How to Manage Weeds
How to Manage Weeds
by Barney Bardsley
First, let’s be romantic. There is nothing more English, soothing and nostalgic to me, than a little railway station somewhere in the back of beyond. Its rusted sidings peppered with gravel and wild flowers. Hedgerows thick with rosebay willow-herb, the white bells of convolvulus, and the spiky arms of blackberry brambles. Smothered in late summer flowers – its sweet dark fruit a promise soon to follow. Dreamy.
Yet everything I describe here is a weed. Put in a different setting, in your garden, for example, then each pretty player is pernicious and invasive.
So now let’s be realistic. When I got my first small garden – and went about everything with the fanatical zeal of the new convert, two things haunted me. Slugs. And weeds. The weeds would jump in with opportunistic greed to cover every patch of ground I cleared. Instantly. The slugs, meanwhile, lay in wait at every damp, dark corner of the garden, like hooded, pasty youths with nothing but trouble in mind. Each new plug plant I put out, each carefully nurtured, tender sapling – got gobbled up in one enormous mouthful. With a self-satisfied, almost audible SLU-URP!
“Cultivate your outdoor space”
Pests and predators in the plant and animal world brought out the killer in me. I strimmed, hacked and gouged at any unwanted greenery, trod on snails with the heel of my fascist boot; drowned, poured salt on – and hurled all manner of sluggery into oblivion. I will not go to heaven. I’m simply obsessed – I dreamed about slugs night after night, and devised ever more cunning plots to annihilate them. I never succeeded.
Fifteen years on, I am – I’m pleased to report – a much nicer individual: in this regard, at least. Or maybe I just got tired. The garden I tend now is unruly – my allotment – and wonderfully wild. Apart from the occasional blitz with strimmer or lawnmower – it’s live and let live. The trick, it seems to me, to cultivating your outdoor space with the calmest of karmas, is – to steal gardener Monty Don’s glorious phrase – “inspired acceptance” of the thugs that inevitably arrive, to snuggle down next to your beautiful flowers and juiciest veg.
“Know how to survive”
Crowd your garden borders with shrubs, small trees and sturdy specimens built to thrive in this climate: leave no space for the weeds and they will stay away. More or less. And if you don’t mind a bit of bindweed in among your allotment strawberries, you’ll still get fruit – and you’ll still get pleasure. As for slugs, well… I have learned never to grow hostas; and I wait until the stems on my vegetable plants are so thick and strong before putting them in the ground, that only the most determined assailant would take them on. And if they do – good luck to them.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And if you are a laid-back kind of a gardener like me, then it is. But some kind of order has to be kept, it’s true. Simple strategies exist, to keep some of the chaos at bay. Sadly, most of them involve spadework. First, let’s know the nature of the beast. The worst kind of weeds are perennial. They know how to survive in the toughest of terrains – cracks in the city pavement, on rubbish tips and railway tracks. So they are bound to romp away, given the chance, in the lovely soft soil of your garden.
“Risk of cross-contamination”
Get in there quick, if you can, and dig, dig, dig out the roots. Dock, dandelion, nettle and couchgrass. All of them go down deep and hold on fast. As for bindweed, which will cheerfully choke your precious produce to death, by wrapping itself tighter and tighter around any available stem, it has roots which can go as deep as sixteen feet! You will never win this battle. Just keep rooting it out, little by little. And never say die.
The less saintly among gardeners might resort to Glyphosate, a weedkiller which is sprayed onto leaves, and is then absorbed into the root system, shutting off the plant’s access to nourishment. The trouble with Glyphosate (apart from its disgusting smell) is the risk of cross-contamination – killing off the good, along with the bad. So you need to be very specific in your spraying – and never do it when it’s windy or rainy.
Annual weeds – like groundsel, chickweed and the wonderfully-named fat hen – are less of a problem. Hoick them out with hoe or hand trowel, and get to them before they set seed – or you’ll have hundreds more popping up the following year. Isn’t nature wonderful?
“Don’t be too purist”
As for my three least favourite pests – slugs, greenfly and caterpillars – natural predation is obviously best, but is no quick fix. Encourage song thrushes and hedgehogs, with logs underfoot and perching places above, and they should eat the slugs. Ladybirds, wasps and hoverflies will munch the greenfly. Pick off the caterpillars by hand: throw them to the birds. Otherwise, here is the cheat’s way out… spray the greenfly with diluted washing up liquid (preferably Ecover because it is less toxic to the plant.) Dust your cabbages and broccoli with Derris Powder (it’s organic) to see off the caterpillars. And use the newer brands of user-friendly slug pellets, which are based on Ferric Phosphate, and are less toxic to birds and pets.
Finally – feed your soil. Healthy ground. Healthy plants. Less chance for the weeds to sneak in and take over. Make lots of garden compost to enrich the earth – and put a good thick mulch, between two and four inches deep, on the top. Your flowers will flourish and the pests will be smothered out of existence. In the meantime, don’t be too purist. Daisies, buttercups and four leaf clover – enjoy the wild flowers that sneak their way onto the lawns and into the borders and under the concrete. Unintentional, casual beauty is surely the very best sort?
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray