Spring Weeding

The sun come out, the soil warms up, and every year I am surprised by how the weeds always seem to launch into growth ahead of my preferred flowering plants…

I have spent the past three weeks weeding, whenever I have half an hour or an hour and it isn’t actually raining. Mainly just four perennial plants (it being too cold for the annuals to get going) – grass, dandelions, American willowherb and avens. Avens I unfortunately allowed to seed itself thinking it might be geum, and which now infiltrates from its base in the hawthorn hedge to wherever it can hide. The geums meanwhile seem to have given up the ghost; there were none last summer. Creeping buttercup used to be a problem, but I have only found a couple of areas this year that it has tried to cover pretending to be hardy geraniums. I am growing wise to the subtle differences there too.

I think only one plant was inadvertently weeded out this year, a phlox paniculata just emerging that looked like a Rosebay willowherb. (Had I realised immediately it could have been replanted, but unfortunately it had to wait for me to flick through a plant catalogue that arrived a week later.) I have never managed to grow tall phloxes, them being rather prone to mildew and other fungi, but like everything, try occasionally when I find a cheap plant that looks pretty in the hopes it will do better this time. Clearly it is partly my own fault I don’t have phlox!

But now I am left wondering what plants resemble grass that I need to be careful of? Dierama seedlings? Crocosmia? Hemerocallis? Luckily I don’t think the dandelions are in danger of confusion with anything else so at least I know I am safe weeding them out before they flower! However, dandelions are one plant I might just allow to grow – were it not for the fact there is usually a field full of them just over my back wall where they look stunning both in flower and later with their silvery seed clocks.

So I now have the near impossible task of filling the gaps (before they fill themselves) with other native wildflowers. Near impossible, because while I think plants such as Helleborus foetidus or Geranium robertianum or Silene dioica should be easy to obtain, they are generally eschewed at the garden centres in favour of new introductions that pay plant breeders rights and will ideally live for only a season or two, ensuring the purchaser returns to buy more plants next year. I’m sure the cottage gardeners of yesterday would have simply dug a bit up and transferred plants to their garden, or hedgewitches would simply have known where to find them locally when they were wanted. Today I must create my own garden, and that may even include importing the ‘weeds’ I want!

Garden Thoughts

I have been weeding the garden over the past couple of weeks, with winter pruning finished and everything bursting into growth, and it has proved very enjoyable, especially now that M is able to entertain herself running about and picking daisies while I work. It has also been very helpful for crystallising some of my thoughts on developing the garden.

I have mentioned before that I have some big plans for the garden, and would like to work closer with nature spirits. I have started to draw up scale plans for the changes I want to make – so that I can see which plants will be kept in current positions and which will need moving or propagating. It will hopefully save me from planting things in annoying places this year! However I have not yet made any direct contact with nature spirits, and even opportunities to try are not presenting themselves to me. This is unusual, so temporarily left me puzzled and a bit frustrated. But weeding has proved wonderful for gaining insights, and this is what I have learned.

1. I need to develop my own intent for the garden, and to carry it through.
This is particularly important for me as when I was ill, then pregnant, then with a baby, I basically asked nature to look after the garden for me. If I am to develop the garden as I want it to be, then I need to focus my will and intention – not defer it to anyone else. Nature can only then work to bring it into growth.

I am reminded of how Nature itself defines a garden, as told to Machaelle Small Wright. (Behaving as if the God in All Life Mattered.)

“A garden is any environment that is initiated by humans, given its purpose, definition and direction by humans, and maintained with the help of humans. For nature to consider something to be a garden, we must see humans actively involved in all three of these areas. … Nature does not consider the cultivation of a plot of land as the criteria for a garden. Nature considers a garden to exist wherever humans define, initiate and interact with form to create a specialised environment.”

If I do not supply the definition, direction and purpose, then I cannot interact effectively with nature and nature would not define my small plot of land as a garden. Strangely this definition does not require plants to be present…

2. Letting wild corners into the garden is good.
Creating habitats and going as far as I can to actively include wildlife in the garden gives me a commitment to nature. However, I have been having a dilemma over providing a properly ‘wild’ area into which I do not enter. At the risk of writing a very long blog post this week, there are two quotes which have made it clear how important it is to have a wild area.

From ‘The Gentleman and the Faun – Encounters with Pan and the Elemental Kingdom’ by Robert Oglivie Crombie, known as Roc. Chapter 13 – The Wild Garden by Peter Caddy

“Roc’s work with the nature spirits also pointed out to us the importance of the wild garden. In Britain, where there is a tradition of fine gardens, almost invariably an area of each is left wild. There is also a folk custom among farmers of leaving a bit of land, where humans are forbidden to go, as the domain of the fairies and elves.
“One Sunday afternoon, Roc had accompanied a group of us on a visit to a local walled garden at Kincorth. At one end of the landscaped area ran a stream with a wooden bridge across it. On the other side was a wild place, cool and dense in contrast to the neat and colourful beds on our side. Roc, obeying an impulse, wandered off across the bridge and into the foliage. Later he told us that beyond a certain point in the area he had suddenly felt like an intruder.
“There Pan appeared beside him and told him that this part of the garden was for his subjects alone and was to be so respected. He said that in any garden, no matter the size, where the full cooperation of the nature spirits is desired, a part should be left where, as far as possible, man does not enter. The nature spirits use this place as a focal point for their activity, a centre from which to work.
“Pan also told him that at Findhorn we did not have enough respect for our wild garden. Indeed, we had developed the habit of crossing this area when we went to the beach for a swim, and right in the middle of it Dennis had set up his tent. You can imagine how quickly he removed both himself and his gear on hearing this message! Thereafter, we made sure to enter this area as seldom as possible.”

From ‘Behaving as if the God in All Life Mattered’ by Machaelle Small Wright. p122-3 – What’s This Crap About Fairies?

“I had read that at Findhorn there was an area set aside specifically for the use of nature spirits. It was a place where humans didn’t enter and it was left wild. I felt that I should do the same at Perelandra. So I picked a spot on the edge of the woods next to the garden and roped it off as a gesture, designating that this area was now to be exclusively for nature spirits. After roping it, I stood in the middle of the area and invited the nature spirits to come to this special place that I called the “Elemental Annex.” Immediately, a great rush of energy streamed in and I heard, “Finally! Now we can get down to business!” Feeling very much out of place, I gingerly stepped out of the area. The Elemental Annex was now the base of operations for the Perelandra nature spirits.”

My own garden is not large, the back part being around the size of a tennis court or a standard swimming pool, and the front very much smaller. There are hedges down both sides which need cutting regularly, and there simply are no areas where I do not go. But there is a cow field behind us, which has a corner behind my garden that is rarely touched, as well as other wild areas close by. I am hoping that these will suffice at least initially. And meanwhile, the plans I am making are putting wildlife as a much higher priority than it has been in the past.

3. Nature values active love rather than a hug.
Sending plants love won’t get them watered in a drought. My side of any partnership with nature is to do the work – and having not done so over the past few years, I apparently have a bit of ground to make up to prove that I am committed to the garden.

I have been left wondering how much of the proof of my commitment is to nature, since nature can surely read our intentions better than we can ourselves, and how much it is to change my own mindset and make sure I am committed to the job!

4. I can ask for help once I have established what it is I want.
I look forward to this stage! I will admit to being surprised and disappointed to have to make all the decisions myself, as I fully expected nature to tell me where particular plants would be happiest, and how they would like to be grown together, as other writers have reported. But clearly I am not at this stage in my own development yet – and I am also a reasonably capable gardener with many years of experience (seventeen in this garden alone) so I need a little faith and belief in myself! I also need to remember point 1, that I set the intention and definition for the garden. I appear to have some way to go to really develop this in myself.

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I said at the start that weeding had formed part of the insight and led to the rest following on – my intent was strong enough to remove a weed, without doubts, without wondering if I should or if it was balancing something else or otherwise needed in some way. I didn’t want it growing, and that was sufficient. No guilt needed. I also found it easier to get on with the job if my energies were not being split into worrying whether I was doing the right thing in removing particular types of weeds. (Some are obvious thugs, others have good qualities but have got out of hand.)

So here are my intentions for the redeveloped garden:
Front – all the herbs I want to eat, enough fruit to supply our basic needs with surplus for friends, and enough vegetables to always have something we can pick for dinner.
Back – fun, exciting, peaceful, beautiful, and full of wildlife. A space we all want to spend time in, just being, sitting, relaxing and enjoying ourselves. A place where nature and natural cycles can be honoured. It looks likely that most of the grass will go, in order to make a pond and ‘stream’ garden and of course the whole thing will have to be designed around the garden railway the rest of my family want…

Winter Herbs – Thyme

I enjoy using herbs in a seasonal way, using a succession of different herbs or wild plants (some might call them weeds) through the year, depending on what I can find. I have tried drying herbs for winter use, especially when shrubby plants such as sage have needed pruning anyway, but I found I never use them; I would rather pick something fresh according to the season and what is growing well at the time.

Luckily there are a few herbs I can pick at any time of year, one of my favourites being Thyme. Only the hardiest varieties survive here in Derbyshire, but I currently have two types in my garden. T. vulgaris I grew from seed which does very well, and another whose name is since lost which has slightly larger leaves and a more rounded flavour, but is only borderline hardy. A little goes a long way with both types, so I use it regularly in tiny quantities through the winter for soups, stews or herb tea. (As with all very strong herbs, don’t use the same herb every day and extra care should be taken if pregnant.)

As a tea, Thyme is great for reducing or thinning mucus, so really helps with winter coughs and colds even for those without lung conditions. I pinch off two or three tips and pour boiling water over them, cover and leave it to infuse until it is drinking temperature. It combines really well with rosemary, which is great for an energy boost, and in early Spring, marjoram which also helps to clear sinuses. Combined with sage it makes a good gargle for a sore throat. It is said to be anti-bacterial and anti-septic, so is good to use directly on the skin as cooled tea or as a salve where it can help with skin conditions, joint inflammations, or cuts and bruises.

Thyme is a survivor, growing in the harshest conditions between cracks in paving slabs or rocks, or on dry mountainsides in the wild. It can even cope with being walked or trampled on. It is said to increase courage and inspiration for when you are doubting yourself. In medieval times, women used to sew thyme into scarves for knights to wear in battle to help them be brave. Earlier uses included room purifications by the Romans, temple purification and offerings by the Greeks, and Egyptian embalming. Some modern pagans use it to cleanse and purify a room instead of sage.

Some writers have suggested that wearing a sprig of thyme will help you see fairies… for some reason it is thought that fairies are very small and can hide among the tiny leaves. I’m sure some can fit here, but not any fairies I’ve seen!

Flowers and Weeds – Part 2

Whilst writing last week’s post I had great difficulty in directing my thoughts, because weeds kept wanting to encroach and change the focus of the post. So I decided to split it into two parts; here is the second, dedicated to the type of plants some call ‘weeds’ but which flower alongside ‘flowers’ in my garden.

The most common definition of a weed I found online is:

A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.

In my early days of gardening, I used to try to impose my control over what grew, removing the wild plants and replacing them with favoured flowers and shrubs grown from seed or bought in. Over time most of the non-native ones either died off, or were removed as looking out of place. I now have a rather more fluid definition of a weed in my garden, which can vary depending on what the plant is, where it is growing, and how much of it there is:

A weed is a plant that doesn’t bring joy into your heart.

Our lawn area contains many plants which do not come under any definition of grass. We have in the past sprinkled feed and weed around it and put much effort in to restrict the plants to grasses. However after I started to feel energies with my hands, I realised I much preferred a mixture of grass and clover and daisies and dandelions and self heal and mosses and whatever else wanted to grow there to just plain grass. So it was much easier just to mow it and enjoy it as it was. My aim today is not to eradicate anything, but just keep some kind of balance between all the different plants that grow. The only real weed in our lawn at present is a thistle rosette that I don’t particularly want to sit on! Conversely, grass or other lawn plants become weeds when they get into the flower or fruit areas.

In the vegetable beds most of the weeds are plants that I enjoy elsewhere in the garden, but don’t want competing for nutrients with crops I want to eat. Valeriana officinalis, or Yarrow or violets are the most common invaders; interestingly all three are useful plants medicinally, and that to me says something else about weeds. Just like an illness comes because we need it for some reason, so do the plants we need to heal ourselves come and surround us. I am going to suggest that:

Weeds are the plants most suited to the growing conditions, and to what you need personally.

I have been wondering if there is a general dislike of weeds because they are trying to tell us something we don’t want to know…

First, weeds being suited to the growing conditions. This may seem fairly obvious, because that is why they are successful. However, you can use the weeds as markers to tell you what kind of conditions you are providing. I have had an explosion of creeping buttercup in one area of my garden – the soil has become acid and compacted there. Nettles grow along the hedge – fertility is good there and the acidity in balance. Violets spreading across the front garden – there are several ants nests.

Second, weeds being what we need personally. Spiritually, I believe very strongly that all is connected, and we have everything we need even if that is not necessarily what we want. I don’t know what draws the weeds we need to us, but either like attracts like; they are successful under the same conditions in which we are trying to live; or because they are our spiritual allies. Whichever, we have the choice over whether or not to take notice of them.

So this week I have taken this a step further, listed all the plants which are currently doing incredibly well by themselves, needing constant keeping within bounds (whether or not I planted them originally), and then investigated what they offer medicinally. This was my list, minus buttercup (ranunculus) and columbine (aquilegia) for which I couldn’t find any medicinal value, both being toxic to humans when eaten fresh.

  • Betony (Stachys) – coughs and lungs, also a relaxant for de-stressing and related complaints.
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum) – said to contain the spirit of fairies; digestion, infections, cleansing, also nutritious. They are so common that it may be we as British people have great need for dandelion at this time.
  • Yarrow (Achillea) – said to improve alertness and psychic ability; healing wounds, PMS or other blood-related complaints, immune stimulant for colds and flu.
  • Stickyweed (Galium) – cleansing lymph system; see earlier post, Joys of Spring – Stickyweed.
  • Valeriana – relaxant, for muscles or stress; probably not me who needs this one!
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria) – wonderful tonic for women. (Fruits contain iron, folic acid, vitamin C)
  • Avens (Geum) – catarrh, or as clove substitute; chew the root for teeth troubles. Not me, again…
  • Holly (Ilex) – said to protect against evil spirits; catarrh, pleurisy, coughs, colds, flu.
  • Mallow (Malva) – expectorant, all sorts of lung conditions.

Hmm, you’d never guess I suffer from lung troubles looking at this list! And I can see the problems of the rest of my family reflected as well. While there are many herbs I do use that are not included here (because they do not spread by themselves) some of the above list were unfamiliar to me before writing this post. I intend to get to know them better over the coming months, and will let you know how I get on.

Flowers and Weeds – Part 1

My garden has, like any garden, evolved over the years as it has developed and I have learned what suits the conditions. The basic layout I created soon after we moved here (sixteen years ago) remains in place today, a semi-wild cottage style garden, with flowers, vegetables and fruit, surrounded by hedgerows. However my plant choices have changed to being mostly native and mostly edible, and preferably able to look after themselves. Overall the garden is not very large, but remains open to the views (and the weather!) to the North giving an airy, spacious feel.

Cherry tree 'Stella'

Cherry tree ‘Stella’

In recent years for various reasons my time and energies have been rather unpredictable, leading to much relaxation of my gardening expectations and working with nature as far as possible. M has now reached the stage of being able to walk with shoes on, so this year I am making a special effort to do child-friendly gardening. Little bits at a time, with relatively instant and reliable results, in gardening terms anyway.

Flowers have been my focus this week. After having spent three weeks semi-weeding*, clearing and composting, a plant catalogue arrived serendipitously in the post, its pages filled with tempting colourful perennials all ready to plant out and provide instant beauty. In previous years I have grown flowers from seed, but windowsill peppers and tomatoes are enough of a challenge for M to keep intact, so this looked a great idea to me. However, past experience also suggests that many of the glossy photos feature plants designed for the warmer climes Down South, preferably with well-drained, humus-rich soil, and regular feeding and watering. They are the sort of plants that are easy to propagate and grow really well in potting compost, flowering all summer in sheltered conditions, but tend to fare very badly in my exposed, heavy clay garden, rarely surviving their first winter. So I decided to make a list of all the plants I thought I might like in the garden and didn’t already have, and then get out my trusty pendulum (a haematite necklace being my favourite for this purpose) to dowse for which plants would actually enjoy growing here. Out went the penstemons, fuchsias, osteospermums, coreopsis, pinks, lobelias, day lilies, echinaceas and verbenas. It is a great way to save money! My list was rapidly reduced to one of more manageable proportions, and I have now put my order in for some hardy geraniums, campanulas, platycodons, papavers and anemones with every expectation of them being a success.

Corner of garden

Corner of garden

Knowing what plants already grow well here, and what doesn’t, I will admit that I didn’t get many surprises with my dowsing on this occasion. However, I will also receive some free pelargoniums with my order, not a plant I have been particularly inspired by before, but which my dowsing suggests will do better than any other bedding plant in the dry and sun-baked pots directly outside my South-facing front door. (Diascias are the only thing I have had any great success with so far.) I look forward to them flowering and welcoming visitors all summer long as promised…

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*Semi-weeding is a term I have created to cover what I do in my garden, keeping a balance between it looking ‘weedy’ and being too neat and tidy. This can be very hard to explain to adult garden ‘helpers’!