) that goes “No garden is without its weeds”. Well, Mr Fuller was a very wise man and had he not been dead nigh on 350 years I would swear that he had in fact taken a visit to my little patch of England in order to be inspired to utter the quote. Perhaps I am being too literal and Mr Fuller had other more poetic meanings. But when it comes to the subject of weeds dear reader I am inclined to become somewhat dogmatic and obdurate!
For it seems that buying a house called ‘Brambles’ was indeed an omen of the weekly skirmishes I do in order to keep my garden as a garden and not revert to ‘agricultural field’. As I strap on my gardening boots I often feel that I am out to do battle with serried ranks of the SAS/Navy Seal weed equivalents. Actually, on reflection, those weeds out there don’t ‘serry’ – they positively maraud like drunken teenagers having an illicit house-party whilst Mum and Dad are away! And like the shocked and betrayed parents returning home I, upon my first foray out into the garden after my working week, am horrified at the progress those nasties can make. I reckon I suffer from all of the weed biodiversity that Mother Nature can throw at me, but the worst of them are of course the perennial bunch who hope to get their roots down and do some serious squatting! So let’s name some of the culprits
Bindweed (the Hedge variety) or Calystegia sepium to give it its posh Latin name is surely the most dreaded of them all? Beautiful in hedgerows where its white spiralled trumpets can look most elegant, but in an herbaceous border it has to be the most unwelcome guest ever since Jimmy Carr was booked to compere the tax inspectors annual dinner dance.
Docks (the broad leaf variety mostly) or Rumex obtusifolius are regulars callers and this is thanks in no small part to the fact that my garden was surrounded by fallow agricultural fields that have now been colonised as horse paddocks. A key feature, and the twang of irony is not lost on me, is that dock seedlings are actually considered to be poor competitors and can only establish in open or disturbed patches in standing vegetation. Meaning that they are therefore very grateful for my newly dug over border soil! Another interesting fact is that a mature dock plant can produce up to 60,000 ripe seeds per year each of which is capable of surviving up to 50 years in undisturbed sites whilst they wait for right conditions for germination. This is because the seeds have a chemical in them that inhibit microbial decay. Well if that isn’t a reason to go forth with border fork I don’t know what is – watch out for the multiple long tap roots which make removing them for good rather hard.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) go hand in hand with the Docks discussed above and are meant to be a good indicator of excellent soil. Trouble is they crowd out the plants that I do want the soil to nurture! They are clever though – that sting is caused by the plant having many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on its leaves and stems. These act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce the stinging sensation when one is stupid enough to roll one’s shirt sleves up! I do allow a fair sized patch of nettles to grow at the ‘compost bin’ end of the garden as I am mindful of the excellent benefit to wildlife they have. But in the border they are pulled up and dug out on a regular basis and make an excellent addition to the compost heap. Nettles also have the benefit of being easily identifiable to the husband – so I can always rely upon him to weed out nettles.
Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens) – given that the ‘lawn’ is in most parts almost entirely made up of creeping buttercup it is no big surprise that I find a lot of this in the borders too! It can be so pretty when it clumps up and has beautiful yellow flowers that combine well with forget-me-not blue. But just like the “Cat in the Hat” of Dr Zeus’s fame – this plant just doesn’t know when to stop! It cannot be contained and will spread across a whole border if permitted. Don’t go thinking that a two week holiday in Cornwall will be a nice break and expect to come home to well behaved borders if you have this in your garden. It’s a tough critter – it can withstand trampling and compaction and is common in gateways and on paths and untroubled by the hoof falls of cattle or sheep. It can tolerate both waterlogging and a moderate drought – so frankly 2012 must have been a perfect year for this plant. Apparently wood pigeons and rabbits can play some part in controlling this weed – I must remember that when I next see a pigeon eating my cabbage seedlings and Peter Rabbit munching upon the just planted out delphiniums!
Creeping Thistles (Cirsium arvense) – everyone knows about the thistle’s deep tap root and how hard it is to get rid of these weeds because any tiny little bit of root left in the ground is capable of regenerating into a new plant. What I didn’t appreciate until fairly recently is that creeping thistles use lateral roots to increase their spread. These lateral roots have buds at intervals along the root which will go on to create more tap roots and new plants. The flowers are loved by insects for their nectar – but it is a plant with a fiercely competitive spirit and will vie viciously with any neighbour for light, air, water and food. Hook them out as soon as you spot them in the borders – the younger they are the easier this is. As with Nettles, this is an easy weed for the husband to spot and so with his help we can often manage to keep on top of this invader.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) – its name derives from the French “dent-de-lion”, meaning “lion’s tooth” and reflects the deeply cut leaves. It is a member of the daisy family and frankly a favourite with my children who love blowing on the dandelion ‘clocks’ (the seed heads) despite my strangled pleas not to spread the seeds about in the garden! The leaves are supposed to be good for eating and apparently taste like chicory – personally, not being into foraging as perhaps the uber-zeitgeist are, I’ve never had the inkling to find out. Furthermore, the roots when eaten are supposed to have a diuretic effect and this explains the “piss-a-bed” folk name for the plant! This is another weed-friend with a long tap root making them tough to eradicate by digging alone.
Couch Grass (Elymus repens) – Ah! This one is such fun to deal with (you have by now, I hope, tuned into my cynical tone!). It’s a rapid spreading perennial grass that uses rhizomes (underground stems) to spread. This network of rhizomes quickly beefs up and becomes a tangled net mostly at the base and in and around existing shrubs or herbaceous plants, making it a difficult job to eradicate without having to disturb the other plants. The plant is self-sterile so each spreading clump is actually a clone. This makes me think of the “7 of 9” character from Star Trek and the Borg (“you will be assimilated”) – although this plant has none of the lovely attributes that “7 of 9” possessed! My approach is to dig as much out in early spring as possible to keep its attack on the garden throughout the rest of the season to the minimum.
Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) – of course! I saved the obvious to last. Yes, the house was well named by somebody who was either as obsessively annoyed by these hedgerow invaders as I am or who had decided to see in them some beauty and go with flow by naming the place after them! The reasons for the naming decision are lost in the annuls of time. Yet despite my gnashing I will admit to a certain appreciation for the Bramble’s ballet-toed stretch as it ‘assemblés’ its way through borders. The way they are able to root at the merest touch of earth shows amazing evolution and adaptability. And also, I can’t help but recall the Aesop’s Fable story of the Bramble bush versus the elegant Fir Tree. The Bramble bush was ugly and the Fir Tree was beautiful and the Fir Tree made sure that the Bramble bush knew this. But it was the Fir Tree that the woodsman cut down, whilst the Bramble bush got to live on.
And perhaps this is the point that all perennial weeds tell us – all of them have a certain beauty or usefulness. Most are indigenous to our place and as such have great value for wildlife. It is one of the valuable lessons that gardening teaches me (and one of the reasons I love it so) – that striving for a balance is the healthiest option. The standards of perfection and exactness that I strive for in my working life cannot be so easily and quickly applied with any hope of similar results! Gardening, and weeding, is therefore a lesson in how some problems just need to be worked at constantly and that there is a joy to be found in the rhythm and frequency of this. I try to avoid as many weedkiller chemicals as possible and tackle the plants by organic methods (which translates to blood, sweat and tears often). My one weakness I confess is to ‘glyphosating’ bindweed. It is because it strikes such fear into me and will never be a welcome visitor in my patch.
So in the meantime, whilst I struggle with the reality of digging up deep tap roots, cursing the nettles as they fight back at me with their stings and chanting the mantra of “these weeds are sent to test me”, I find that Gardeners’ World’s website has some fantastic advice and guidance on how to spot your enemy and prepare to serry the ranks against them.
Good luck with whatever is your most hated weed problem! Perhaps you might like to let me know and we can share battle scars together. And as I started this with a quotation, I will end with a quotation too:
“I guess a good gardener always starts as a good weeder.” – Amos Pettingill. Well said Amos, well said!