By Pippa Greenwood
Why is it that weeds always seem to grow faster and more vigorously than pretty well anything you actually choose to plant in your garden? It’s certainly the case in my garden! In no time at all they come into growth, produce sizeable leaves and stems and quite often seem to be flowering and then seeding in only a few weeks. Top of my weed hate list is that tiny and innocuous looking one called hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). It produces a rather attractive little rosette of leaves which in no time at all is topped with a short spike with tiny and indeed pretty white flowers. So why do I despise it? It is simply that it spreads by pinging out its seeds within such a short space of time that if you don’t pull them up very promptly you soon have what amounts to a forest of these plants all over your garden. Weeds are typically described as ‘any plant which is growing in the wrong place’ and this could mean your flowerbeds, your vegetable garden, your shrubbery or even your lawn.
So what is it that makes weeds such a nuisance?
- They feed and take up moisture in great quantities in order to grow in the way they do, and sometimes compete actively with the nearby garden plants that you are so carefully nurturing.
- Some of them grow so rapidly that they can create shade and so stunt the growth of smaller plants nearby.
- Those which have an almost ground-cover like effect can soon swamp garden plants and cause their growth to be distorted or held back.
- Occasionally weeds may also harbour pests or diseases which can then move on to your garden plants.
Everyone has some weeds in their garden, but what can you do to minimise the problems they cause, yet avoid spending hours on end with a hoe in your hand or a sprayer at your fingertips?
- Always try and get on top of weeds early in the year – removing as many as you can before your garden plants start to grow strongly will make weeding easier and also cut down on the amount of competition the weeds cause. A hoe is one of the quickest ways to effectively kill off most annual weeds, but it needs to be a good one. My favourite is UK designed with a heart-shaped head and a blade on all edges, meaning that you are hoeing every time you pull or push the hoe – it also has a relatively small head to making it easier to hoe in confined spaces, between plants and in gaps in between rows without risk of damage to your plants. It is a hoe we fight over at home; find out more on my website.
- Disturb the soil as little as possible when you weed, as this often causes more weed seeds to germinate, and even if these have been lying dormant in the soil for some while, as soon as the soil is disturbed they come to life – so if you are not careful you may make the problem worse.
- Some people avoid anything other than an early weeding and a late weeding, as they find that regular weeding seems to bring many more seeds to the surface and encourages weed seed germination; hence it is best to put up with a few weeds during the growing season.
- Whatever you do, it is essential to remove your weeds before they set seed – that old saying of ‘one year’s seeds is seven years’ weeds’ really is true in many cases.
- Avoid composting any weeds which are setting seed, have set seed or have particularly pernicious and resilient roots (dock and dandelion are classic examples of these).
- When removing deep-rooted weeds such as dock and dandelion, always make sure that you take out every fragment of root, as each piece left behind has the potential to form a new plant. The best tool I know for removing dandelion roots in one go is my little red-handled weeder – small but built out of stern stuff and by tucking the hook-like head beneath the rosette of leaves and close to the centre of the plant, I find it easy to pull out the root in its entirety almost every time. See www.pippagreenwood.com/products/good-growing for more information.
- Don’t take a short cut by rotovating ground which is heavily infested with weeds such as dandelions, docks, nettles or couch grass, as you’ll be chopping up their roots and helping to create more plants!
- If you want to sow annuals or vegetable crops directly and minimise later problems with weeds, then try the stale seedbed technique. All this means is that you get the area in which you intend to sow prepared well in advance of your proposed seed sowing date. This allows dormant weed seeds to germinate so you can then carefully remove the weed seedlings, and then sow or plant up as you wish. Because you have already removed one major flush of weeds, you tend to have fewer problems later.
- Don’t forget the importance of a good deep mulch; many weeds can be kept at bay or the seeds prevented from germinating successfully if you cover the soil surface with a mulch which is a minimum of two or preferably three inches (5 – 7.5 cm) deep.
- Use weedkillers with caution and ensure you choose one appropriate for the problem you have. Weedkillers are designed to kill off plants and they can do a lot of damage if allowed to contaminate your garden.
Visit Pippa’s website www.pippagreenwood.com for a really useful selection of Pippa’s favourite gardening items including SpeedHoes, SpeedWeeders, ladybirds to control greenfly, Nemaslug, biological controls, pop-up crop covers, signed books and lots more besides.