Weeds have run rampant during the wet summer - it's time to go on the attack…


It's been an amazing season for weeds. In the hideous conditions of the past few months, docks have grown to tropical proportions and you can wring enough water to wash in from the crunchy stems of sow thistles. Round here, there have been endless reminders of how thinly order lies on chaos. In the steep lane that leads out of our valley, more than 50m of bank let go of its moorings and slid so smoothly down, that the trees in the landslip stayed upright. The day after the fall, it was like looking at the beginning of the world: torn earth, gloopy mud, impenetrable tangles of briar among the tree trunks. Impassable.

But the raw banks won't take long to clothe themselves again. What will be first? Not ferns, previously so thick in this area. They'll come back slowly. I'm betting on foxgloves, hogweeds, Queen Anne's lace, drowned out eventually by masses of nettles, taking advantage of the fact that this place, usually shaded by trees, is now open and sunny.

In the garden, weeds have certainly triumphed. Faster than the roses have been rotting, they've been creeping silently back into their territory, while I've been sheltering inside the house, listening to the rain trying to break through the windows. The weeds were here first, and they don't want me to forget it. But I love weeding. And in damp ground, there is a fair chance that you can pull a dock from the ground with its long, parsnipy root intact. It's a small triumph, but still a triumph.

When the ground finally dried enough for me to get into attack mode, I faced again an old enemy – hairy bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta). It's an annual, but grows fast enough to produce several generations in a season. Each plant's loaded up to the eyes with explosive seed capsules, and the seeds germinate very easily. It's a peppery little weed (it tastes like watercress) which grows in a low, juicy rosette and bears inconspicuous white flowers. It's a dire thing to have among paving stones or lodgedf between cobbles in a path. If just one plant releases its seed capsules, every crack can be filled with seeds.

Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is another weed that likes to germinate in autumn, so it's poised to mature in spring and spread itself around. Geoffrey Grigson points out (in The Englishman's Flora) that it still grows in Greenland, where it was introduced by Norseman around 985. The seed capsules that give it its name are held alternately all the way up the stem and look like small, flattened hearts. Each plant can produce 5,000 seeds.

Goosegrass or cleavers (Galium aparine) is more devious. It sneaks its way through the flowerbeds, germinating unseen between other emerging plants. Then it grows at the rate of a speeded-up film, and swamps its neighbours with tough, sticky mounds of stem. It is particularly partial to loam and clay soils and is another weed you have to catch before it sets seed. There are at least 350 seeds on each plant and they stick to anything that moves.

But most annual weeds are easy to pull up, especially from damp ground. And they can be discouraged, to a certain extent, by thick mulches of grass or ground bark. Weed seeds germinate in the top 5cm/2in of soil, so any mulch you put on needs to be thicker than that. The problem with mulching thickly is that you also drown out self-set seedlings of love-in-a-mist, marigold, aquilegia and foxglove.

Perennial weeds such as ground elder are much more difficult to get rid of. Introduced by the Romans – thank you, Caesar – it flourishes in areas which are not regularly disturbed. Typically, you find it poking up through clumps of your favourite perennial plants such as lamb's ear (Stachys lanata) and peonies. If it invades something I want to keep, where it can't be sprayed, I just pull up the stems, so that they can't run to seed. The roots, though, will often be lurking in a place you can't get at – between tree roots, under paving, in the foundations of a wall.

If it's not mixed up with some favourite plant, you can attack ground elder using a weedkiller containing glyphosate. The poison is absorbed through the foliage and travels down to kill the plant at the root. It takes time, is effective but dangerous, as glyphosate (as in Roundup) kills any green thing it touches. You need to concentrate on one patch of ground elder at a time and be ready to treat it again when it reappears. As it will. Use weedkillers when growth is fully developed and lush.

Where hogweeds are a problem – as they are in our orchard, where they threaten to swamp everything else – I don't spray them, as I don't want to kill any of the other things growing close to them. Instead, I cut down the stems (they are hollow) and pour herbicide directly into them. It's a technique that works with Japanese knotweed, too.

The other way of dealing with weeds is to eat them, as Vivien Weise suggests in Cooking Weeds (Prospect Books, £9.99). You could do elder-layered pancakes, ground elder with creamy sorrel sauce, ground elder with cheese soufflé, or ground elder potato spread. When you've mastered those, you could move onto comfrey, African-style, and smooth sow thistle spaghetti sauce. Or goosegrass soup.

Weise points out how extraordinarily healthy these weeds are, bursting with trace elements such as potassium, magnesium and calcium. Chickweed contains twice as much iron as spinach; fat hen (a grey-green weed that bears at least 3,000 seeds on each plant) is packed with twice as much potassium as Brussels sprouts.

Stinging nettle, willow herb and silverweed will pack you with three times as much vitamin C as kale, broccoli or Brussels sprouts. And there are other gains: no expenditure, no packaging, no waste. Unfortunately, the resourceful Ms Weise has no recipes for bindweed.E

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness