Sunday, 13 May 2012

Consider The Weeds - Up To Me

As young people used to say when offered a vegetable; "That's rank". If the vegetable is large, leafy and limp, they're only being accurate and we are in a season of serious rankness here; lots of rain falling on heavy rich soil will produce a good bit of it, if not actual festering.

I have spent at least a week with that determined, exhausted Gone With The Wind feeling, raging against stacked odds.  Every garden I broach, full of purpose and plans, defeats me at the gate.  This is May, the most wonderful month of the year, despite that mysterious gap between the last tulip and the first rose or peony.  And yet the main focus has to be near the feet, searching out threats and menaces, like an agent of state security.

We can be entirely relativist about weeds -  they are a function of our own perception, they genuinely only exist where they need to be controlled, defined by their urgent need of removal.  However, their well-known talents, designed for success against the odds, outweigh this existential curse.

Human activity, particularly where soil is enriched, is entirely responsible for weeds.  That's a hard thought, we kind of imagine they're something to do with "nature".  Well they are, but it's a distorted, pumped, displaced version - an unnatural nature.

So we're straight into the song Up To Me, from Biograph.  Only a throwaway outtake, but full of mystery and meaning.  Exquisitely sung, every word clear, the story is incomprehensible.  The apparent history shifts through sands of regret and ruefulness.  There are losses, errors and missed connections in each of the sketched situations he half recounts, half fails to explain.  Taking responsibility, as he does at the end of every verse "I guess it must be up to me", the protagonist suggests that he might be even be wrong to do that.  But believing it is up to you helps you cope with difficulties, and move through mistakes.  The balm of imagined control.  Out with the weeds!

Gardeners operate in an Orwellian world of labelling and fancy language.  Any control of plant material must conceive of plants as weeds, just before destroying them, or "managing" them.  And if you're not controlling plants, however delicately, you're not gardening, you're probably strolling about, having a nice time, chatting and drinking wine, with a sun-hat on, like a person in a holiday brochure.  Good luck with that - you're not caught in this endless trap where the growth of plants is somehow up, or down, to you.

But look what you miss! Detecting, grubbing about, getting cross.  Feelings of defeat, remorse and confusion. Working out which ones really are the weeds, at this point in time, in this garden, and then the next step, what to do about them, and then, having done it, the self-congratulation and the garden, all clarified and beautiful, just as you imagined,  for five whole minutes.

Like many people, I actively enjoy messing about with bindweed and couch roots, getting as much as I can out of the ground; it's like fishing or camping, you focus on the simple thing in front of you, in this case nice bright white roots, which break, but not that easily.  You need warmish moist soil, time, the sun on your back - patiently tracing the roots back is as addictive as any computer game I imagine.  But I know this method doesn't really work with bindweed, though I extract what I can now, just to slow it down before using the bag treatment later in the year. (See earlier post Contrivances - Angelina, for details of the method).

Geum urbanum, goosegrass and an ash seedling

We do all roughly agree on the identity of certain weeds and the need for their removal.  The obvious ones to deal with now, this very week, especially if you've had some rain, in my gardens here at least, are, firstly; geum urbanum or wood avens, or herb bennet.

This plant goes too far.  It has defeated me in my parents garden, where I get too little time.  Thankfully, it's not huge, it's just a mid-green bore, seeding like crazy from nearly invisible flowers.  Will happily seed right into the middle of something you love. Easy to remove when damp, but numberless.

Next, goosegrass, WHEREVER it is seen, it's an insidious beast and will become far worse than you expect, when it's large and seedy.  Dragons' teeth. You will get no pleasure visually from a plant or shrub which harbours goosegrass.  I pull it out and compost it without worrying about getting the root out - it always breaks off but does not seem to resprout.  It reminds me of a water weed, wafting about in the air, so weak, so tenacious, so legion.

Tree seedlings; ash, sycamore (acer platanoides to us in the UK), hawthorn, privet, hazel.  They won't get smaller you know.  Their roots are already bigger than they are.  In a year or two you'll need a spade and 5 minutes worth of energy and focus.  You'll put it off till you've got both things at hand.  Oh, it's got away!  Add human behavioural analysis to the armoury of weeds.

Nettles, docks and dandelions.  Too obvious to mention, my plan is to eat a lot more dandelion leaves, maybe even going so far as to blanch them.  I have a touching belief that once you find something delicious, it will grow in ever more recherche' quantities, till you can barely find any at all.  Lambs lettuce is a bit like that.  I long for more, it cannot be found.

Of nettles and docks I do not speak, once again, moist soil will make you efficient.  Any you leave now will get worse and worse. Use a fork, don't fool yourself that pulling will get enough up.  You need to get about two thirds of a dock root out for it not to resprout.  Dandelions it seems can come again from a molecule.  But as you can hardly force your way through the floating seeds in the air at this time of the year, this is a plant you just have to work with.

Now, ground elder.  I gather I must eat this too.  I only have one garden where it is a real plague.  Strangely the owner seems unbothered, though it is right inside every plant.  I have set a thief to catch a thief in a one or two shady borders where it reigned supreme - the short white and blue comfrey.  To me this is preferable, offering a lot of nectar and just requiring a good tidy up after flowering to be attractive and restrainable.  And the ground elder seems to be reducing where they are.

Phlomis russelliana is worth trying.  I find it an excellent, effective weed excluder in sun or shade.  But who can say?  Perhaps this and the comfrey are both weeds too.  The first photograph shows it now, dense and solid but gradually extending its flowering stems. The second shows it in flower on the right - rather an indistinct yellow because of the light but in reality fairly telling.  It's nearly evergreen - that's why it works as a weed excluder.

Generally in the ground elder garden I keep weeding it out, wondering where I'm going, and why.  The effort is pretty pointless.  Ann Wareham used it as a complete ground cover in one area in her garden, clever, witty and sensible, other plants become weeds in that context.  There you are, language, perception, relativism.  But it's true, you wouldn't want a whole garden of it.  Strange how it doesn't grow much in the wild; whisper it, it's not native - gardeners are responsible.

My final bugbear is enchanter's nightshade, circaea lutetiana.  I have not found a good way of removing this.  It's another sort of water weed, the whole plant is wet and brittle.  It grows on heavy soil in shade, nearly transparent white roots, breaking as soon as you pull.  If you dig it up carefully you will find a vast fungoid network of them, bursting through the ground at intervals, inexorably advancing right amongst and inside other plants, inexplicably unpleasant.  You would think it didn't matter, it's so small and quiet at this time of the year.  But it does, it does.  Later, with its exquisite, microscopic flowers, it will stamp your garden with "uncared-for" and "weedy" as surely as any nettle.

And I disapprove of myself here, I don't really like to demonise a plant - it makes me less comfortable with my own role.  I'd like to be cool and slightly regretful as I intervene in the fight for survival.  May is when that fight is win or lose for the rest of the season - this is why weeds matter now and we have to make decisions and take action.

But I hope you see the relevance of the song, which is complex, simple, rueful, content, cool and warm.  It contains a great truth - you feel better when you're in control, if that involves being responsible, whatever concept you have of that is the price you might have to pay.  These ideas are the very stuff of grown-up life, the expression of a personality, the development of a conscience.

In the course of the song the singer works out, through a series of half-remembered situations, what he chose to let go, to offer and to do.  Everything appears to be measured against his belief that what he did and does is up to him, right or wrong.  He doesn't seem to hold anyone else responsible for what makes him sad - it's more a description of life's confusion, a manifesto of how to trace a possibly mistaken path through life's mistakes.

But this song faces us with the contradiction at the heart of Dylan's work - a contradiction I prefer to ignore, wishing to hear the work on its own merits, and fully believing it deserves that freedom.  The problem is that the biographical back story on this song, which I disdain to repeat, believing you either know it or you don't care, fills in some of the elisions, gaps and allusions. It's not unique in that of course, but the internal forces in this song, once you know them, pull the song apart, leaving it nearly dead on the floor, only its escaped and damaged roots capable of further life. 

For the song dissimulates, ending up as an expression of the opposite of the assumption of responsibility.  He's doing what we all do when we break up, telling his side of the story, expressing his hurt, showing how reasonable he is, how hard he tried.  It's fair, and he does it well, but it's not the whole story and as he clearly knows - it wasn't all up to him. Maybe that's why the song died in the water, being recorded only once or twice. I'm in deeper water myself here, I'll stagger to the bank, hang on to the overhanging weeds and haul myself out.

Weeding can seem such a simple mechanical dunder-headed task, but we do have to accept some responsibilities.  After thinking about the song, I feel compelled to self-laceration - my own garden is a raft of perilous plants, introduced by the very act of gardening and sometimes through my own foolish choices - geranium procurrens and euphorbia myrsinites Fens Ruby being only two.  Don't make me confess them all, I'll only make excuses.

At this time of year there are several plants that can cause dilemmas - their weediness is uncertain.  Honesty is one, forget-me-nots another.  Spanish bluebells, aquilegias, foxgloves, brunnera or pentaglottis, borage, lemon balm, hesperis, euphorbias, opium poppies, welsh poppies.  Everyone uses the word "editing" - it sounds less physical, definitely more cerebral. Whipping out a forget-me-not, or even a massive honesty, is indeed light work.  Aquilegias and pentaglottis(the lower blue one) are another matter. And just walk quickly past the welsh poppies.

Most of these plants are heavy seeders, remove them at will with a clear conscience.  They become weeds as the flowers go over, like alchemilla mollis, some geraniums and astrantias.  Weediness is not fixed through time it seems.  Best to rush round as they finish flowering and pull most of them out or at least cut the flowering heads off.  I do this with oriental hellebores, finding it strengthens the plants and helps them recede into an attractive ground cover, focusing on the attractive, almost tropical leaves.  In the end the timely cut is my main weapon against this sort of semi-weed, for I barely know how to use a hoe - the ground is covered, the soil is invisible.

Here are the nightmare seedling hellebore - lower right.  If they do ever get big enough to flower, they'll be a mixed and muddled murrey or beige.  They root well, hard and early. 

I don't worry about celandines - it's pointless.  They'll disappear about now.  However I often gather up the debris as it yellows and rots, thus carting away a good many bulbils. It won't make any diffference of course, and you must  be very careful not to drop them about.  Clever little celandine.

I don't worry too much about various vincas either, though I do remove quite a lot of their spreading limbs.  I say remove, I mean yank.  Go and get the right tools.

Enough with the weeds for the moment.  Like the song, the subject is nearly a lament, nearly a blueprint for coping with life, or a garden.  A weed can seem helpful, harmless and wise - I think of adorable sweet woodruff, galium or asperula odorata.  Many names, much affection - sweet-scented when dried  and so on.   But a little time past flowering, a little further enquiry into it's roots and you find yourself with another water-weedy mass of rank vegetable detritus.  The plant has upped and turned over, like Up To Me, and shown a hidden shabbiness and shame.

But the song still spoke the truth and did it sweetly, up until we looked beyond and beneath.  We all have to decide what's up to us, no one else can do it.

The fruits of our decisions will become our own responsibilities, like the massed weeds of future years, depending on what we decide to do now.  And indeed, all the time, for patience and tenacity are, for ever and ever, prime virtues in weeding.


  1. Jane these are marvelous photos. I have the tall purple spikes but don't know what they are called. I say it is up to you...the weeds will be back if you regret pulling generation!
    I love your ending. Reminds me of my life living with a man whom I love with Traumatic Brain Injury.
    My purple tree is up on the blog under SHADOWS if you want to see it. Nice blog and fantastic photos. I wish I had your energy for so many things! gin

    1. Oh thank you very much Gin. Wish I could have a look and will when I get back to UK but internet time very strictly limited to me here in Italy, so it's a constant fight. Hope your're struggling through OK with your many responsibilities - I have a bit of personal experience of a person living with serious stroke so know how demanding it can be. x Jane

  2. How I wish I could walk through my overgrown and beautiful garden with you and hear what you think about it. It is full of self seeders and I love your observation that the weediness of something is not fixed. A few weeks ago the vivid blue of alkanet made it almost welcome, even though I know it will swell coarsely and floppily and scratch my legs as I go past. Now it is close to the time when the only course of action is to cut it back fiercely. It will look awful for a week or two but it is nearly awful now because nothing else can grow. I have of course allowed it seed too generously, again. It is flopping over my salvias and overwhelming the fennel. Today it must be a weed.

    1. Hi Elizabeth - lovely to hear from you and so glad you could pick that point out - it's one that is dear to me for it can help with decison-making! How I love to discuss and walk a garden, finding ways of hearing and telling what seems fruitful and interesting! Just back from Italy today so a bit late with response but comments valued as ever.