In the Garden
Charles Quest-ritson fights against bindweed and ground elder
IT’S important to recognise beauty wherever one sees it. I remember watching the huge white trumpets of Ipomoea alba jerking open on the one occasion that I succeeded in bringing it to flower. We used to call it Calonyction aculeatum and the generic name tells us that its intensely sweet-scented flowers open in the evening, which is when they’re pollinated by moths in those parts of Central America to which it is native. The Americans call it ‘night-blossoming moon flower’, but it seemed to me, on that lateSeptember evening, no more than a super-duper convolvulus and the thought occurred to me that, actually, the convolvulus would be much easier to grow.
Robin Lane Fox tells the story of a group of Japanese plant lovers who came to his garden. They said that in all the gardens they had visited, there was a plant that they had admired enormously, but hadn’t been able to find for sale. It had a twining habit and white trumpetshaped flowers—did he know it?
Botanists call it Calystegia sepium, but we call it bindweed and it’s almost impossible to extract from herbaceous plants once its fat, white stolons get into a border. If you try to pull it out, the pieces of root that remain will sprout again.
Esther Merton and her gifted head gardener Sue Dickinson decided some years ago that the only way to be rid of it was to dig up the double borders at Burghfield, pull out all the roots of intertwined bindweed and move the garden plants to another part of the garden to grow on in fresh soil for a year.
The beds were then sprayed with glyphosate for a whole season until every trace of convolvulus had disappeared and the herbaceous plants moved back in the following year.
I had two large infestations of bindweed in my last garden, both in borders that were largely put to roses and other shrubs. Every April, I hunted underneath for their questing shoots and sprayed them with a strong dose of glyphosate. The roses didn’t like the spray and, anyway, it didn’t work, because, at that stage of growth, the bindweed just puts up new shoots and, by midsummer, when spraying might have been more effective, the shoots had twined their way to the top of their supporting shrubs.
So, I compromised: if the bindweed pulled its support out of shape, which it tends to do, I yanked it off to let the shrubs grow properly, but, if it clambered up a strong shrub like Rosa moyesii or a deutzia, I let the bindweed grow up and give a fine show in August and September when white flowers are few and welcome.
It is important, I said, to recognise beauty wherever one sees it. The odd thing is that, although I brazened it out and told visitors how clever I was to be so unsnobbish about bindweed, I always felt, deep down, that I had failed as a gardener by letting a weed get the better of me.
In my new garden, Public Enemy Number One is ground elder. We decided when we moved here, two years ago, to spray it into extinction. I dug up anything worth keeping—some peonies and Japanese anemones, for example—then pulled them apart, extracted the ground elder and planted them in clean soil.
The ritual of eating your defeated enemy is, of course, the ultimate assertion of victory
Everything else, including swathes of those hideous polygonums that herbaceous gardeners so adore, got treated with glyphosate. All died away except the ground elder, so I sprayed it again last year. It still came up this year, but perhaps less enthusiastically, so I may be winning the war.
Anyway, I shall start planting the now empty beds this autumn and endeavour, in future, to keep ground elder at bay by hand weeding. It is possible: Diana Hart Dyke’s immaculate chalk garden at Hambledon is now free of it after 20 years of diligent weeding. However, Egbert Barnes, a great gardening friend of my youth whose Wiltshire garden was designed by Percy Cane, used to say that ground elder had a pretty leaf and was a good ‘doer’— did I like the variegated form and had I tried it in salads?
The ritual of eating your defeated enemy is, of course, the ultimate assertion of victory. Charles Quest-ritson wrote The RHS Encyclopedia of Roses
Next week: Self-sowing plants
Spellbinding: Calystegia sepium is very pretty, but difficult to shift