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.EReuse content