Living with the enemy

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
August 2012

Steffie Shields is learning to live with every gardener’s nightmare
As Olympic athletes square up and raise their game, many of us gardeners are facing an equally Herculean task in our own backyards. No medals for us. That Goliath Mother Nature has set her champion weeds loose – and this year’s record-breaking rain has encouraged them a thousand-fold in my garden’s shady places. My ground elder is running away, streets ahead of me, and choking my favourite flowers. I am holding my nerve – just, because I am not alone, and give thanks for those plants that I have discovered to be more than attractive, indeed a back-up force against invasion.

When my husband retired from the Royal Air Force, and we first moved to Welby, the house and garden were tucked away in the middle of an old rectory orchard. We fell for the borrowed views over hedgerows, on one side to the parish church, and pantile village roofs, and open, sheep grazed fields on the other three sides. The garden was romantically ‘secret’ and overgrown. We enjoyed the fresh-air challenge, worked hard for several years, and thought we had gradually brought it back to a more manageable and floriferous order. So I confess to feeling downcast when the then chairman of Lincolnshire Gardens Trust visited and, stepping out of her car, observed ‘You’ve got a lot of ground elder!’

Eight years later, she would probably say the same. Living on the edge of countryside, we will always have our fair share of thistles, nettles, giant hogweed and cow parsley blown in on the wind – the penalty for pastoral charm. I pull nettles by hand. The running root pulls out easily by grabbing the stem low down, disregarding the odd sting, as this is supposedly an antidote for arthritis. Of course, I leave the butterflies a clump or two of nettles to feast on, on one edge of the garden mostly hidden by shrub roses. Annual weeds are, like grass, all fairly straightforward to cut down quietly by hand or, more noisily, with a strimmer. Ground elder is another story.

The Royal Horticultural Society website quotes ground elder, Aegopodium podagraria, as ‘a fast-growing, invasive, perennial weed that can spread quickly to form a carpet of foliage that will crowd out less vigorous plants in beds and borders’. Their excellent website gives detailed, good advice as to how to control the problem, preferably by laboriously digging out every trace of root, but also control by chemicals. However I try not to use weed killer on my one-third of an acre plot. Also, I do not really fancy living with whole areas covered by black plastic for months on end, another suggestion to eradicate the demon. Digging out this member of the carrot family is not really an option either, for the soil here is full of limestone, and mostly rock hard. If you try, but leave the tiniest bits of fleshy root, it will simply grow again. I have managed to curtail its vigour in several flowerbeds by the house, simply by tearing out the leaves, repeatedly, whenever they appear.

Thankfully I have had some help from my friends; that is, those companion plants that stand up to and will out-run the brute. Top of the list is hardy geranium, and I am gathering quite a collection, following renowned gardener, Margery Fish’s advice: ‘When in doubt, plant a geranium’. There are countless varieties that tolerate sun or semi-shade, but the more common ones will romp away, swamping the elder. Both the robust, deep pink Geranium macrorrhizum and the paler pink Geranium x oxonianum make an attractive edge of hummocks, a floral ring around islands of shrubs. The popular cranesbill, Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ is vibrant, a perfect foil alongside roses, peonies, day-lilies and oriental poppies which will grow happily in among them, unfazed by elder. The taller magenta-flowered Geranium Psilostemon is another star. A friend gave me Geranium phaeum and more than its delicate deep maroon, almost dusky black, flowers I love the maroon markings on the leaves and how it seeds to surprise by popping up here and there. Any bright, lime green spurge, or euphorbia is a boon to my eyes, and easily pulled if it gets over-zealous. The unusual, bronze, maroon fluffy mounds of Euphorbia ‘Chameleon’ or swamp spurge have particularly flourished this year! A perennial loose-strife with lance-shaped purple leaves and nodding flowers like yellow stars, Lysimachia ‘Fire Cracker’ makes another great diversion that links well with a nearby copper beech tree.

Astrantia and michaelmas daisies are also ‘butch’ buddies. A single Aster ‘Silver Blue’ planted a few years back is now a generous clump, and is itself threatening to take over the garden. In summer, lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, has insignificant white flowers that attract bees but will hold its own, spread or seed around. Its strong, lemon yellow to lime green foliage (that can brown in too-hot sunshine) is a joy to crush for a gentle scent of lemon, and always catches the eye away from the villain in question. For similar distraction, I even tried variegated ground elder, after the motto ‘If you can’t beat it, join it’, but it simply could not hold its own. I continue to make plenty of mistakes, spending money on feature, specialist plants that usually need mollycoddling. They either succumb within the season or sit there without spreading generously like prima donnas.

Speaking of which, it amused me greatly to see how this year’s Chelsea Show 2012 designers attempted to bring natural countryside into the heart of the metropolis. Watching on television, I scanned the entries, and attempted to see if ground elder featured among their carefully selected mix of delicate, wild plants. Somehow I doubt it. Neither did I glimpse that sculptural thug, giant hogweed, incidentally first introduced in Victorian times by Gregory Gregory at Harlaxton. Chelsea show gardens are a pastiche of reality, without the criminal element.

So with help from my cottage garden stalwarts, beating the arch-enemy at its own game, I try to be tolerant. If the garden is relaxed, I like to think that friends and family will find it relaxing too. Apparently we have the Romans to thank for introducing ground elder as a pot-herb. They tell me this so-called ‘goutweed’ can be boiled like spinach, or a ground elder soup made that will cure aching joints. We ‘learning to be’ gardeners have our fair share of those!

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