Pet dandelion with campion and lemon balm, with mullein (Verbascum chaixii) and white arabis on far side of path

Self-Inflicted Weeds

Most gardeners complain about weeds. It’s been said that there are no weeds, only plants in the wrong places. There may be something to that. Take the dandelion in the image at the top of the post. It’s been in that spot for several years. I cut out the flowers that have bloomed to keep them from producing seeds and otherwise leave it be. It’s sort of like keeping a wild animal as a pet.

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
Pet dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

More seriously weedy are several plants I would never have introduced to this garden now that I’ve come to know them. Once established, they spread and colonize, often invading other plants to the point both have to be dug up in order to remove the invader.

Two I’m doing battle with right now are Italian arum and periwinkle (Vinca minor, two different varieties). I planted them because they were praised and recommended by reputable garden writers.

The late Henry Mitchell was keen on the Italian arum (Arum italicum), and since he was a good writer, I was infected with his enthusiasm for the plant. Okay, my original specimen was grown from seeds I collected near a bike path, so maybe it’s an unruly type. Mitchell, I recall, mentioned a variety called “Marmoratum,” which apparently was granted an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.

I would like to bestow an Invasive Plant Curse on the arum, because it has made itself a pest here. It spreads both by seeds — which are one of its most attractive features — and underground bulblets. The older the plant, the deeper it roots, making it almost impossible to remove without major digging and disruption. And its flowers are unremarkable, apart from smelling like rotting meat (a quality common to the arum family).

Arum italicum foliage
Italian arum foliage

So, Mr. Mitchell, were you aware of these problems with the arum and chose not to reveal them, or was yours better-behaved?

A plant with similar faults is the bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta or H. hispanica or maybe a hybrid of the two, H. × massartiana). It’s the much-praised denizen of the springtime woodland. I didn’t plant them; they were already established when I started gardening here. In bloom, it’s quite pretty, but it spreads even faster than the arum, and like it has lush, dense foliage that weighs down or shades any smaller plants nearby. Both bluebells and arum go dormant for the summer, but in spring, where these plants grow thickly, others get shaded or crowded out.

Bluebells, probably Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica

The bulbs of arums and bluebells are a foot or more below the soil surface, so digging them out is a challenge. In spots where they’ve wedged themselves in among other plants, it means major disturbance. The optimal times for transplanting or dividing perennials and bulbs vary, so one is bound to be doing this operation at non-optimal times for some things. Besides, in my garden it’s tough, unpleasant work, because there will inevitably be tree roots to deal with.

I’m going to experiment with cutting off the top growth of arums and bluebells in specific areas. In theory, this will eventually do them in.

Periwinkle is often recommended as a groundcover for “problem areas” such as dry shade. That’s why I planted it here. Unfortunately, I chose the unimproved basic type of Vinca minor. It has covered the ground altogether too well. It’s evergreen, so few other herbaceous plants can compete with a thick mat of it. Even the yellow and green variegated type has revved up in recent years and wound its way around irises and other perennials.

Corsican hellebore and variegated vinca, green and yellow with pale purple flowers
Variegated periwinkle covering the ground

Fortunately, periwinkle can be uprooted quite easily, working from the edge of a patch inward to the more established parts. It pays to keep an eye out for a resurgence, though. Missed bits or roots that haven’t been extracted will make a comeback.

Forget-me-not (Myosotis) is another of my self-inflicted weeds. It’s a case of too much of a good thing. In full spring bloom, it creates a blue mist of tiny flowers. What’s not to love? Its habit of abundant self-seeding, that’s what. The dense crop of seedlings that results can out-compete less aggressive plants. Individual plants are short-lived and easy to pull up, but it’s important to remove most of them as soon as bloom starts to fade, leaving only a few to develop seeds.

Forget-me-nots, Myosotis
Forget-me-nots are impossible to forget when they seed themselves abundantly.

Random self-seeding is also responsible for a surprisingly large number of unintended hellebores in some of my beds and borders. Now, I like hellebores, and they do well here, but I don’t want them in the wrong places (they are fair-sized plants with “presence”) or glommed up against other plants that need their fair share of space, nutrients, and water. Moreover, not all of the volunteers have attractive blooms; some of them are murky mixtures of purple and green. Which means I’m going to dig some of them up and send them to the big compost heap in the sky.

The difference between a garden and plants growing in a state of nature is that the latter is a winner-take-all brawl and the garden has a referee — the weary gardener, who decides what is a weed and what isn’t.

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. closeup of flower
Dandelion. Too beautiful to be a weed?
Purple crocuses

The Old Garden and the Old Gardener

I’ve been gardening the same patch of land for a quarter century. You would think that means perfection has been achieved.

You would be wrong.

An old garden full of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and self-seeding annuals, gardened by someone not good at ruthless removal, becomes a mess. New gardeners, take note! Sometimes you have to remove (i.e., kill) perfectly healthy, beautiful plants because they’re in the wrong place, or there are too many of them, or they’re weeds. If you relent and let them be, your garden will become a mess.

Define “mess.”

In my garden, it means a jumble of plants above ground and an entanglement of roots, rhizomes, corms, and bulbs beneath the surface. Any garden project, however simple and straightforward its intention, rapidly becomes complicated and tricky.

purple hellebore flowers

Oriental hellebore

For example, the other day I decided to cut down the old foliage of some oriental hellebores, to better display the emerging flowers, and in anticipation of distributing compost and fertilizer in the next few weeks. This is best done while the ground is relatively bare, meaning after old stuff has been removed and before new growth has covered the ground. And, of course, after any unwanted plants (sometimes called “weeds”) have been removed.

Simple, right? Except that in this garden the line between weed and non-weed has always been kind of fuzzy.

Arum italicum foliage

Italian arum foliage

So, back to the hellebores. Snipping the old stems close to the ground was easy, but while doing that I noticed that a nearby patch of Italian arum was encroaching on some emerging irises and the still dormant buds of a peony. I had been careless about cutting down the arum’s seed stalks (because they’re so ornamental, like little red corn cobs on sticks) and they had sprouted new plants around the original one, as well as spreading underground. I got the hori-hori knife and went to work.

June 11, 2016

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

The young arums were easy enough to dig up and remove, but the mature arums’ bulbous roots are quite deep underground. Try digging them up without harming the irises and peonies. Too often, I heard that awful crisp snap of plant tissues breaking. Several arum roots remained below ground, and at least one iris was prematurely dispatched. At the end of the session, instead of a neatly weeded patch of ground, the area resembled a battlefield, complete with casualties.

The whole place is like this! Regular garden plants rub roots with the tough specimens I brought in because they were recommended for situations like mine — sandy soil, shade, tree roots, and increasingly dry summers. Any kind of adjustment that involves digging almost always becomes a blood and guts situation — well, okay, a battle with roots, with some unoffending plant as collateral damage.

Another annoyance this year is the crocus massacre. Over the years, crocuses, mostly purple ones, have multiplied and spread through the garden, sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally. But now I’ve found many holes several inches deep, surrounded by broken crocus shoots, many with buds showing. The bulbs — or more accurately, corms — have been eaten. Rats, which have become distressingly numerous in this superlative suburb in recent years, are my number one suspect. I know squirrels are reputed to eat crocuses, but there have always been squirrels here, and I’ve never observed them digging up crocuses. They’re more interested in picking up sunflower seeds dropped from the bird feeder, and unlike rats, they’re diurnal. So I’ve resorted to covering the remaining crocuses with chicken wire, which is ugly and not kind to plant tissues, but may preserve them.

That’s the thing about gardening, though. Unlike many hobbies or avocations, it involves so many factors beyond the control of the person who undertakes it. Weather, soil, birds, rats, insects, and the gardener’s state of health (both physical and mental) — all these things influence what happens in a garden, but none of them is entirely under the gardener’s control.

Picking up the spade and the trowel, and committing oneself to turning a patch of land into a garden, is a momentous undertaking. Once you’ve created the garden, you must do whatever it takes to maintain it, even if that means struggles of various kinds. Frost? Cover or move those tender plants. Drought? Hoist the watering can and wrestle with the hose. Crowding and imbalance? Clip back, cut down, or dig up. Weeds? Pull and dig. And curse and pull and dig some more. Ravenous rodents? Lay out chicken wire. And so on.

Gardening is a lifelong negotiation with the forces of the natural world. Few things are more real and raw. And despite everything, worthwhile.

Crocuses and chicken wire to prevent rats from digging them up

Chicken wire may protect these crocuses from being dug up by rats.

Weeding, Part 3: Weeding as Meditation?

In theory, at least, weeding can be exactly the sort of almost-but-not-quite mindless activity that allows the mind to be alert yet not directly engaged with the task at hand. It can roam free and sometimes throws up ideas worth pursuing later. At the very least, this kind of weeding has a similar effect to that of “mindful meditation.”

Today I noticed that an area by my pond paved with random stone slabs has way too much of a small, weedy grass whose name I don’t know, but which appears every winter. Last winter must have been a good one for it, because there’s more of it than ever before. Even worse, it seems to be going to seed. I had one of those “Something must be done” moments.

May 11, 2014

I pulled up a few of the grass plants, but soon realized that this was going to be a project.

May 11, 2014 (2)

Leaving the little pile of weedlings, I went to fetch a pair of gloves and a kneeling pad. After an hour or so, the spot looked considerably less fuzzy and the weed pile was a lot bigger. Only the “creeping Jenny” (Lysimachia nummularia) intended to be there remains, along with a few Labrador violets and a bit of moss.

Weeding May 11, 2014

Weed pile May 11, 2014

I like moss, especially growing between paving stones. It gives a garden a feeling of age (in the venerable sense) and tranquility. The trouble is, the pesky grass grows right through the moss, and when pulled up its mat of fine roots yanks a out a chunk of moss, leaving a patchy effect and a gardener who is annoyed rather than tranquil. So much for the meditative effect. A set of grass shears is deployed and the grass cut off as close to ground level as possible. Not perfect, but at least the seed heads are gone.

After a couple of hours, the area cleared is pathetically small and the gardener tired. This part of the garden looks splendid, more because of the profusion of spring growth than because of the weeding efforts, but that’s all right.

Pond Bench May 11. 2014


Even the cat (who has supervised the whole operation) approves, and is happy to join the gardener in a well-deserved rest.



Weeding Part 2: How To Weed

Weeding season is almost over, or should be. Actually, it’s never over, but I mean the main spring weeding effort, which, if done promptly, can save the gardener a lot of work and worry later on.

Spring is the ideal time to extract most annual weeds before they bloom, set seeds and multiply. It’s also a good time to deal with perennial weeds, while they are in the early stages of growth and easily seen.

In an earlier post, I noted that it’s helpful for gardeners to recognize plants at the seedling stage, so they can remove them if they are weeds or nurture them if they are desired plants. Keeping that in mind, here are some tools and techniques for removing the unwanted.

Tools range from small and surgical (a one-prong cultivator that used to have three prongs, the usual three-pronged version as well as a three-pronged hand-fork, a nice little hand-hoe with a very sharp blade, the ever-popular dandelion tool) to large and crude (hoes, mattocks and the like, which I hardly ever use in my crowded beds). The main thing is to decide whether you want to extract or merely cut. Cutting works for masses of small seedlings. The sharp-bladed hand-hoe is just the thing for slicing their roots just below the soil surface, but care is needed to avoid desirable plants, which can be decapitated along with the weeds. A different set of tools is needed to penetrate the soil as far as a weed’s roots go, in order to loosen it to the point that the weed can be extracted intact. The dandelion tool is an example of this, but the sad truth is that I never get the whole root. Removing at least some of it does in the dandelion for that season, however, and prevents blooming and seeding. Repeated hoicking, moreover, weakens the plant to the point where it eventually gives up. I have reduced the dandelion population in my lawn to almost nothing this way, even though dandelions bloom merrily in the yard next door.

Weeding Tool Arsenal

Weeding Tool Arsenal

Weeding teaches one how to weed. After a few sessions, you recognize which weeds can be pulled up by yanking on their tops and which need to be dug out or pried up. The main thing is to do this work before the soil dries and hardens and taproots become immovable. That’s by the end of May in my garden, but a lot depends on soil type (clay is always difficult) and amount of rainfall.

Tardy gardeners need desperate measures for when things are getting out of control:  if weeds haven’t been pulled out before blooming, at least cut off the developing seed heads. Even if the seeds have ripened, you can carefully cut off the seed heads, depositing them into a bucket. Resign yourself to the fact that some seeds will be scattered during this procedure, resulting in seedlings next spring. And it goes without saying that you don’t put the seed heads into the compost heap, unless yours is a hot heap. (Mine isn’t).

Finally, know when to admit defeat and negotiate. Some weeds are invincible and you just have to learn to live with them (or move). Nearly every summer, I find myself pulling masses of small bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) out of the lawn — not to remove it permanently; there’s no hope of that — but as an act of cosmetic desperation, simply to get rid of as many of those screaming white flowers that stand out wonderfully against the by then brown lawn. There’s something slovenly about that scene, like dust-bunnies chasing each other around the kitchen floor. (But maybe that’s just one of my crotchets and other people don’t even notice bindweed. I can always hope).

Right now I’m thinking I had better come to grips with “deadheading” Euphorbia characias subsp. characias “Humpty Dumpty” (yes, that really is its name, both the repetitious Latin moniker and the cutesy variety name). It blooms hugely all spring. In June, the flower heads begin to take on a tawny look, and if you are near the plant on a sunny day, you hear crisp little pops. “What’s that?” you think. It’s the euphoria’s seed pods bursting and shooting seeds all over the place, resulting in a crop of little seedlings (blue-green 1/2-inch long leaves) that need to be pulled out before they grow into 4′ x 4′ Humpties. Really.

Euphorbia "Humpty Dumpty"

Euphorbia “Humpty Dumpty”

Weeding Part 1: Know What You Are About to Kill

If you garden, you weed. That’s the inevitable fact. Opening the soil gives weed seeds the opportunity to sprout, and since weeds are tough characters that easily out-compete most domestic plants, they must be “managed,” which means removed, destroyed or killed. Weeding season is upon us now, but before seizing their preferred tools and doing battle, gardeners would do well to sharpen their attention and open their eyes.

This may not apply to gardens that are neat and tidy, where the distinction between ‘garden plants,’ and ‘weeds’ is clear and distinct. My garden is a motley situation, a chaotic pluralism whose occupants range from undisputed non-weeds (blue poppies, delphiniums, hybrid lilies) to herbs (which can be surprisingly weedy) to tough plants with tendencies to colonize (peach-leaf bellflower, periwinkle) or seed mightily (campion, mullein, toadflax).

Since the early days of this garden, certain plants have transitioned from welcome and wanted to suspect to weeds. If a plant is to be removed, it’s easier to do it when it’s a mere seedling than weeks later when it has become firmly rooted and requires more effort to extract, or, even worse, when it has bloomed and gone to seed, thus ensuring its presence forever. On the other hand, if you want certain plants in your patch and depend upon seedlings for this, you need to recognize those tiny plants so you will not inadvertently yank them out or mow them down along with the weeds.

For example,  borage is a pleasant herb (however useless in the kitchen), with its clusters of blue flowers over prickly leaves. It seeds enthusiastically, however, which means that you will have way too much of it unless you pull up most of the seedlings. So if you see its solid little leaves emerging in the lettuce patch, you will want to yank them out, but if a couple turn up among other herbs, or next to the scarlet runner beans, you would do well to spare them and let them grow.

I can recognize dozens of plants when they are still infants — maples, laburnums, hollies, foxgloves, mulleins, toadflax, campion, lavender, lemon balm, arugula, lady’s mantle, violets, various euphorbias, hellebores and many others, including definite weeds such as shepherd’s purse, which appeared in the area a few years ago and is probably here to stay. I pull up or hoe out most of them, but not without recognizing them first. “Hello Toadflax, goodbye, Toadflax; hi there, Mullein, OK you can stay.”

Twice, this policy of seedling recognition has paid off handsomely. Years ago I bought a plant of Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea,’ a yellow ornamental grass with more substance than Bowles’ golden grass, Milium effusum ‘Aureum.’ I made the mistake of assuming it was as tough and drought-tolerant as Luzula nivea, the snowy woodrush, which borders on being a pest at my place. One April I admired my plant in full bloom, then paid it little attention until July, when I found it brown and dead. Efforts to find a replacement locally failed. One nursery owner informed me that there was no demand for this grass, so they didn’t stock it. I was about to order a plant by mail, but I found what appeared to be a seedling — bright yellow, among a bunch of equally yellow sprouts of Bowles golden, except that this one seemed more robust and perky. Hoping it was Luzula, I moved it to a pot and kept a close eye on it until I was sure. I planted it back into the border and have taken more notice of it since.

A similar story with Salvia regeliana: from one plant, I got several more by self-seeding, and took it for granted. Then all those plants disappeared. I suspect it’s naturally short-lived, like many salvias. But the following spring I found a couple of seedlings that might have been mulleins, but their leaves were darker green and wrinkly, rather than fuzzy. They looked a bit like foxgloves, but not entirely. Could they be offspring of the lost salvias? They were and still are.

All this leads to observations that apply to many things in life, but especially to gardening. Pay attention. Take your time. Don’t take things — or plants — for granted. Gardening is not a sport in which you get points for speed.