Termata Disaster!

The tomatoes started so well this year. We grew them from seed (Gardeners’ Delight) on a windowsill. They germinated quickly, grew strongly, and it wasn’t long before they needed potting on. When the weather had warmed up, we moved them into the greenhouse. Flowers came, followed by nascent fruits. We potted them up into their final, large pots. They continued to grow. But we began to notice some curling in the leaves. The new leaves, as they came, didn’t look quite right – too thin and spidery. There was clearly something not quite right, but it wasn’t until recently that we noticed just how bad things had become…

Not a pretty sight, is it? But what could be the problem? A virus, maybe? The lower, earlier leaves had curled a little, and had brown and yellow markings, but it wasn’t blight, because the plants weren’t so much dying as becoming hideously deformed. It looked like an example of weed killer damage, but how could that be, when we don’t use any weed killers in the garden, and when we generally buy organic, peat-free compost? I did wonder whether it was drift from the weed killer used on the adjacent farmland, but I don’t think the timing was right, and it’s unlikely enough would have drifted into the green house to cause the problem.

I sent pictures to the RHS for their advice (you have to be a member to use this service) and the answer came back that yes, it almost certainly is weed killer damage (to which tomatoes are very susceptible) – almost certainly from the compost. The RHS expert didn’t seem especially surprised. It seems that there isn’t too much control over the material that goes into compost.

Weedkillers are used extensively, including by councils, on roadside verges etc. ‘Weed & Feed’ type products are used in large quantities by householders on their lawns, which then grow like Billy-Oh. The clippings are sent to be recycled by the local council, who sell on the resulting compost (which, of course, will be heavily contaminated with chemicals). Perhaps this is one of the problems of avoiding peat (which, I would guess, is free of chemicals in its raw state) – you have to make compost from other materials, which may not be so pure.

We need to continue to move away from using peat, because of the degradation its extraction causes to the environment. But makers of compost really should be ensuring the material they use isn’t contaminated. Particularly if they’re labelling it as organic.

Annoyingly, we can’t remember which compost we used for the tomatoes. We potted them into their final pots early on during the lockdown, when it was very difficult to get compost. We had to bite the proverbial bullet and buy a few bags of non-organic compost from the Co-op. It may well have been that batch that was contaminated. But I’m not going to make any allegations at this stage.

We took offsets from the plants before they started to distort. It’s easy to do – you just pick out a reasonable sized side shoot, pop it into compost, and it roots in no time. These plants are now a good size, and are setting fruit. We’re taking no chances with them – we’ve planted them outside, in the soil (there isn’t much room left in the greenhouse anyway). It will be interesting to see how they progress, but so far, they’re fine.

I’ve got a plan for next year. I’m going to record what compost we use, and I’m going to grow one of the plants in soil from our garden, as a control. If that plant is OK, but the others have the same problem as this year, I’ll have evidence it’s the compost – and I’ll be straight on to the manufacturer. I’ll let you know what happens, and I’ll name the culprits if there is a problem.

For this year, there are some fruits that don’t seem to be affected lower down on the plants, and they’re beginning to ripen. I just hope they won’t poison us!

As a great robot used to say, ‘What a bummer Buck’…

text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Wildflower Meadow

Traditional lawns are something of a dead zone for wildlife, so why not save yourself time mowing and create a wildlife-friendly wildflower meadow?

‘Meadow’ is perhaps rather a grand term for the fairly small patch in our front garden. But even a small area of grass and wildflowers (left uncut, of course) can provide a habitat and food for critters. And as our house is on the edge of farmland, a more natural alternative to a formal lawn seemed more in keeping with the wider environment. Although on second thoughts, I may have been looking at the agro-industrial wasteland that surrounds us with rose-coloured spectacles. And I suspect most of the neighbours are appalled. Some of them have been cutting their lawns three times a week during the lockdown.

This is what the front ‘garden’ looked like shortly after we moved in at the end of last year:

Once the gravel had been cleared, the membrane lifted, and the soil prepared, I sowed a native wildflower and grass seed mix, with varieties specially selected for dry, sandy, gravelly soil. The wildflower mix has been slow to establish. I seeded it in early spring, which is normally a good time, but the weather took a long time to warm up again this year, and there was precious little rain around. There were times when I thought I would have to start again, but it’s finally beginning to come together. There are a wide range of plants coming up. One of the most prevalent is campion (Silene) – both the pink form, and the white…

There are cornflowers, achillea, and various types of clover…

And a few surprising interlopers. It looks pretty, and gives a splash of bold colour, but I can’t imagine this petunia was in the mix…

Likewise this Snap-dragon (Antirrhinum – or ‘Bunny Rabbits’, as we used to call them as kids)…

Both may have grown from seed from neighbours’ bedding plants. They could have been deposited by birds. Or perhaps they were in the soil – there was a garden there before it was buried beneath a layer of gravel and used as a parking lot. Corn Marigold seems to be prevalent in the area, and features in our ‘meadow’…

Bird’s foot trefoil is another wild-flower standard…

In the rear garden, we inherited a large, traditional lawn, which I think had been cut and treated with chemicals (such as the ubiquitous ‘weed & feed’) on a regular basis. I’ve mostly kept it cut for now, while we take bits out to make new beds and so on, but the plan is to make that a wildflower meadow too.

Every time you cut a lawn and dispose of the clippings elsewhere, you reduce it’s vigour. If you want your lawn to remain lush, you need to feed it regularly. But to make a successful wildflower meadow you need to reduce the fertility in the soil – otherwise the grasses take over and the wildflowers won’t flourish. So I’m hoping that if I keep cutting the grass this season, next year the soil will be less fertile, and I can incorporate wildflowers without them being smothered. There’ll be mown paths running through the longer areas, so we can walk around the garden.

The grass is very mixed at the moment. Half of it grows quickly and is very lush, with few ‘weeds’. The rest is growing slowly, so as a half-way house, for now I’m mowing these areas less, on a higher cut, to allow the lower growing wildflowers (or ‘weeds’) such as self-heal, daisies and clover, a chance. The bees are very happy…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

A New Greenhouse…

It’s been a while coming, but we’ve finally got our greenhouse. Here it comes…

The base under construction, with the topsoil put aside. It doesn’t look much, but days of work went into moving rubble and gravel from elsewhere in the garden.
Eight bags of cement, a large pile of ballast (sand and gravel) and numerous back-breaking mixes later, and the paving is finished. I re-used paving from elsewhere in the garden – the greenest materials you can source.
The greenhouse under construction. I’ve built a (smaller) greenhouse before, I can make short work of flat-pack furniture, and I’ve built two kitchens (one from scratch, the other from kitchen components) but I struggled with this. You really do wonder about some of the design decisions that went into it, and as for the instructions; well, had it been cold, they would have been more useful as kindling. But finally…
The finished product.

Despite the traumatic construction process, it’s actually a very good quality greenhouse, with none of the nasty sharp edges of the one we built in our last garden, and a doorway you can walk through without bending double (and risking lacerating the top of your head). It took us the better part of three days to build, and with amazing timing, we’d literally just tightened the last bolt and put the tools away when there was a cloudburst.

The greenhouse is a Hercules Hastings, in Old Cottage Green, from The Greenhouse People. We got it up and running not a moment too soon – just in time to get the tomato plants in (proudly grown from seed) before it was too late. We’ve also got a pepper plant, which is doing well. We picked it up on a fraught and hurried trip to a garden centre and food store earlier on during the lockdown. I must have picked up the wrong plant, and it was only recently that I discovered my mistake. It will be nice to have fresh peppers, but the one plant will only produce perhaps half-a-dozen, while a single chilli plant would have kept us in chillies all year.

Elsewhere in the garden, we’ve been dividing our time between watering, to keep all the newly planted trees and shrubs alive during the Mediterranean weather, and digging out bootlace fungus. Not my idea of gardening, but we have been able to concentrate on some of the nicer things. For instance, the sunflowers are coming into bloom…

Since the weather broke the annual weeds have suddenly burst into action, and the grass has turned from brown to green and started to actually grow. I’d forgotten it did that. So there’s been some mowing to do.

The chickens are continuing to keep us amused. The garden reached the stage where we couldn’t continue to let them out (too many delicate seedlings for them to destroy) so we bought a long roll of chicken wire and have sectioned off an area where they can’t do too much harm.

The chooks enjoying a dust bath huddle – chicken heaven!

So, the greenhouse is done, but there’s plenty of garden building still to be done…

Dorothy Clive Gardens

Visiting gardens is one of the things I’ve missed most during the lockdown, so it was a joy to finally be able to get to a garden. We (Mrs Pullingweeds and myself) headed out to the Dorothy Clive Garden near Market Drayton in Shropshire, on one of the hottest days of the year so far (reaching 31 degrees in the afternoon).

A flower-lined path meanders up from the car park to the tea shop. I love the way the colourful borders are set within the wider context of the arboretum, rather than being hidden away in ‘garden rooms’

The gardens have an extensive collection of rhododendrons, azaleas (which are, I believe, now classed as rhododendrons) and camelias. I expect they will have looked spectacular. I hope the gardeners enjoyed them, because by the time the gardens were able to open to the public once more, that particular seasonal show was over. As was the laburnum arch. Never mind; there was far more on offer, on what turned out to be a much larger site than I had realised (it actually covers twelve acres). Spring flowering shrubs are history – we’re into the summer show now.

Roses are in full bloom, as well as many of the perennials, such as salvias, heleniums, campanulas, delphiniums, nepeta, to name just a few. Judging by the number of verbascums, the soil may be quite sandy.

Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’ works well against a backdrop of… what? I should probably know what that spiky-leaved plant behind is, but I can’t think just at the moment.

Many of the roses smelt wonderful, but be careful; I’m beginning to think smelling roses can become an addiction. Rosa ‘The Generous Gardener’ (one of David Austin’s roses, I believe) climbing up a trellis, was one of the best.

Of the tender plants, dahlias were getting into their stride – mostly zesty oranges and rich, velvety reds (perhaps, like me, they like their dahlias as they like their wines). There were plenty of cannas and hedychiums (ginger lilies) out in the beds and in pots, though they won’t begin to flower for a while yet.

The hot borders. A lush, single dahlia (‘Mexican Star’?), with Salvia ‘Amistad’, against a background of tropical bananas.

That damned covid meant of course that facilities were limited. Plant sales are off this year. The cafe was serving drinks and cakes (a little over-priced I felt, at £2.95 for a coffee) to have outside. The counter was cordoned off with a row of upholstered chairs, curiously set up facing the counter, as if they were the front row in a theatre where the stage was set for a play set in a cafe. You had to eye-up the cakes from a distance, and shout your order from the back row, then wait at the end for the staff to bring the card machine to you. They were doing their very best under difficult circumstances. Fortunately the gardens weren’t very busy, so there weren’t too many awkward moments where ‘social distancing’ became tricky.

The gardens include an old quarry site, long since grown over (some of the large, older trees are reaching the end of their lives). Labyrinthine paths weave to and fro, up and down, so that finding your way isn’t easy. It took us a while to find the waterfall, but it was worth the hunt.

By the side of the waterfall a mysterious figure is almost obscured by the large leaves of a Rodgersia.
A lone Iris sibirica stands out against the background of ripples in the pool at the foot of the waterfall.

Even with the doors open, with the temperature in the high twenties the heated glasshouse was something of an endurance test, but we were rewarded with some beautiful blooms, such as Brugmansia (also known as Datura, or more commonly, ‘angels’s trumpets’)…


And the air was filled with the intoxicating vanilla fragrance from the Heliotropes near the entrance…

The gardens are surrounded by countryside, with views out here and there…

We had a lovely picnic lunch on the grass among the trees. All we were missing was one of those rich, velvety reds, but then we did have to drive home, so it was probably just as well. I don’t know whether, like so many other gardens, they have been operating with reduced staff during the lockdown, but if they have, it didn’t show – the gardens were looking superb. We had a great day out, and were sad to have to leave. But as we don’t live that far away, I’m sure we’ll be back before long…

Text & photos © Graham Wright 2020

What Makes a Garden? Bringing the Garden Indoors

Have you ever given any serious thought to what makes a garden? For as long as I can remember, eminent garden designers and TV pundits have pushed the idea of the garden as an extension to the house – a ‘room outside’. I’ve heard this repeatedly, particularly when researching garden design for my post graduate diploma. Apparently, garden design is not about plants. Comments like ‘ plants are the last thing you think about’, or ‘the plants are just the icing on the cake’ (John Brookes, among others) proliferate. But now, with the rising popularity of indoor gardening, comes the fightback – while they try to persuade us to turn our beloved gardens into ‘indoor rooms’, we’re letting the plants take over our houses!

A small selection of my cactus collection, with the blades of an Australian Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) in the foreground

Indoor planting allows us to compensate for the increasingly denuded state of our outdoor environment by packing our indoor spaces with plants. Maybe we can use this to persuade the unenlightened of the inescapable truth; that as well as being beautiful, plants are a physical and psychological necessity.

My two Aloe plants are coming into flower now; probably because I neglected their watering!

Too many people have been persuaded that what they want and need from a garden is copious space for eating and socialising, play areas for children (and adults), every type of cooking facility you can think of, from a simple BBQ to an ‘outdoor kitchen’, fire pits, hot tubs, covered areas and outdoor heaters (global warming, anyone?) to make the weather irrelevant, and extensive lighting systems to turn night into day. You can even buy powerful weather-proof sound systems, telling us it’s perfectly OK to broadcast our choice of music to the wider environment, as if both neighbours and wildlife don’t have a right to peace and quiet. Too many garden designs are predominantly hard landscaping – a room outside – with very little in the way of plants, and what planting there is tends to be isolated clumps of wildlife dead-zone plants such as bamboo. Don’t even get me started on the state of Britain’s front gardens.

A Schlumbergera (known as ‘Christmas cactus’ because they are often covered in showy blooms at that time of year) looking resplendent in dappled sunshine in the corner of the lounge.

There is another way. My garden hero takes a very different approach. The late Geoff Hamilton wrote of the garden as an escape from the speed, the complexity, the pressure and the noise of everyday life. He wrote of our biological need to spend time in touch with nature. Yes, we might want to be able to eat outside when the weather allows, and share our gardens with family and friends, but for me, the primary functions of a garden are as a sanctuary from the world, and a place to immerse yourself in nature. You can use plants to create a garden that, even in a town or a city, can cocoon you from the outside world, and in which you can imagine you are deep in a beautiful wilderness. Until the neighbours fire up the BBQ and the outdoor hi fi, and the heavy bass beats of what popular culture laughingly considers to be music drives you indoors. But don’t despair, because as they make use of their ‘room outside’, you can retreat to your indoor garden sanctuary.

My Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) is thriving. Peace Lilies are known to be particularly effective at improving the quality of air in rooms
An unknown cultivar of Streptocarpus. Streps, as they’re commonly known, are easy to grow, produce copious flowers all summer, and can be easily divided in the spring to produce more plants). They can even be used as an outdoor bedding plant in the summer if you end up with too many.

If we re-group indoors, maybe one day soon we’ll be ready to go out and change our twisted society’s attitude to gardens. Plants are not ‘the icing on the cake’, but rather the basic building blocks, into which the functional elements of the garden should be fitted. Garden design should attempt to create beautiful environments on a small scale; ‘paradise gardens’ in which we can escape from the ‘real’ world and commune with nature.

You heard it first here – let’s have a revolution…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Things take a dark turn in the garden…

While moving turf and digging out new beds I’d noticed lots of very tough, long, dark roots all over the garden. They looked similar to the long tap roots of cinquefoil – the perennial weed Potentilla reptans. But I never saw any top growth. And these roots were mostly travelling horizontally, a few inches below the surface, rather than down. And they really were long – too long for cinquefoil. And then finally, I realised what a dolt I’d been. They’re not roots, but rhizomorphs – it’s the dreaded honey fungus (or as it’s also known, bootlace fungus, after the long, black rhizomorphs that grow out for great distances).

Rhizomorphs on a section of tree root

My only excuse for not realising sooner is that up until now, I’d never seen it before. The two dead trees we inherited in the garden should have been a good clue. Entering panic mode, they had to go; starting with the biggest, right in the centre of the garden…

That took some effort! I felt a bit guilty burning it, but I did at least wait until the wind was in the right direction, so that the smoke blew away across the fields, rather than back towards the neighbours. And the guidance is to burn infected material. Mind you, it was still smouldering late into the next day! I’m now trying to cut up what’s left for a more controlled burning experience.There are a couple of roots still there under the grass, heading out in different directions – we’ll need to lift the turf and dig them out too. I may hire a chain saw for the other dead tree!

There are, apparently, five different varieties of honey fungus, or Armillaria, only two of which are generally found in gardens. I think we have A. gallica, which has large, easily visible rhizomorphs. Thankfully, this is considered to be the less damaging variety. The other, more destructive variety, A. mellea, has rhizomorphs that are much less visible, so very difficult to find. Looking on the black side, I suppose this means we could have that too! Let’s hope not.

These evil rhizomorphs have spread across much of the garden…

There are no chemical treatments for Armillaria. The only things you can do are to dig out and destroy infected material (difficult, if not impossible), bury impermeable barriers to a depth of around half a metre around infected plants or stumps, or around healthy plants you want to protect (difficult, if not impossible) and to use plants that are less susceptible to honey fungus. But apparently no plants are immune, and the data around which are more, or less susceptible seems questionable. The RHS list, for instance, has Pyrus (pear) in the least susceptible group, and Choisya (mexican orange) in the most, whereas Gardening Which says exactly the opposite! And the RHS contradicts itself in different articles. In their defence, they do point out the problems in identifying susceptible species – those that are most reported are likely to be those that are most prevalent (and/or, most valued) in gardens.

So; what’s our plan to eradicate this pernicious enemy?

  • Remove the dead trees (including as much of the root system as possible),
  • Hold off with any more tree planting for now – hopefully by the autumn, deprived of their food source, most of the rhizomorphs will have died (good riddance!),
  • Cultivate (i.e.; dig over!) as much of the garden as is reasonably possible. Go through the ground with a fine-tooth comb (alright; a hand fork!) and pick out as much rhizomorph as possible,
  • Keep on digging down around the trees we’ve planted (but not too close; we don’t want to damage their roots) to head off any actively growing rhizomorphs,
  • Hope for the best!

The dry weather may well be helping us, drying out any rhizomorphs left in the ground.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The white lilac (Syringa) in the chicken run has just flowered, and looked (and smelt) a treat…

And the Iris sibirica we brought with us in pots is flourishing…

text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Another Spring Drought…

For the past few years I’ve written about a prolonged drought at spring – a time when you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. I wondered whether it was just in the Vale of Glamorgan, where I was living until last December. But now I’m in Shropshire, and this year’s drought is like nothing I can remember. Grass is going brown. The 250 litre water butt we installed a few months ago has long since been emptied. And the pond is becoming little more than a muddy puddle…

The alpine flowers look pretty reflected in the water, even if the surface is a bit messy. We inherited the pond, the bridge and an artificial hill with an imitation mountain stream waterfall. Not really our style, but I have to admit that at this time of year the alpine flowers look wonderful…

The darker blue flowers are Lithodora ‘Heavenly Blue’, but beyond that, and the heathers, I’m not sure – alpines are not plants I’ve ever taken much interest in. I suspect there are some alpine phlox in there. They don’t seem to mind the dry weather.

We haven’t had any significant rain for many weeks. Added to that, it’s been mostly sunny, and there’s been a strong, desiccating wind (my OED says ‘desiccative’, but WordPress isn’t so fussy). Not the greatest conditions in which to be creating a new garden. I’ve been moving turf around to set out the beds and the grassy areas, but struggling to stop them drying up altogether. Watering has been a major job, particularly as most of the plants we brought with us are still in pots.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve lost a few, including a small cutting of a fig, some phlox (the border type, rather than alpine varieties), and a yellow bottlebrush/wattle called Melaleuca squarrosa, which was one of a few grown from seed brought back from Australia). The one we planted in our last garden was around seven feet tall by the time we left, but we don’t have any left now. Maybe that’s an excuse to go and buy some more seeds, if ever we’re allowed to travel again.

The plants we bought from Burncoose nursery are all in now, and seem to be hanging on, with regular watering. The buds of the two upright beech trees are swelling and elongating, and I’m looking forward to them opening. The six fruit trees in our mini orchard have been in for longer and are also doing okay. This is Malus (apple!) ‘James Grieve’…

In the raised bed at the end (which will eventually be moved later on in the implementation of my garden plan) we’ve already harvested some of the rhubarb, and the reset strawberry plants are beginning to flower among the rubble…

I’ve been cavalier in moving rhododendrons that were in the way, but they’re coming out now, and I have to admit they are impressive. I may try harder to accommodate them under, and among the structural trees and shrubs in the design. The rich red will really shine out from the understorey. I’m almost excited to see what colours some of the others will be. I hope they survive, though some will need to be moved again, once they’ve finished flowering, and our thin soil is going to need some significant bulking up with organic material if they are to really thrive.

I was initially delighted to discover we had soil that is so easy to work. But in the last few weeks, with the continuing dry, sunny, windy conditions, I’ve seen just how thin it is. The tractors working in the field have raised dust storms, and as I clear more areas of grass and weeds I’ve taken to covering the exposed soil, for fear it will all blow away. It really is a bit like the mid-west here. All we need is some tumble weed. On the plus side, I am looking forward to growing a range of different plants from those I’ve been used to. Echinacea, for instance, and heleniums, which typically didn’t last the winter in the heavy clay of our last garden. Broom seems to do very well here – we have three large plants in the garden, and they are all full of flower, giving off a distinctive, heady aroma. Who needs Chanel?

And the magnolia is finally in full flower. I’m not sure of the variety. Despite having plenty of flowers, it’s something of a disappointment. Magnolia flowers can be damaged by frost; normally it’s the ones that flower early that suffer most. Despite flowering late, many of the flowers on our magnolia are frost damaged, with brown, rotten patches. Those flowers that aren’t affected look good though.

Here’s the full picture…

Actually, it doesn’t look to bad from a distance. It needs some structural pruning to improve the shape. The stems are crossing and congested. There’s another job waiting to be done. I’ll let it finish flowering first.

text & images © graham wright

The Joy of a Plant Delivery

Eager to get the main structural plants for the garden in the ground and growing, we decided not to wait until the ground was prepared, but to order the plants straight away. Impetuous? Certainly. Foolhardy? Perhaps. We hope to be living in this house for the foreseeable future, so what’s the rush? We’ve already bought and planted the bare-rooted specimens – beech hedging, and six fruit trees for our mini orchard. A few days ago we received a delivery from Burncoose nursery

Actually, looking at the picture, it doesn’t look like that much! In fact, there’s the potential for a lot of plant material there. The plants were well packaged, arrived intact, and look like good, strong, healthy specimens. Two fastigiate (tall and thin!) beech trees (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’, and ‘Dawyck Purple’) will be tall focal points, giving the garden height, lush foliage, and great autumn colour. Two purple-leaved hazels (Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’) will have large, dark leaves and can be coppiced every few years to provide hazel sticks for supporting beans, etc., or for fire wood. And, if we’re lucky, we might get some hazel nuts from them too.

A viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’) will become a large shrub with fresh green foliage, horizontally tiered branches (a bit like a wedding cake tree) and will be smothered in masses of white flowers each spring.

Cornus kousa var. chinensis will grow into a small, spreading tree, covered in large white flowers (in fact, they’re bracts – the flowers are tiny and at the centre of the circle of bracts). It also has good autumn colour, and will make a great focal point, viewed through the metal pergola we’ve just finished putting up…

Of course the pergola will need plants to climb over it. So we got ourselves started with a chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) which has dark flowers that smell of chocolate (hence the name).

Akebia quinata (photo courtesy of Crocus on-line nursery)

Clearing spaces in the borders where these plants will go is going to keep us busy for a while. Here’s a large patch we did earlier. There’s plenty more to do.

And to end on a prettier note; the Viburnum x burkwoodii we brought with us in a pot is full of flower at the moment. The fragrance is delicious…

text & photos (except akebia) © Graham Wright 2020

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

Gardening – cure for the corona virus blues?

As we’re entering a period when our lives are about to become more restricted than most of us have ever known, getting out into the garden could be our salvation.

It’s a difficult time. Many of us will have to work from home (that’s if we’ve still got a job). There’ll be no more going out to pubs, cafes, restaurants. No more cinema or theatre. No organised sports, either to watch or take part in. The internet will probably be overwhelmed, but you can only take so much screen time anyway. We could spend all our spare time watching TV, if there’s still access to Netflix, etc., but that’s not exactly good for you (again; you can only take so much screen time). Boredom could reach dangerous levels as we all steadily go stir crazy.

The answer – the way to free ourselves from the tyranny of enforced seclusion – is to get out into the fresh air, under the big, open sky, and to get gardening. It’s the perfect time:

– The long dark corridor of winter is coming to an end and we’re going into spring, so the weather is right (we’ve had some lovely days already this year);
– It’s safe; there’s no danger of the virus being transmitted over the garden fence;
– There’s plenty to do in the garden at this time of year;
– Gardening is great physical exercise, and has been proved to have psychological benefits too (Think you’re more of a city person and you don’t like plants? Think again – your sub-conscious mind knows better!)

Don’t have a garden yourself? Do you have a neighbour who has, and would appreciate some help – maybe a neighbour who’s elderly, or disabled? There’s no need for contact – they can leave the side gate open, and chat to you at a distance, perhaps through a first floor window. They get their garden done, and some arms-length social contact, you get out, get some exercise and fresh air. Maybe you can grow produce in their garden, and share it with them? Why not do some community gardening; transform that piece of waste ground with your neighbours (organised via social media, and carried out one person at a time, in shifts)? Try your hand at guerilla gardening.

Want some ideas of what to do in the garden? Order some seeds (mail order – no physical contact);

Dig up some of the lawn to create more flower beds;

Or turn over the whole of your lawn to growing fruit and veg, ready for when the shops run out of food;

Plant hedges. Make them prickly – pyracantha, holly or berberis to keep the marauding hordes at bay (or at least, to hide your veg patch from envious neighbours). Or maybe we should be kind, and share our produce with the community);

Let what’s left of your lawn grow into a wildflower meadow – beautiful, very much ‘on-trend’ and we can’t afford to waste precious petrol or electricity cutting grass anymore.

So, don’t go mad – get gardening, and stay safe. And keep away from crows and magpies – you don’t want to get the Corvid virus

text & images © Graham Wright 2020