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!

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Wildflowers

Roadside Wildflowers, South Devon

Roadside Wildflowers, South Devon

One of the great joys to me is seeing a wildflower in its natural habitat for the first time, especially if I have become familiar with it through such means as in books or seeing it in a garden – mine or anyone else’s. In recent years, however, this is something I am most likely to experience when traveling abroad; having surveyed wildflowers locally to me for over a decade it is rare to see something unfamiliar.

Alexanders (and nettles) by roadside, South Devon

Alexanders (and nettles) by roadside, South Devon. (Click to expand.)

Last week I was in South Devon, in an area I hadn’t visited before, and driving down the narrow country lanes lined with flowers was a really joyful experience. Many of my favourites abounded – Red Campion, Cow Parsley, Foxgloves, Herb Robert, Shining Cranesbill, Buttercups, Ferns, and even late bluebells. But every so often there was a plant or patch of plants that were different. Umbellifers, but more yellow than anything that grows near me. I started to get interested – what was it? Traveling at car speed gave little chance for detailed looking, but the leaves and general colour did not appear to resemble any plant I knew.

Suddenly I realised: Alexanders, otherwise known as Parsley of Alexandria. One of the first mentioned in any book on foraging thanks to alphabetical listings, too far gone to try it on this occasion, but no less exciting to see. England has once again proved to me that treasures and rarities are there to be found.

Bank of Red Campion, South Devon

Bank of Red Campion, South Devon. (Click to expand.)

The photos shown here were taken on a cloudy afternoon, mostly along a road that is rarely driven on near Malborough. However more frequented roads were equally well lined with flowers – and often had fewer nettles or brambles. I was reminded of comments I have read about leaving areas for nature to do its own thing, particularly at Findhorn or Perelandra; this was a perfect demonstration of how glorious the natural world can be if man doesn’t interfere. Moreover, footpaths or this ‘unmetalled road’ had fewer flowers, as did others I walked, and I was shocked to discover some field edges had virtually nothing except nettles, thistles and brambles growing amongst the hedgerows. On a personal level, it reminds me not to interfere more than necessary with my own wild edges!
Wildflowers along an 'Unmetalled Road', South Devon

Wildflowers along an ‘Unmetalled Road’, South Devon

Surveying Wildflowers

View of linear plot

View of linear plot

For eleven summers now, I have surveyed a tiny area of Derbyshire for Plantlife‘s Common Plants Survey. My randomly allocated square is not somewhere I would normally choose to walk, being the wrong side of a dual carriageway from here, but it has proved very interesting to return to the same small area over such a period of time, and chart the changes. I now think of it as ‘my’ square, so while I could swap to somewhere closer, as this year the survey undergoes massive changes, I decided to stay put. In its favour are well-kept footpaths which go through the exact centre of the square, and a small patch of woodland filled with bluebells in late spring.

The survey has changed twice since I started: originally there was a list of 65 plants, and I would check for their abundance within three specific areas – a square plot in the exact centre of the square, a linear plot nearby, and I chose to survey an additional linear plot that was along a particularly interesting bit of hedgerow. The list was then extended to 99 plants, and instead of the ‘habitat plot’, a footpath was followed North-South through the whole square to simply see what was present. I had the option of being a ‘super surveyor’ and listing all the plants, but 99 seemed to be a good number to get to know. Given that for several of these years I had health issues, or was pregnant, or had a baby in a sling, simple was good!

This year the survey is changing again, as a transition to relaunching next year to create something far more in depth, giving hopefully robust data that can be used to monitor how our wildflowers are changing over time. The list has been expanded to 400 plants, and includes common native species, those that are specific or indicative to particular types of habitat, and some invasive species. Habitats plots are back, centre plots are out (I suspect many were difficult to access), and the path idea remains.

One plot I am surveying this year remains in almost exactly the same location as the previous ten years – my original centre linear plot, which runs between the footpath and a stone wall. It is now 25m long not 20m which makes sense, and I have moved it up 2m to avoid a patch by the gate that has been mown since the nearby derelict farm buildings were converted into houses, but these seem like minor tweaks. The field the other side of the footpath was originally surveyed (or rather, a 5x5m patch in the corner was) and I have seen it change from clover in the first few years to arable crops, this year barley. However apart from occasional pruning of the overhanging oak trees, the linear plot gets very little attention and as a result it has become a riot of colour in early summer. Besides grasses, the main plants are stickyweed, cow parley and hogweed with occasional nettles and brambles, but to fill in the gaps there are poppies, chamomiles, speedwell, plantains, vetches, and this year for the first time I spotted Geranium dissectum.

Moving onto the path, this being a transition year there is an increased list of plants to spot but no booklet yet to confirm the identities, nor a simple list to tick off what I could see. So I took a different approach and wrote down every plant I could identify. Given that M’s concentration span wouldn’t allow me to look up plants in situ, I then took photographs of anything I wasn’t sure about and spent the next few days going through them and identifying as many of the remainder as I could. Some of course are not on the list for monitoring, and some will need the second visit for additional identification information, (either because there are similar plants that I didn’t get enough details to distinguish between them, or because they weren’t in flower yet) but how much more I learned by doing it this way! I have added at least half a dozen plants to my knowledge which I now feel I could recognise again, plus I am just starting to explore a whole new world of grasses – quite important on my path since around half of it is through fields that are only occasionally grazed by cows.

The middle section of my path runs through the woodland – which has just been taken over by a new owner who has removed alien invaders like Himalayan Balsam and planted many new trees. However, not all of them have plant labels, and from those that do there are some very interesting and unexpected additions, including 37 different native species according to the notice on the entry style so my identification skills here will be developing as well! Unfortunately the intensive management renders the woodland fairly useless for monitoring purposes, but how fascinating to watch!

And the remaining path? This runs along the side of an access track and has fairly different plants to the other sections, although by no means everything that I know is to be found within my square. However one new exciting find for this year was an pyramid orchid, just a solitary flower seen along this section and not yet open. I hope for some more by next year. So my list for the path is up to 63 flowering species, plus grasses, plus probably some sub-species of yellow flowers that I have lumped together (various sow thistles or hieraciums for example, not in the official list) giving me a starting point for future comparisons.

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’!