This month we start the first of our regular, readers’ questions column with expert, Fiann Ó Nualláin.
Starting this month,the last column of each month will be dedicated to readers’ questions. So, by way of a tee-up to that I thought for this one, I would cover some of the gardening questions that I am most commonly asked.
The ones other than “are you doing Bloom this year”; “How is Dermot O’Neill?”; “Are you going to get your own show on RTÉ?”, “Where can I get your books?”: “I live nearby would you like to see my garden?” — to which the replies are “never say never”; “flying”; “never say never”; “bookshops”; “er, em, I think I hear my Mam calling me”.
The answer to that one is easy — weeds! If you are only half-arsed about a garden then don’t bother because that’s all you will end up with. However, if you want an easy garden then also think weeds or weedy-chic — aka wildflower patches or prairie planting — where neglect is actually a bonus.
Wildflower ecosystems can take time to establish properly so you may have to sow some annual filler (into the bald spots) for the first two years until all the perennials and biennials colonise the space. If you are serious about getting it right from day one then try www.wildflowers.ie.
When it comes to prairie planting, which is ornamental perennial plants mixed among ornamental grasses that are all allowed to go natural and do their own thing without too much fuss other than not ignoring the odd invasion of nettle or dock, do google the following names; Piet Oudolf, James Van Sweden, Wolfgang Oehme or visit www.seedaholic.com/flowers/planting-schemes/prairie-planting.html
So while weeds may seem a facetious answer, most ornamental species are cousins of weeds, so the weeds that do thrive in your garden, on your soil and aspect, have cousins in the garden centre that will also thrive in the same circumstances. So one way of being less hands-on is to plant those relatives.
So if you have buttercups now you could have anemones, aquilegias, hellebores and delphiniums next week. If you have nothing but thistles you can have asters, chrysanthemums, rudbeckia, cosmos and dahlias.
The best way to get rid of a weed is to weed it out. Pull it out of the ground by hand or prize it up with a fork or trowel and then dispose of it –but the trick is to weed it out right. So if it is in seed, you may risk dispersing the seed and sow more problems. Think therefore of a bag (paper or plastic) to cover and capture while you remove.
If it is not in seed, you may still want to apply some finesse, the less soil disturbed in its removal, the less weed seed in the soil is turned up to the surface for potential germination. Using a hoe to slice off the weed at the surface of the soil is a great way to avoid what I call the battle of the Somme, (the poppies were previously dormant for many years in that location until the mortars and trench digging exposed their seed to the surface), but while hoeing completely kills annual weeds — chickweed, bittercress etc — it won’t stop deeper rooted perennials such as dandelions, nettles and docks from regenerating new shots from the roots left behind.
Perennial weeds will need to be hoed several times a year to make them burn up all their regeneration powers. It’s a war of attrition but every slice will cause the root to shrink as it uses up reserves for new growth. Removing surface growth and then utilising some light deprivation is the best way to knock the potential out of perennials — that can be weed membrane of a thick layer of mulch. Yes, membrane is harder to push through.
In terms of disposing, I gather mine in a trug and at the end of the weeding session pour some boiling water over the lot to kill off the roots and then add all the accumulated nutrients into the compost heap.
The other option is to plant more, where there is a plant there is less room for weeds to germinate and colonise. Try catch crops between rows or as ground cover beneath your ornamentals. Personally, it’s not a shame if I get weedy outbreaks, I deliberately have a weedy corner. Not all weeds are bad, most are compost activators and quite a few bring in beneficial wildlife.
No matter what your soil type, unless it’s just a layer of compacted subsoil (often the offering at newbuilds), there are several plants that have evolved to grow in it. Bone dry, waterlogged, clay, chalk, sandy, acidic, alkaline — there are plants to suit and thrive.
Even poor non-nutritious soils will be a welcome home to wildflower meadows. So don’t fear what you have, its only uphill if you want to grow veg on a bog or blueberries on a limey plot. Go with the nature of the place and there will be total success.
Bad soil is a different story. Compacted soil, where the roots struggle to expand and where nutrients inherent in the soil, along with the ones you may add, all get locked up in compaction. Compact soil will also water log and that kills roots or turns the soil anaerobic, which is no good. More on that shortly.
I like no-dig gardening but give me a compacted site and I am straight to the shovel and pick if not to a rotavator or a daydream about a phonecall to the Molly Maguires for a stick of the gelignite. I just haven’t got the patience or the longevity elixir to wait for several years of top dressing with manure and the trillion times a trillion wiggles of earthworms to break up and aerate the hardpan beneath.
Anaerobic soil is bad because anaerobic soil is a dead zone. It lacks oxygen and free flow, it is often devoid of nutrients and can smell like a rotten egg when dug or disturbed. Compaction and waterlogging can make a soil become anaerobic.
To remedy the situation, It’s a case of amending with sand, grit, compost to improve its structure and allow spaces
between soil particles to hold air, to become more free-draining to maintain life in the form of the micro and macro insects, and bacterial populations that make soil a living web.
Next week’s article will be inspired by the other popular question “what are the best vegetables to grow in Ireland?” In the meantime, If you have a query or problem that you want to toss into the hat, then send on to firstname.lastname@example.org