Day 217: bindweed

Perhaps it’s cruel of me to expect you to start your Monday morning with a weed, but I figured if we could come to terms with bindweed over breakfast, we’d be nicely set up for the week…

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Day 137: wonderful weeds

The garden is frothing over just now – the hedgerows all about too, for May is the month when the cow parsley comes into flower…

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Day 97: groundsel

I try to make a habit of being on the side of weeds, but it’s hard to love groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) …

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Day 76: ground elder

The emerging leaves of this humble relative of the carrot are enough to strike fear into the heart of many a gardener. Ground elder, or goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) has a reputation as a tricky, invasive customer…

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Day 62: perennial nettle

Forget the flowers – maybe the truest sign of spring’s arrival is that moment when the perennial nettles (Urtica dioica) begin to leaf up.

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Day 55: couch grass

Familiar to every allotment holder, couch grass (Elymus repens) romps with unabashed glee through untended flower and vegetable beds…

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Day 48: lesser celandine

I’m always in two minds about lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). Conflicted, you might say…

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Day 34: speedwell

Whether or not your flowerbeds and borders currently boast a covering of snow, within the next week or so this little plant will be making a land grab…

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Day 20: lords and ladies

Who could be unmoved by the wonderful marbled green and cream leaves of Arum italicum subsp. italicum ‘Marmoratum’…

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Day 13: goosegrass

Without doubt one of the true survivors, stems of goosegrass, or cleavers, or (my favourite) ‘Sticky Willy’…

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Day 6: hairy bittercress

Hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta, is a tiny cousin of the cabbage that grows with remarkable success right through winter…

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The beautification of weeds

You can be a long way into a game before you even realise that’s where you are. Who defines the field of play, the value of each piece, the manner in which one element should engage with the others? You might wonder what the Cinderella syndrome could possibly have to do with gardening, but consider how we designate certain plants as weeds, and all should become clear. 

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May in the garden

May brought us sunshine and rain, burgeoning borders, a late frost and, of course, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. It’s the month of the gardening calendar when everything goes a bit bonkers – in a wonderful, exuberant way. Always quite nice to reach the end with your sanity intact, and your body parts functioning, though by the final week I was being reminded of the need of a good stretch, and that its about time I really ought to be getting some serious yoga practice in.

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The bonfire of deplorables

Autumn turns to winter, the leaves are all but tamed, and a short window of opportunity opens. While it’s still warm enough feel your fingers, there’s just time to clear the beds in preparation for a good, thick mulch. But what to do with all the stuff this produces – compost, or burn? It helps to have a plan.

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Getting on with it

Not long now till many of our trees, shrubs and perennials divest themselves of their foliage before swooning into a hibernal slumber. Meanwhile, less glamourous things – semi-evergreen, hardy biennial and annual things – are quietly going about their business, apparently unfazed by the drama, while we pass them by..

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Birdsfoot trefoil

While most people will stroll along the borders marvelling at fabulous specimens, I spend half my time peering at the lawn or at cracks in the paving to see what's taken root of its own accord. It’s in exactly this kind of situation where I’m likely to encounter birdsfoot trefoil, a plant which the Victorians, for reasons best known to themselves, associated with dark feelings of revenge. 

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The Weeds of May

Depending upon your perspective, May is a great month either for wildflowers, or for weeds. However you choose to view the often statuesque plants that appear fully grown almost overnight in our hedgerows and gardens, their presence is hard to ignore, and their fresh, frothy and voluminous presence provides a welcome space filler after the drabness of winter.

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Hairy bittercress

Some plants are just hard to love.

The admission causes me a degree of discomfort, having on numerous occasions made my admiration for weeds a matter of record, but even I find it hard to wax lyrical about hairy bittercress.

“Hairy bastard cress, more like”, a gardening friend of mine once quipped. It’s hard not to sympathise. Whilst the leaves of Cardamine hirsuta – a plant in the brassica family, closely related to mustard and also to garden cress Lepidium sativum – might possess a certain peppery, cress-like taste, it’s difficult to know what it’s good for. You would be bonkers to go out of your way to deliberately grow a crop, not least because surely every plant container in Christendom is sure to become home to at least one or two specimens in any given year.

It’s a nuisance in the nursery – perhaps not to the same degree as the liverworts which blanket the surface of the growing medium, but nonetheless a pretty ubiquitous presence, stealing nutrients and acting as a host for numerous glasshouse pests.

It’s also something of a gremlin in the garden, and you need be in no doubt that you will have hairy bittercress in your garden. Possibly also its cousin, wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa) – very similar in appearance, though the small white flowers have six stamens to the four of its nominally more hirsute relative (the hairs on the leaf margins and axils aren’t particularly noteworthy, in spite of the name). As long as extremes are avoided, bittercress can’t bring itself to be discerning over the pH of the soil, seeming just as at home in acid, neutral or alkaline conditions, and will grow in shade, part shade or sun, in either moist or dry conditions. A hardy annual (C. flexuosa sometimes persisting as a short-lived perennial) it behaves as an ephemeral weed, producing several generations in one growing season, and each plant can produce up to 5,000 seeds.

Not wavy, but downy. Four stamens, so Cardamine hirsuta
Garden designer Chelsea Uribe (@CUgardendesign) pithily summed up generally held opinions on the plant. “That sodding little ruderal. I wish it every ill.” A coloniser of recently disturbed ground, it’s readily identifiable from its rosettes of bright green pinnate foliage with almost circular leaflets at the base, becoming more elongated higher up the plant. Weeding it out isn’t a particularly satisfying experience – although not deep rooted, it’s quite fiddly to handle when it first emerges, and so you might be tempted to allow a clump to grow to a more convenient size for hand-pulling. In which case, you’d best ensure this forward-dated task doesn’t slip your mind, due to the speed at which it will flower and seed.

Common names include lambs cress, spring cress, hoary bittercress, wood cress and flickweed. This last name is particularly descriptive of the manner in which the plant goes about dispersing seed, a trick which anyone who has carelessly reached for a plant which has gone to seed will be only too able to describe. The characteristic long, thin seed pods (known as a siliqua), common to many members of the brassica family, split open when dry, ejecting their contents with some force and scattering seed over a distance of up to six feet, unless prevented from doing so by some intervening object. Such as the face of a surprised gardener.

The ripening seed pods, or silique, ‘overtopping’ the flowers
In Old English herb-lore, bittercress is known as Stune, and included as one ingredient in the Nine Herbs Charm recommended as a cure for poisoning and infection. Given the generally poor state of health and hygiene we can assume in Dark Age Britain, this suggests that each of the nine herbs would have been in constant demand. I have my suspicions regarding the efficacy of bittercress a medicinal plant, but, by including it on the list of ingredients, our ancestors had clearly devised a way to guarantee a sustained and wide-ranging harvest of the stuff. They probably didn’t like it any more than we do

Let me know what your thoughts are on hairy bittercress, either on Twitter, or by leaving a comment below.

Enchanter’s nightshade

As fond of weeds and wildflowers as I am, it wasn’t without a wry smile that I acknowledged the arrival of this plant in a bed from which I’d only recently been congratulating myself for liberating from ground elder.

Circaea lutetiana, or enchanter’s nightshade, has a similar creeping habit to that carrot which fills some gardeners with horror, but which I’ve always found myself able to tolerate, as long as it doesn’t object to a triple whammy of vigorous forking and pulling out, and a good strimming of its aerial parts when the urge comes upon me.

The botanical name possessing twice the magical power of the common (Circe being the sorceress of Homer’s Odyssey, and Lutetia referencing an old Latin name for Paris, the ‘Witch City’), Circaea isn’t part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) at all, but rather a relative of willowherbs and the evening primrose (Onagraceae). It’s generally described as being “not particularly toxic”, so you probably won’t want to be dashing out to gather it up by the armful for pesto. As a plant of woodland glades and edges, it revels in slightly damp, light shade, and can establish large colonies if allowed to grow unchecked, in which situations it might reach its full height of around 60 centimetres, though I’ve rarely encountered it in a garden at more than a third of that size. While its underground rhizomes will take it only so far, its hairy oval seed capsules facilitate any designs it might have on wider conquest; towards the end of summer, it’s not uncommon for the dog owner to find several in the coat of their furry friend.

Although it’s not tiresome to pull out, it’s probably not something the gardener would want to encourage, unless in a woodland setting. That said, when in flower, I find it rather pretty – above the spear-shaped, opposite green leaves a spire-like raceme, rather openly (some might say ungenerously) populated with tiny flowers (reminiscent of some of the less abundantly-floriferous heucheras). The flowers themselves are white, sometimes with a pink tinge, and have two, deeply divided petals.

A large patch of the stuff in your borders is probably not be what you want, then. But if you should catch the odd plant out of the corner of your eye, flowering daintily away in some forgotten leaf litter under a large shrub, you might want to leave it be. Noone likes to run the risk of upsetting an enchantress.

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Musk mallow

It seems to be a month for happening across plants with deeply cut leaves. This cheery customer has made its presence known in several gardens – sadly, not mine – over the past few weeks, having certainly found its way there of its own accord. If God loves a cheerful giver, then the gardener can spare the odd warm fuzzy for the generous self-sower, particularly in the case of one as pretty as Malva moschata f. alba, the white form of the musk mallow.

Standing at around 60cm high (two feet in old money), with five pure white, crepey-textured petals surrounding the typically exotic-looking pistil and stamen arrangement of the mallow and hollyhock family tinged, in this case, with the pale pink of the anthers. Although some of the flowers are born in the leaf axils, a characteristic of this plant is the collection of fat, round flower buds with pointed tips, opening in order from the outer edge towards the centre.

In the border, this achieves an effect of white, butterfly-like flowers floating over frothy fresh green foliage, in much the same way as Cosmos bipinnatus 'Purity', or one of the white flowered forms of Nigella damascene ('Miss Jekyll White', for example), while in height occupying a position somewhere between the two.

Weedy? Not particularly, it would seem, although its prowess at seeding itself about has been referred to above. I think its somewhat refined features might cause the discerning to refer to it being in possession of more ‘garden-worthy’ credentials than certain of its burlier relatives – certainly rather more genteel than Malva sylvestris with its whopping great leaves. Now there’s a plant that invites itself in, smokes your pipe, drinks your brandy and sticks its feet up on your table.

The white musk mallow is an altogether more restrained affair, albeit one that found its own way in uninvited. That said, you can be sure I’ll be saving seed as soon as it appears ripe.
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