Gardens: Jeepers creepers

Shepherd's purse, sow thistles, bindweed, willowherb, hairy bitter cress … Anna Pavord gets tough on some exotic-sounding – but thoroughly unwelcome – weeds
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The Independent Online

Am I winning, or am I not? The fact that every time I wander up the bank, I end up at the compost heap with a fat fistful of sow thistle, willowherb and dandelion suggests not. But the outcome of the War against Weeds will only be clear next year. If there are less of the things this year, I'll claim a cautious truce. Not a victory. It can never be that, surrounded as we are by fields of thistle sending over paratroop waves of thistledown.

The first battle of the year involved hairy bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta). It's a peppery little weed (it tastes like watercress), which grows in a low, juicy rosette and bears inconspicuous white flowers. Often, it germinates in autumn, and so completes its growth cycle in spring, which is when it becomes dangerous. It is a dire weed to have among paving stones or lodged between cobbles in a path like the one up our bank. If just one plant releases its seed capsules, every crack can be filled with seeds. If you leave weeding too late, the capsules explode as you touch them, and another seven years weeding looms ahead.

Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is another weed that favours autumn germination, though it's capable of springing up all year round. It has a ground-hugging rosette of leaves, but its flowering stem is taller. The seed capsules are held alternately all the way up the stem and look like small, flattened hearts. Each plant can produce 5,000 seeds.

Both these weeds favour our open, friable soil. And the amount of rain we have had this summer has certainly favoured weeds. Docks have grown to tropical proportions and you can wring enough water to wash in from the crunchy stems of sow thistles (Sonchus oleraceus). I actually like weeding but to do the job properly you need time, two forks, big and little, and a tub for the debris. Too much of my weeding over the summer has been done on the way to do something else. Quick snatches will uproot bittercress, but too often bigger weeds like sow thistles snap. Then, out of sight under something else, they grow three stems where once there was one.

These weeds are at least only annuals and if you can catch them before they seed (I'm on willowherb at the moment) you have foiled their only aim in life. In the long term, I hope the bank of seeds already in the soil will be dissuaded from germinating by the thick mulches of mushroom compost we use. Weed seeds germinate in the top 5cm of soil. Our mulches are thicker than that. And from a mulch, annual weeds are easy to pull up.

Perennial weeds are a more pernicious thing altogether. Which is why the right half of our front border, a strip of ground 14ft long by about four feet wide, looks like a hospital ward with a load of colostomy bags on stands. The problem is bindweed. When we first came, I thought I could keep on top of it by regular pulling. Four years on, I realised I couldn't. Each summer it snaked more vigorously into the vine and the honeysuckle growing on the wall of the house, and did its best to smother the agapanthus, amaryllis and nerines below.

So this spring, we emptied the border and planted bamboo canes instead. When the bindweed appeared it clambered athletically up the canes and about a month ago, when it was at full tilt, we bundled the top growth into polythene bags, zapped it with Roundup and tied the bags to the canes. It seems to have had the desired effect as the leaves have all died back. But will all the roots have died too? Roundup is based on glyphosate, which is absorbed through the foliage and travels down to kill the plant at the root. It takes time but, used carefully, is usually effective. Bindweed though, is notoriously difficult to get rid of where it is surrounded by stone walls and paving. The roots travel vast distances under cover. I think I might have to leave the border fallow next year, just to be safe.

It's not always possible to empty an area to get rid of bindweed, but it is really important to pull as much of the stuff as possible in July and early August. Bindweed emerges relatively late and spends the early part of summer pushing out snaky stems which go along the ground, as well as up into climbers and shrubs. Round about now, the long growths on the ground will start rooting. Once the roots get established, you've got a whole new source of trouble.

The delight – and the downfall – of weeding is that it brings you close to your plants. Close enough in my case one evening to see that a branch had snapped on a philadelphus from which I was untangling bindweed. So I go to get my secateurs, which happen to be sitting by a ball of string. That reminds me that I meant to tie up the sweet peas, so I go and do that and while doing it, notice that there are some courgettes ready to pick on the plants set between the sweet pea wigwams.

Knowing to my cost how quickly courgettes turn into marrows, I go to the house to get a knife to cut them, but on the way pass the two big pots of petunias and lobelia. They look thirsty. So I fetch the Tomorite, mix them up a cocktail and give them a couple of gallons each. Gazing out in the pleasantly mindless way that watering induces, I notice a new flourish of fig is lying rather heavily on top of the variegated pelargonium 'Lady Plymouth'. That reminds me about the secateurs, and the philadelphus.

So I fetch them and do the fig, which is nearer than the philadelphus and while the secateurs are in my hand and I'm close, start dead-heading roses. Then I see that there are an awful lot of dead leaves in the clumps of iris growing in the gravel there, so I start to pull the dead stuff out. It's an absorbing job and rather a pleasing one. Sometime later, when I step back to look at the plucked clump, I bump into the lemon verbena trained on the wall and the smell makes me feel that some verbena tea with honey would be a very nice thing to have at this time of day. So I pick the leaves, make the tea and drinking it, remember again about the philadelphus. But I can't think what I did with the secateurs when I stopped dead-heading the rose ... And so it goes on, hours frittered away fiddling with all the things there are to do in a garden at this time of year. Meanwhile, the bindweed in the philadelphus lives on for another dangerous day.

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