En­emy at the gates

When an un­wise pur­chase threat­ens to over­run a bor­der, Frank de­cides it is time to arm him­self with a fork and take back con­trol

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS FRANK RO­NAN IL­LUS­TRA­TION RACHEL VIC­TO­RIA HIL­LIS

Colum­nist Frank Ro­nan comes to re­gret plant­ing a Per­si­caria wal­lichii

Some­time back in the 1980s I got a whiff of some­thing nice in Beth Chatto’s gar­den and, even­tu­ally, tracked it down to a gi­ant bistort with pan­i­cles of creamy white flow­ers. It went on the men­tal long list of plants I would one day grow if I got my hands on rolling acres. Cut to fif­teen years later and the ac­qui­si­tion of this mildly slop­ing third of an acre and the ex­cite­ment of a new gar­den and want­ing to plant ev­ery­thing that had ever caught my eye or nose, no mat­ter how un­suit­able, un­wise or un­con­trol­lable. Per­si­caria wal­lichii came to join us.

I was not en­tirely in­cau­tious. It was planted at the back of the long bor­der, with small trees ei­ther side to hem it in. When it be­gan to demon­strate ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions I took ad­vice and made a bar­rier at the fur­thest ex­tent I was pre­pared to al­low it. My ad­vi­sor put me on to 450mm damp-proof mem­brane, which he said was strong enough to hold a bam­boo back. A semi­cir­cu­lar trench was dug and the sub­ter­ranean wall in­stalled, and I walked away look­ing for­ward to many years of happy co­ex­is­tence.

Which, to some ex­tent, we had. The bistort, on reach­ing the bar­rier, milled about not un­like a horde at the fron­tier and soon, in­evitably, be­gan to pour over it. Those in­cur­sions were eas­ily pa­trolled by reg­u­lar slash­ings with a sharp spade. More tire­somely it be­gan to poke up through the con­crete ac­cess path at the back of the bor­der, mak­ing reg­u­lar strim­ming a ne­ces­sity. Most wor­ry­ingly it would pop up in ran­dom places in the bor­der. Ex­tract­ing those pieces in­volved se­ri­ous delv­ing and dis­tur­bance of other plants, and I be­gan to think I had made a hor­ri­ble mis­take.

The worse its be­hav­iour be­came the less al­lur­ing the scent seemed and the coarser the flow­ers and leaves be­gan to ap­pear. I thought some­times of hav­ing the whole lot out, but the more it grew and the more daunt­ing the task be­came the more easy it was to con­vince my­self that I had the sit­u­a­tion un­der con­trol. And be­fore I went to Amer­ica I did man­age to keep on top of it, more or less.

You can imag­ine what three years with­out dis­ci­pline did. I could see now why some peo­ple call it Hi­malayan knotweed. That whole bor­der needed an over­haul, but the couch and hog­weed and bindweed else­where seemed pos­i­tively be­nign com­pared to this in­tru­sive guest. The paral­y­sis of not know­ing where to be­gin the restora­tion, not helped by the least gar­den­ing-friendly spring in liv­ing mem­ory, was soon over­come with the re­al­i­sa­tion that one should al­ways get stuck in at the most hor­ri­ble part of a job. The thought of start­ing at one end of the bor­der while the knotweed ad­vanced brazenly to meet me was too much. I at­tacked it at the source.

I had for­got­ten the sat­is­fac­tion of long days kneel­ing in wa­ter­proof trousers, dig­ging deep with a fork and fin­ger­ing through ev­ery hand­ful of soil for stray bits of un­wanted root. That was how that whole bor­der was made to be­gin with. Only this time I had the en­cour­age­ment of see­ing the ben­e­fits of my own hand­i­work as I went. The crum­bling gritty tex­ture; the lost trea­sures re­dis­cov­ered and care­fully res­cued, pot­ted up and put to one side for bet­ter times to come; the knowl­edge ac­quired since of what would like to grow ex­actly where, al­low­ing sound plans to re­place fan­tasies.

I know that, for years to come, the knotweed beast will re­crude­sce and re­group. With that in mind the plan is to use that part of the bor­der for dahlias and can­nas and sum­mer bed­ding, so that twice a year it will all be dug up again and ev­ery re­main­ing trace of the bistort hunted down and de­ported. It is long since I had such scope for dahlias, not to men­tion zin­nias and cleomes and sun­flow­ers, and I can’t think of a nicer way to clean the ground. It is the ul­ti­mate win-win sit­u­a­tion.

THE BISTORT MILLED ABOUT, NOT UN­LIKE A HORDE AT THE FRON­TIER, AND SOON BE­GAN TO POUR OVER IT

is a nov­el­ist who lives and gar­dens in Worces­ter­shire. Frank Ro­nan

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