Alys Fowler

How to beat the weeds

The first flush of weeds is a sure sign that spring is here. Read Alys' tips on how to get weeds working with you to avoid a summer of endlessly weeding.

A lot of gardening can be hard work, digging, lugging, tugging, pulling, dragging until you are done in and then the whole thing starts again the next day. For it’s not like a garden to stand still, if you make bare ground, the garden rejoices at filling it up with new weeds.

This is not to mock you mind; it’s just that it does the soil no good to lay bare. If your soil is healthy, it will reflush a new set of weeds to act like a blanket and protect its most precious resource, its top layer. Wind, rain, even too much sun can erode this away, so natures response to clothe the soil with something green is to keep it alive. It can feel very frustrating when you feel you’ve done your bit of weeding for the month only to realise the garden doesn’t quite feel the same way. But look at it this way, it means your soil is alive and well. If it can grow weeds it can grow plenty of other things too.

Still rather than spend all summer in a frustrating loop endlessly weeding, now is the moment to harness the soil to work with rather than against you. That first flush of weeds is a sure sign that spring is here, even if its hard to tell because the rain is pelting down and it feels cold. It means that the soil is starting to warm up. Many weeds start to germinate around 5 degrees Celsius, and by 8 degrees growth really kicks in. The weeds are some of the best indicators that you can start to sow hardy annuals.

Before you can sow though you do need to get rid of this first flush, either by hoeing or by hand weeding. Hoeing is more efficient and perhaps easier. Good hoeing is a gentle tickling of the first layer of soil rather than hacking into it, which will just expose more weed seeds to germinate. You want to slice just under the soil surface cutting the weeds top from their roots. If you get on top of weeding in early spring, then you eliminate half the battle because these first weeds are the ones that provide all the seed for the rest of summer.

However, saying that all soil has a considerable weed seed bank. One of the characteristics of many weeds is to have seed that can sit in the soil, waiting for it to be disturbed so they can germinate at the first sign of light. It is where that adage, ‘one year’s weed equals seven years of seed’. So even if you are studious on the hoeing now, the weeds will appear at some point.

Your trick then is to out compete the weeds by replacing them with something you’d like to spend the summer looking at. Some of the easiest and cheapest are hardy annual flowers. Sunflowers, cornflowers, Californian poppies, Love-in-the-mist, Scabious and Corn cockles will all germinate outside and fill your garden full of colour that will please all the bees.

Perhaps the easiest of these are marigold, Calendula officinalis. These seeds hard, curved seeds can be scattered wherever you have bare ground. They germinate fast and are tough little seedlings, often unbothered by slugs or snails.  By May the first buds will appear and they will bloom often into winter if the conditions are mild. The brilliant bright orange petals are edible, they look beautiful scattered through salads or over soups and stews.  They are much loved by pollinators everyone from honeybees to hoverflies and ladybirds because they offer both pollen and nectar. There are many different varieties to choose from. The double varieties have less pollen and nectar, and aren’t quite so good for pollinators.

Calendula officinalis ‘Indian Prince’ has lovely deep orange petals that are flushed dark crimson beneath so that the unopened buds unfurl to a brilliant orange.  Calendula officinalis ‘ Radio’ is a lovely variety popular in the 40s and 50s, which has fluted bright orange petals. Calendula ‘Citrus Twist’ comes in shades of pales yellow and orange. Still I feel you can’t go wrong with just the basic Calendula officinalis and as it will self seed merrily about the garden, all you have to do is scatter the seeds on some bare soil and you’ll be guaranteed to never have to sow them ever again. They will pop up year after year, where they please, bringing joy every summer.