May in the Garden – 2014

As I write this it’s been sunny and dry for a good few days to the point where it’s very easy to forget just how wet the winter was. The mould blooming on my, oil-bound distempered, interior walls reminds me of this fact every time I step indoors; outside the hard ground and masses of annual weeds running to seed attest to the forwardness of the season.

I’ve written before about “weed of the moment”. Like all of gardening, and garden writing for that matter, repetition is completely unavoidable in such a cyclical pursuit. At this point ‘Shepherd’s Purse’ , chickweed, goose-grass et al are making their presence felt and it’s hard to pick a winner of “weed of the moment”. Of course, these are the opportunist annual weeds which shed seed last year (because I wasn’t diligent enough to destroy their parents) and it germinates as soon as growth is made possible by the first warm days of the year.

Groundsel is also apparent, I find this weed particularly unpleasant to look at as somehow it reminds me of the most rank sort of neglected gardens—so it embarrasses me to find it popping up in mine. It’s my own fault; if dug out, but not removed from the vicinity, it will quite happily go on to set seed even as the parent plant is shrivelling on the soil surface—a pretty mean trick.

I looked groundsel up in the excellent (fantastically well observed and written) Weeds book by the incomparable botanist Richard Mabey. Among other facts, regarding the stickiness of the seed pods and its mechanisms of dispersal, is the truly frightening info-nugget that groundsel can complete its entire life-cycle, from seed to flower, in just six weeks.

The problem with Mr. Mabey is that his books are so fascinating that it’s just impossible to dip into them—they insist upon being read cover to cover……..and so, many hours later, back to writing!

One of the reasons that I have so many annual weeds this year is that last year I relied on using glyphosate, a systemic, but non-persistent, weedkiller, to clear areas which I didn’t have the time to weed by hand. It leaves clear soil behind, once the green plants have died (which can take a few weeks). Bare soil is a vacuum which, as you know, nature abhors and needs to fill. This ‘bare’ soil actually contains many thousands of weed seeds, the ‘seedbank’, which could be years and decades old. A proportion of these seeds will break dormancy and germinate to fill the void. Other seeds, not always weeds, will reach the bare soil by other vectors (no time to cover all that now!).

To prevent this, cleared ground must be covered with a weed free mulch. Home-made compost seldom gets hot enough to kill weed seeds so commercially available products, guaranteed weed free, are your best bet to help prevent making your weed problem even worse. In areas which do not need to be replanted, but need to be kept clear, a woven fabric mulch will do the same job by excluding light and creating a physical barrier between the soil surface and any invading seeds.

These long-lasting, but ugly, fabric mulches can be disguised with a natural material like chipped bark with has the added benefit of extending the life of the fabric even further. This physical barrier method isn’t really suitable for herbaceous plantings, as the herbaceous plants needs to be able to spread out from their original planting holes, but shrubs, or trees, can be planted through holes cut into the fabric and the bark mulch spread over afterwards. This is a method used extensively in commercial landscaping and is about as close as it’s possible to get to maintenance free areas without resorting to tarmac.

Having admitted that using a chemical weedkiller can actually lead to an increased annual weed problem (I don’t believe in double-standards) I should address the one person who contacted the magazine concerning the use of slug pellets. To answer his specific question; ‘no’, I don’t have a reference to the particular scientific study which said that slug pellets were safe when used as directed. It was based, perhaps wrongly, on my recollection that at some point a wildlife organisation (I think it was the RSPB) endorsed a particular sort of slug pellet. I didn’t think they’d have done that without conducting studies (surely not?) but I didn’t feel the need to double-check as this matched my own experience; they don’t appear to have impacted the wildlife in my garden in the three decades or so that I’ve been using them. The point that I was trying to make was that using very few pellets, as a preventative measure, is better than constant baiting or using them in a heavy-handed way—I stand by that.

In contrast I have noted that many ‘organic’ gardeners own pets of a feline persuasion. At the risk of opening another can of slugs, I have observed that these man-made introductions kill birds and small mammals. Perhaps a ban on cats would be a better place to start?

I seem to have used up all my words on some of the more negative points of gardening. I should, however, point out that May is one of the loveliest months in the garden and it’s a point in the year when a lot of things come together. There’s a new plant coming into bloom practically every day and frosty nights are almost at an end so less hardy plants should be hardened off and moved outside for their summer showing-off.

Direct sowing of hardy annuals can fill gaps in the border and, slightly behind schedule, my own plans to produce cut flowers from seed (see earlier articles) move apace with planting up new beds this month with seedlings sown in April under cover. Successive sowing will ensure a good supply of flowers throughout the summer and into autumn.

Whatever the weather—get out into the garden and, if you can’t be bothered to do your own, or don’t have one, then look out for local ‘National Gardening Scheme’ open gardens and take a stroll around them all in the aid of charity.