I wrote recently that if you move from Sheffield to Devon, as I have, everything changes. But one change could easily be just as large if you moved only a few doors down the same street: your garden’s history, and what that means for its plants and (especially) its weeds.
In a book on weeds nearly 10 years ago, I wrote: “I read somewhere that by the time we’re 40, we all have the face we deserve. That is, if you smile a lot, your face will naturally relax into cheerful creases, but if you’re always miserable, you’ll look miserable whether you are or not. Much the same applies to weeds. The fussy, tidy gardener, forever hoeing, mowing and pruning, will be troubled only by the nimble, small-seeded, annual weeds that need the bare earth created by all that activity.
“The laissez-faire gardener, in contrast, will be a prey to all the big, rhizomatous perennial weeds that thrive on neglect. Therefore he or she will have the worse weeds, but will worry about them less.”
In other words, ye shall know them by their weeds, and I’m still sure that’s true, but I never expected to own such a spectacular example of the phenomenon. I confess to being naturally towards the weed-phobic end of the spectrum, so my Sheffield garden was troubled mainly by the small, fast-growing weeds that are forever emerging from the seed bank (hairy bittercress, annual meadow grass) or falling out of the sky (willowherbs, dandelions). I inherited a few perennial weeds, but they were largely exterminated long ago.
My new garden couldn’t be more different. It’s not that its previous owners were bad gardeners, more that the possibility of gardening of any kind, apart from a handful of half-hearted roses, clearly never crossed their minds. The result is what you get when your worst weed nightmares are allowed to slug it out, in an uninterrupted bid for supremacy, for the best part of a decade.
The basic fabric is thus a carpet of ground elder, mixed with a sprinkling of Spanish bluebells and wood avens. As the season progresses, bindweed emerges through this blanket, some sprawling over the ground elder, some twining up the occasional moribund dwarf conifer. There’s enchanter’s nightshade too, which can be a serious thug in its own right, given the chance, but here it seems to struggle to cope with the competition from the ground elder and bindweed.
Looking on the bright side, I could have had couch grass and horsetail as well, while the classic weeds of disturbed ground are almost absent. In fact, if it weren’t for a large patch of trampled earth around and under the former site of a children’s trampoline, bittercress might not be present at all. For those who are kept awake at night by bittercress, the lesson is obvious: maintain a complete perennial cover and the problem is solved, although ground elder wouldn’t be my first choice for bittercress control.
But my most surprising weed, and the most eloquent testament to the previously complete absence of any form of gardening, is not one but two thriving populations of bracken. In the countryside bracken can undoubtedly be a real menace, but in the confines of a modest suburban garden, it doesn’t have what it takes to be a serious problem. In early summer it produces essentially a single cohort of fronds, so if you ruthlessly pull those up for a year or two, it quickly takes the hint. So hopeless is bracken as a garden weed that in D G Hessayon’s Pest and Weed Expert, which contains a fairly comprehensive rogues’ gallery, it fails to appear at all.
So there you have it: what could fairly be described as a challenge (and I haven’t even mentioned the out-of-control leylandii, clearly with ambitions to become big trees). Wish me luck. The bracken will be easy, the ground elder may take a little longer.
Ken Thompson is a plant biologist with a keen interest in the science of gardening. He writes and lectures extensively and has written five gardening books. His most recent is Where do Camels Belong? The Story and Science of Invasive Species.