Ah April… the days suddenly stretch out, the sun gets stronger and stronger and everywhere you look, green shoots burst forth from the rapidly-warming soil. But among the hostas, the primulas and the tulips, something sinister lurks…
Just as our precious garden plants stir into life, so unfortunately do the weeds. In the vegetable garden, so the old adage goes, only sow outdoors once the weeds have started to grow. And they’re definitely growing! Ground elder unfurls its innocent green fronds deep inside a young rosemary bush, while couch grass sneaks along the path: sometimes gardening can feel like one long battle.
So I’m gearing up for the final attack. This year will be the year I get on top of them, I promise myself. The strategy: know your enemy: divide and conquer. Basically weeds fall into two categories, which could be broadly termed brutes and opportunists:
Brutes: these are perennial weeds such as ground elder, couch grass, and horsetails. Perennial means come back year after year – and also tends to mean that bits of root left in the soil after weeding will re-grow. These tend to spread from the roots rather more than by seed.
- Opportunists: these pop up quickly to colonise any space where there’s bare soil and enough light. The very act of digging the soil is hugely encouraging for these, which include groundsel, daisies and chickweed – they can produce enormous quantities of seed and cover any bare soil very quickly.
So, the key to beating these is to know your enemy. ‘Brutes’ need more concerted action (even if you take the weedkiller option this may need doing more than once). I favour a good dig at this time of year – they will have grown enough so you can see where they are, but won’t have spread that far, yet – and then the ‘little and often’ approach to removing any regrowth that appears over the summer.
For the ‘opportunists’ the gardener has a great secret weapon: the hoe. Pick a dry, windy day and make sure your hoe is sharp. By slicing the opportunists from their roots, they will soon shrivel and die. It’s by far the quickest and easiest way to weed. The important thing is to get ahead now, and don’t let them run to seed. Half an hour spent hoeing in spring can save hours and hours of weeding in the summer.
Eat your weeds
I love the idea – munching away on the little b******s – as the ultimate form of revenge. Some weeds can be used as food both for you and the plants you do want. Nettles in particular are a rich source of nutrients; for humans they provide vitamin C and iron and make a tasty soup or risotto (and no, they don’t sting once cooked!). And for plants, (when rotted as a liquid feed in the same way as comfrey – see my previous blog on feeding plants) they are an excellent source of nitrogen and minerals. Chickweed is a tasty addition to salads, and there are many more. For a fuller guide, have a look at Food for Free, by the acclaimed author and naturalist Richard Mabey.
Or, there is another way, if you want to release your inner hippy even more: just sit back, relax and take a closer look at them; some are rather beautiful!