Couch Grass

I’m engaged in a battle with a wily, wiry enemy. Just how do you get rid of couch grass? Unfortunately, there’s no easy way. This is what it looks like…

These are the rhizomes (a few of which have produced leaves) of couch grass – latin name Elymus repens – lying on the surface after some frenzied digging by yours truly. The area of the garden where we’re creating the main border is run through with it, and we’ve been digging out great heaps of the stuff. The rhizomes creep along under the surface of the soil, building up a tangled and extensive network. Nodes at regular intervals along the rhizomes can push new clusters of grass up through the soil. Quite impressive, really. But not very helpful when you’re trying to cultivate a garden.

There are a number of approaches to take. Spraying with chemicals is increasingly seen as an unacceptable option. Glyphosate, the main ingredient of most (if not all) weed killers available to consumers, has been linked to cancer (though the big pharma companies are doing their best to hide all evidence) and only has a limited effect anyway. You’ll need to spray a number of times, leaving a few weeks between treatments, to get on top of it. You can cover affected areas, ideally with something that won’t let light through; something like thick black plastic. Okay for a bed with no other plants in it. But you’ll need to keep it covered for some time (i.e.; months, or even a year). And even then, you might not have killed it completely. And, of course, we should be using less plastic!

Digging is an option, and the one we’re using. This is the area I’m working on at the moment…

You have to be careful to get all the rhizomes out, because any you leave in the soil will re-grow. Realistically, it’s not possible to do this in one go. Our thin, sandy, dusty soil makes the process as easy as it could be, but it’s still hard work. There are cultivated plants in the bed too; these can be saved, but it’s harsh on them, because to remove all of the couch grass that’s grown in among their roots, you have to remove pretty much all of the soil around the roots. This is a time of year when you stand a good chance of the plants recovering from the shock. As we salvage plants they get put in a temporary position in our nursery bed. Ideally, having dug a bed over, you should leave it for a few weeks and then dig it over again to find the bits you missed, which may well have sprouted – giving themselves away to you. This time it should be much easier, as the soil should still be loose from the first digging over. But this is not an ideal world, and time is short, so we will probably take a chance and put in some of the plants straight away. This should work, but it will be critical to keep on top of the situation and dig out any couch grass as soon as the shoots appear.

One more option I’ve heard is to bury the stuff. This probably works best where it’s matted together to form turfs – in which case you would stand practically no chance of separating the grass from the soil anyway. The theory is that with couch grass, if you can bury it in a trench, and put a foot or so of soil on top, it will die through lack of light (a bit like the black plastic option). That sounds risky to me though. A safer option might be to cut the top few inches off and create a turf stack. Pile the turves up with the green sides together, and over time they rot down to form good quality topsoil. Here’s one I prepared earlier…

In fact this is made from standard turves, without any couch (hopefully!) The canes and string are marking out the design for the garden. These turves are in what will eventually be a border. I dug a pit so that the stack is partially buried – it’s best to exclude light where possible. And I can make use of the topsoil that would otherwise be under the stack. After six months to a year you can go through the heap and remove any perennial weeds that haven’t rotted. In the worst case, if you’ve made a stack with couch grass turves and the couch rhizomes haven’t rotted, at least the problem weeds are collected together in the one place, rather than being spread all over your plot!

With couch grass, as with most weeds, it’s a war of attrition – by keeping at it you’re constantly reducing the weed population, and weakening those that you don’t destroy completely. In time, you should get the situation under control. But even then, don’t turn you back on it for too long – you may win some glorious battles, but in the long run, you’ll never win a war against nature…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Up the Garden Path

This is the back garden as it was mid December last year, when we moved in, laid mostly to lawn, and dominated by a straight central path cutting the space in two.

We’ve got a working plan now. It isn’t quite finalised, but I’m confident it’s close enough that we can prepare the ground where the trees will go before it’s too late to get them in. Trees are generally much cheaper when bought bare rooted, but this can only be done in the dormant season, and they have to be planted within a few days of being lifted out of the ground. The path had to go. Here it is after I was half way through taking it out (taken 25th Feb):

The bed on the left is also going, so I’ve been taking the plants out and moving them to the nursery bed.

Work has been progressing smoothly, as and when I can fit it in. As you can see here, the chickens have wasted no time in annexing the bare earth as a dust bath:

This was the state of play as of 7th March, with all of the concrete and gravel removed, and the paving slabs left loose for the time being, so we have something to walk on:

I had hoped the slabs and gravel were laid on membrane over compacted soil, but I was to be disappointed. It’s been a long time since the old pick axe has seen that much action, and I’m left with a huge amount of rubble that will need to be removed at some point (I may be able to use some of it under paths and patios elsewhere).

You may just have noticed we’ve planted some trees in the grass. The design I came up with has a mini orchard, set with six fruit trees – 2 apples, 2 pears, a plum and a damson. I’m aiming to turn the grass into wild flower meadow, with a mown path curving through the trees to a patio at the end, under the large birch tree. In total so far we’ve planted 9 trees, and 100 hedging plants. And there will be more to come.

I’ll sign off, for now, with this month’s centrefold; the lovely Lola, sprawled on a bed. Calm yourselves…

Text & Images © Graham Wright 2020

Nursery Beds

Most gardening books say you should live with a new garden for a full year before making changes. Until you’ve seen the garden in every season you won’t know exactly what you’ve got. It’s good advice as far as it goes, but frustrating when you want to get going on re-designing and replanting.

Plants take time to establish – particularly trees and shrubs. A year of doing nothing is a year added to the time you have to wait for trees to become more than sticks; shrubs more than a foot tall – another year before you’ll be picking apples, plums, pears; another year away from getting privacy from neighbours, from screening an ugly view, or providing shelter from a prevailing wind. It may be good advice, but in practice, it’s advice most of us won’t follow.

Late winter/early spring is when most bulbs begin to show themselves. In our new garden we’ve been delighted to see clumps of snowdrops (Galanthus) appearing. Had we been able to start rebuilding the garden in the autumn we wouldn’t have known they were there. But there again, if you dig carefully you should notice even small bulbs like snowdrops in the soil. Even if you’re not able to identify them, you can always pop them into a spare corner and see what they turn into.

This is just one of the advantages of creating a garden yourself, rather than employing landscape contractors, who are unlikely to have the time or the inclination to go to the trouble. When you re-build and re-plant a garden yourself it tends to be a transitional process. If you intend to re-use materials like paving slabs and gravel, you need somewhere to pile them up until you’re ready to re-use them. For plants, you need a nursery bed – a clear area of soil that can provide a temporary home for plants that need to be moved, but which you don’t have a permanent position for just yet. As we’re preparing and marking out the new design we can move the snowdrops, along with daffodils, tulips, etc. into the nursery bed, where they can stay until we can find permanent positions for them.

But what else to keep? Deciduous shrubs are not always easy to identify without their leaves, and many perennials have nothing at all showing above ground at this time of year, which means they can be easily missed. But unless the previous owners were exceptionally tidy, there’s usually some dead material from last year’s growth hanging around to give you a clue.

Evergreens, of course, are easy, as they still have their leaves. Rhododendrons are not my favourite plants, particularly as they struggle in most gardens (unless you happen to have moist, acid soil with lots of organic material in it). But this one is showing lots of juicy flower buds, so I’m sure we can find somewhere for it. At the moment it’s in a slate-mulched island bed, but our new design has this area as a mini orchard, with wildflower meadow. So it can go into the nursery bed for now. Along with…

This evergreen Euonymus (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald & Gold’?) may need to be moved too. They make good space fillers, brightening up dark areas even in winter. You can see it’s reverted in places, producing solid green leaves rather than variegated. This will need to be cut out. And…

I’ll cut this rose right back before digging it out with as much of the roots as I can. I think it’s a yellow variety, and has been very healthy (though as you’d expect, it’s been hit by the weather recently). With little sign of rose black spot, it’s definitely worth hanging on to.

There’s more in the garden than it would appear at first glance, such as this large patch of Lithadora (probably ‘Heavenly Blue’), a plant that didn’t want to know in our last garden, but which has beautiful, vibrant, true blue flowers – a real asset to a garden.

I’m happy to see that foxgloves (Digitalis) seem happy to self-seed freely all over the garden. These free plants will come in useful for filling the gaps while the garden is getting established.

Starting work on a new garden can be difficult in the winter. So far we’ve been lucky with the weather. It’s been relatively mild, and often not too wet or too frosty to dig. But you never know at this time of year. If today is anything to go by we could might not be getting out there too often…

text & photos © Graham Wright 2020