THERE’S not much growth in the garden at present and perhaps exciting thoughts of the year ahead have yet to materialise?
Fast forward just a few weeks and it will be a very different story, believe me. Weeds will be on the increase and pests just starting to make their presence known.
It’s time to get a cunning plan in place and take action to arrest both.
Some annual weeds, chickweed and groundsel for example, continue growing throughout winter and can be ever-present on the organic-rich vegetable patch.
Apart from the obvious threat of regeneration, they also provide a safe haven for eggs of garden pests.
Thankfully, regular hand weeding is an effective method of control. And in summertime, running the hoe through them on a hot day is also very effective.
But it’s perennial weeds that are really sent to try us. Their control depends largely upon where they spring up; in a pathway, mixed border, the vegetable and fruit garden or lawn!
The method used to zap them needs a little thought.
Will you reach for a time and energy-saving herbicide that promises a quick-fix?
Perhaps the slower, more laborious approach of digging every last piece of root appeals or would it be better to lay a roll of weed-suppressing membrane and cover it with gravel?
Perhaps the most cunning plan of all is to enlist the help of their own fellow plants. Introduce attractive ground-covering species that form a dense mat and crowd out any potential competition.
Let’s begin with the easy problem of perennial weeds colonising a garden path.
Two obvious choices present themselves; either select a herbicide or opt for clearance by mechanical means.
There are obvious risks attached to chemical spraying, and one application will not necessarily remain effective all summer.
Nor would you wish to be digging up weeds every other week throughout the growing season, so completely clear the path first, then lay the membrane and cover it over with the material of your choice.
In the mixed border, perennial weeds such as ground elder and couch grass are but two of several that evoke a feeling of despair.
Each has roots that march underground unseen and will reproduce from the smallest piece left in the soil. Spot weeding with a herbicide such as glyphosate, which is absorbed by the leaves and travels down to the roots, is a possibility provided there is no ornamental foliage nearby.
But a careless splash on the green leaves of a special shrub or herbaceous perennial is all it takes to cause damage.
For me, the only sure way of ridding a border of such pernicious weeds is to dig them out over time.
Several herbaceous plants have been lifted in this garden of late in order to clear ground elder from an infected patch.
Then before replanting, we had to tease remaining weed roots away from those of the plants.
Selective weed-killers continue to be important for gardeners who wish to maintain a bowling green type lawn.
But the grass needs to be into regular seasonal growth before application. Meanwhile, look carefully over the lawn for perennial weeds with a tap-root system and see how easily they can be eased out with a fork after a shower.
Cultivated ground cover plants have always existed on the edge of popularity. Shrubs, conifers, herbaceous types, alpines and annuals all have species capable of entertaining while helping control weeds.
In the case of heathers and herbaceous geraniums, they can be both useful and attractive, smothering weeds and blooming for weeks on end.
Golden prostrate conifers and euonymus offer bright foliage and blanket cover.
But several types that are introduced with natural weed control in mind can themselves become a nuisance by developing invasive tendencies.
I think, for example, of spurges such as euphorbia robbiae and periwinkle, vinca major, striking in appearance but it’s a constant battle to keep them within bounds.
In the vegetable section, one of the blessings of winter gardening is that we can harvest brassica plants without a cloud of cabbage white butterflies overhead or a mass of slimy slugs to negotiate when handling greens for the table.
However, the former are hibernating in chrysalis form in little nooks and crannies outdoors, under the windowsills is a favourite spot, and the latter are resting under stones, heaps of rubbish or debris left in the garden. Gain a head start to the season by searching them out!
It pays to be ready for aphids, caterpillars, slugs and anything else that moves slowly towards your plants with malicious intent.
In this garden, we try where possible to avoid chemical control in soak, spray, pellet, granular or powder form, even when it’s labelled ‘non-persistent’.
I’ve watched too long as certain pests of garden crops have developed a degree of immunity to various pesticides and the response of researchers has been to develop something more potent.
Turning your back on pesticides means accepting that a certain percentage of edible crops will have to be shared and some ornamental types will suffer leaf and flower damage, but we always enjoy the lion’s share.
Look out for aphid colonies developing on the soft growing-tips of all plants at the slightest hint of warmer days. We have a little plastic hand spray that cost less than a cup of tea and it is topped up with soapy water, which they hate. If that fails, which it won’t, a gentle finger and thumb works wonders.
Be alert to butterfly, moth and beetle activity in the garden and you will know when different caterpillar types are about to be active on fruit and vegetables. If you don’t fancy hand-picking them, buy some inexpensive tweezers. What happens to the jarful of pests afterwards is down to you.
Although poisonous slug baits are available in pellet form, there are domestic pets, frogs, toads and bird life to consider, so we cannot take the risk.
Pitfall traps baited with beer have been tried but that is a messy business, not to mention wasteful. Mechanical barriers of soot, gritty sand, shells or gravel and the like have limitations. And the jury is out on surrounding plants with copper in solid or paste form. If all else fails – release the nematodes.
These are microscopic organisms that have been in existence longer than humankind.
They attack pests by entering their bodies and reproducing inside. Once said pest expires a new generation is released.
Scientists have studied different species and the pests they prefer, the result being packages for specific targets, eg slugs, vine weevil, ants. There is even a ‘Grow your own’ package containing several nematode species for general crops. Visit www.nemasysinfon.co.uk for more information.
Footnote: Alnwick Garden Club meets next Tuesday 28th in the Town Hall at 7.30 pm. All are welcome.