Winter 2015/16 has gone on too long. I believe we have had about 5 days in three months when it hasn’t rained or blown a gale. My gardens are at sea level on heavy Dorset clay, so there is nowhere for the water to drain and it sits, and sits, and sits. Usually I have been able to work the beds and get them ready during the winter for spring sowing, or at least to mulch the perennial areas. This year even mulching has been difficult as the wheelbarrows sink into the grass leaving muddy ruts, and collecting the composts has been tricky for a ratphobic as even the rotted leafmould heaps are full of rodents who have been using them for warm and dry bed and breakfast accommodation. The little devils have also taken up residence in the raised and covered ranunculus beds, enjoying the crumbly soil and warm dry plastic roofing.
I know it will all come right, things will eventually dry out because they have to, seeds will eventually get into the ground to sprout grow and bloom, and it is not worry about that that makes me gloomy, but the lack of opportunity to get out there and weed. I love weeding, for me it might even be the most satisfying bit of gardening – which probably sounds bizarre when I consider the thousands of beautiful flowers I grow, the bountiful harvests of home grown blooms, the scents, colours, textures, shapes…. I only get to know the flowers through weeding, only by working among them can I see what’s going on, check their health, their state of growth, see what unexpected treasures are springing up among those that are eagerly anticipated.
I weed most beds on hands and knees, bum up and head down. I may approach a weedy patch reluctantly but within minutes I am right in there, enjoying the challenge of teasing out the miscreants and freeing the wanted plants from the greedy little interlopers. There is such satisfaction in managing to winkle out some little buttercups from a just shooting astrantia without damaging any of the new growth, or from a patch of Trollius or Maids of Kent. I almost feel joy when I successfully unearth trails of couchgrass from where they are happily disguised in patches of small iris or tiny blue flowered Sisyrinchium. I become obsessive about couch, carefully trying to trace each length back to its roots, and I admit that I lay out particularly long lengths and have been known to measure them – my record still standing at over 17 feet from my previous garden! I obviously fail to clear it in some areas as every year considerable time is spent carefully removing lengths from large clumps of pinks, with a necessarily delicate touch and a very sharp pointed copper trowel.
That is another point of obsession, the right tool for the job. For handwork I will only use the copper trowel, it fits my hand perfectly, is balanced just right, and the blade is sharp if you need it to be and slices through ground with ease in any condition. It will also slice through fingers when weeding too quickly in well crumbled soil but apart from that caveat it is the perfect tool. I also have a hand fork from the same stable, and a scratcher, but in practice I all but never use them and weeding is all about me and my trowel. And my waterproof trousers, the other essential – I don’t choose good thick padded trousers but keep several pairs of thinner ones that are easily hosed down then hurled into the washing machine and dry in no time. I think I’ve had two pairs for at least eight years and they are still hole free.
I’ve tried all manner of kneeling pads, those attached to the knee and freeform, but I find them universally annoying and would rather have dirty knees or trousers in summer, or go for waterproofs at other times.
In one of the annual beds the first job of the year is always removing seedlings of a decorative little grass called Frosted Explosion. Its seedheads are delicate ephemeral fluffy wands that add a summer fairy’s touch to bridal bouquets, but the name gives it away, if not picked in time these seed heads disperse in an explosive way to colonise whatever ground they land upon. Why oh why don’t all the annuals that I want to self seed enjoy the same productive habit? Quaking grass is another spreading weed in this garden, and I can spend hours happily attempting to remove all traces from a bed only to find more seedlings appearing a few weeks later. I don’t mind either of these grasses, and I do indeed use them, but they do try to colonise ground that really should be home to others.
Bindweed is less benign and refuses to disappear from some beds but it also presents a very satisfactory weeding experience, the challenge of detaching those tiny young shoots that so often start in the centre of established shrubs and perennials, the joy of unearthing a long multi-rooted length. It has taken me three years to get on top of bindweed, and I know there will be more this year. It doesn’t appear in the first flush but waits to take you by surprise when you think the bed is weed free, I shall be watching!
This winter there have been so few weeding days. Usually a good clear up means there shouldn’t be much to do over the winter but this year the rains came too early before all was cleared, and it has been so mild that growth has continued so there will be a huge amount of necessary weeding action once the weather does finally clear. The perennial field beds are filled with giant buttercups that need to come out and will take more serious attack than a trowel offers, but to come at them with a border fork will do no good to the soil where standing water scarcely disappears before the next downpour. Earlier this week beautiful frosts gave way to a couple of clear days but the wet ground was first frozen then cold cloddy and sticky, I could only manage a couple of hours otherwise I would have done more harm than good on ground that will turn into a hard crust when the rain stops.
Until the ground improves, I wait, but I am impatient now. After a long mild spell it has been colder this week so does not feel the right time to start sowing under cover. I sense a huge rush coming on in a few weeks, but somehow I have to bide my time till then, weeding must wait, and so must I.