Country & Garden: No need to get into a bindweed

Successful weeding depends on knowing where and when to strike, and doing it with conviction. By Ursula Buchan
If I ever feel real self-doubt in the garden, May and June is when it clutches me by the throat. This season, my confidence has dribbled away, for I am forced to admit that, if there is a boss in the garden, it ain't always me. In my flower borders, at least, the weeds have got the better of me.

Keeping on top of weeds is as much a matter of personality as circumstance. Successfully ridding your borders of the ones that matter, whilst ignoring those that don't, depends on courage, ruthlessness and realism, quite as much as time, energy or expertise.

No one has enough time to weed their garden properly if it is anything larger than a pocket-handkerchief, so the most successful gardeners are those who know when and where to strike, and do so with conviction; in particular, they make it as a high priority in spring. I must reluctantly distance myself from their number this year, for though I know what to do, I have not always done it.

The weather has not helped. The last nine months have been comparatively wet and mild, conspiring to produce a crop of weeds this summer of gargantuan proportions, and limiting the opportunities for doing something about them. But that is no reason to give up.

Anyone who is serious about weeding effectively needs to know the difference between a perennial and an annual weed. Many annual weeds can be left (provided that they are not visually intrusive) at least until they flower. The exceptions are those sneaky little ones like shepherd's purse, hairy bitter cress and groundsel, which flower and seed several times through the season and, in mild years, all year round. But goosegrass, annual grasses, speedwell and sowthistle only require attention when they are about to set seed, or if they become infested with aphids and other insects which also threaten your cultivated plants. Even if you do not know their names, you can tell they are annual, for they have only rudimentary root systems. The roots of perennials are more extensive and can be a good means of identification. Perennial nettles have stringy yellow roots; ground elder have fat, white, shallow roots; couch grass, thin pointed runners with sharp points; bindweed, thin, solid, creamy white roots.

Some people use a garden fork for digging up these weeds, but I prefer to get down on my knees, on a foam mat, and use a sturdy hand-fork. That way I can burrow under shrubs and roses more easily. I put the roots of perennials in a separate bucket, for they must be burnt, or bagged up and thrown away. Putting them in the compost bin is the equivalent of deliberately sowing tares among wheat, for one day soon they will end up back in the borders again.

Old gardeners will shake their heads and tell you that perennial weeds can grow from tiny portions of roots, and that you can never rid your soil of them entirely. Frequent, consistent attacks, however, undoubtedly weaken them substantially. My greatest bugbear, bindweed, can be eliminated entirely in time, provided you don't object to using weedkiller. Place a bamboo cane in the soil next to a bindweed clump when it first appears in mid-spring. Then, when it has obligingly climbed up the cane, and before it flaunts its beautiful, but insolent, white trumpets at you, use an old paintbrush to lightly coat each leaf with diluted glyphosate, a herbicide which kills roots as well as leaves.

Mercifully, the present weed surge is a temporary phenomenon. By mid- July, plant growth is almost visibly slowing, and there is a chance (provided that the soil is not rock-solid by then) to get topside of the weeds. And each July is so pleasant in the garden that it brings on a blessed amnesia. Until next year. My millennial resolution must be to set aside a small portion of every day next March and April to weed, weed, weed. It will make all the difference to my self-esteem. What about you?