Chelsea Flower Show has been and gone! The Show gardens flowered in unison, with immaculate paving, crystal clear water features and none of that garden detritus most of us accumulate!
Rows of identical orchids and perfect cabbages filled the marquee, not a petal or leaf out of place. But does all that perfection inspire or depress you?
It’s a thin line and the same goes for this time of year in general.
May is a beautiful month in the garden and the on-off weather causing us such havoc in our clothing choices at the minute is perfect for all the plants just getting into their stride.
Everything a photosynthetic organism could need is there in shed loads – warmth, moisture and sunlight abound. But this is also the month when everything can feel like it’s getting away from even the most conscientious of gardeners. Panic begins to set in as job lists appear to grow with the same wilful abandon as the plants – weeds in particular!
WHERE HAVE ALL THE SEEDLINGS GONE?!
And weeds have been a noticeable challenge in our vegetable beds this year, where some imported soil has contributed a whole host of unwanted seeds to the ground, threatening to swamp our outdoor sowings.
It can be really dispiriting, especially for first-time growers on new plots, to see an explosion of weeds like that: You’ve laboriously cleared and dug the soil, pulled up the perennial weeds, added compost or other organic matter and sown your precious crops; then you turn your back for a moment and WHOOSH! suddenly a green carpet covers that pristine dark tilth, and none of it is what you were hoping for.
Seedlings of molly-coddled cultivated plants are quickly swamped by their thuggish wild relatives and it can be hard to tell just where your neat row was. You put off weeding to wait and see and suddenly it’s too late – the weeds have won and you have to start again.
THE SOIL SEED BANK
Anyone could be discouraged by that: “It’s a lot of work this gardening lark. Why bother when the weeds just keeping coming back?!”. But there is hope! Weeding is one of those jobs where the more you do, the less you have to. The soil contains a reservoir of seeds (called the soil seed bank) waiting for the right conditions to grow and while this may sometimes seem infinite, it is not. On neglected or uncultivated ground there will be significantly more seeds than in a patch that has been gardened for a few years. When you’re laboriously pulling those weeds from the ground, just remember you are chipping away at that tally!
A STITCH IN TIME…
And in the meantime here are a few tips we’ll be following at the Greenhouses to make a life of weeding that bit easier. Staying ahead of the game is the easiest way to to deal with weeds. As with most things in gardening and indeed life, get in there early and you will have a fraction of the work on your hands.
- Hold back! If possible, once you’ve cultivated your bed and got it ready for sowing, resist the urge to sow straight away and give it a few days to allow the weeds to poke their heads above ground. Then hoe them off before finally making your sowings.
- Mark where you’ve been! Use a string line or strip of sand over where you’ve planted your seeds. That way when you ‘re not sure whether you’re looking at a weed or a crop you can apply a simple rule – if it’s outside the line it’s unwelcome. You’ll still have to weed anything that comes up in the row itself, but interestingly, according to Joy Larkcom, research has shown that the weeds between the rows, rather than in them cause the most competition.
- Hoe regularly! Don’t wait for the weeds to get going. Your first job whenever you go to the plot should be to run a hoe between the rows (which you’ve beautifully and clearly marked out!) knocking back any intruders before they get the chance to get going.
- Space! Make sure you’ve left enough space between rows that you can run that hoe between them. But equally, grow your veg close enough together that once established they will shade out any competition.
- Mulch! Applying a mulch between your rows of veg at this time of year can have a number of benefits, not least of which is that it will help to suppress unwanted seed germination. If you use compost or other well-rotted organic matter it will also lock in moisture and warmth and supply some nutrients to your crops. There is a risk of course that the mulch itself will bring in more weeds, but this can be avoided by making sure your compost heap is well maintained and nice and hot. Cardboard also makes an effective, if slightly ugly mulch.
- Friends rather than foes! Sowing a green manure or ground cover on bare ground can be a good way to keep weeds down. We will be sowing clover underneath our soft fruit bushes. Clover is vigorous and provides valuable nectar for pollinators. It is also a legume, meaning it will fix plenty of nitrogen into the soil. Buckwheat and Phaselia also make good green manures that can be dug in for added nutrients when their purpose is served.
- No more Seeds! If nothing else, make sure the weeds aren’t allowed to go to seed. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds to top up that soil seedbank so if you do end up having to tolerate a few weeds, just make sure you snap any flower or seed heads off.
None of the above will deal with perennial weeds like Bindweed and Dandelions, which need to have their whole roots dug out, but it will serve to keep them under a degree of control until you get time to do that.
And remember not to let either the unrealistic perfection of Chelsea or the unrelenting march of the weeds get you down! There’s always more to be done in any real garden, which is part of the joy. Find time to enjoy the weather and marvel at all that life!