Fennel's Blog - One Man's Weed

One Man's Weed

“I am not a lover of lawns. Rather I would see daisies in their thousands, ground ivy, hawkweed, and even hated plantain with tall stems, and dandelions with splendid flowers and fairy down, than the too-well-tended lawn,”
W. H. Hudson

It’s interesting to consider what motivates us in the garden. I am, as you have discovered, a fan of compost and organic fertiliser. I seek to maintain the natural cycle of things. Yet when it comes to the design and maintenance of a garden, it is all too tempting to work against nature.

Man, by his very presence as the dominant specie on the planet, seeks to control everything around and beneath him. We do it without thinking. It’s in our nature to exert our influence, either as help or oppression. We can see this in our gardens. Rarely are they entirely wild places. Even if we let them do their own thing, we’re still likely to keep a boundary fence or hedge. We wish to tell the world that this is our patch, to do with as we will.

Robert Frost suggested that our actions are complementary to that of Nature, and that we are merely putting the finishing touches to her work. “Nature does not complete things,” he said. “She is chaotic. Man must finish, and he does so by making a garden and building a wall.” But it is in the chaos, or in a mixture of chaos and order, where the best gardens (suited to the needs of wildlife and man) are to be found. As Penelope Hobhouse said, “Gardens are a collaboration between art and nature … [but] Nature soon takes over if the gardener is absent.”

The most valuable thing I learned during my landscape architecture degree was to study what grows naturally in an area. “Take a look in the woods, hedgerows and meadows near to your garden,” I was taught. “Note the species of trees, shrubs, climbers, wildflowers, bulbs, ferns, mosses and grasses. Doing so enables us to not only know what will grow in our soil, but how to make our planting schemes appear naturalistic.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” I am of his school of thinking, often preferring wild flowers to ornamental ones. I like the idea of having a garden made up entirely of native species. I’d have hawthorn, field maple and holly growing in my hedges; dog roses and wild honeysuckle would clamber up trellises and over archways; cow parsley would fill my borders in spring; meadowsweet would scent my garden in summer; foxgloves would stand proud until autumn; my lawn would be filled with daisies, clover and buttercups; and moss would cover shady walls and paths. It would be a wild place, by my choosing.

Whether I could see my wildflower vision become reality remains in question. There are so many ornamental plants that have become good friends – such as Euphorbia characias ‘Wulfenii’, Hosta sieboldiana, Wisteria sinensis, Dicentra spectabilis, and Alchemilla mollis – that I would feel like an unloving parent if I didn’t share my home with them. So a mixture of the two styles is more likely, with wild and naturalistic plants mingling with their ornamental cousins.

You’ll notice that I got all Latin on you then. Apologies. It’s just that when referring to friends, it’s best to use their proper names rather than common ones. Look the plants up, by all means, but as Monty Don says, “You do not need to know anything about a plant to know that it is beautiful.” Plants bring us pleasure. That’s the main thing. But you’ll eventually want to know more about them, I promise. You’ll want to be able to recognise them at different times of year; know their preferences, idiosyncrasies, and family relatives, knowing them as a true friend would. As William Robinson wrote, “Do not pay too much attention to labelling. If a plant is not worth knowing, it is not worth growing.”

While the concept of a totally wild garden might have romantic appeal, the appeal of it, over time, would soon wane. I’ve seen what it would become, and it isn’t pretty. Back in 1991, when I was seventeen, I was asked to help an elderly gentleman ‘get control’ of his garden. It was to be half a day’s work as a favour to a family friend. I arrived at the gentleman’s house one afternoon, and was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a neatly trimmed front lawn, rows of busy lizzies, and standard roses growing in the front garden. “Shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” I thought. “Twenty minutes and I’ll be done.”

I rang the doorbell and, after an age, heard the shuffling of footsteps in the hallway behind the door; then the rattling of security chains being removed, and finally the turning of a key in the lock. The door opened and there stood Bill, the gentleman, looking bright-eyed but frail.

“I’ve come to help with the garden, Bill,” said I. “But it doesn’t look too bad. Where exactly do you need help?”

“Round the back,” he replied, his face grimacing uncomfortably as he spoke. Come this way. I’ll show you.”

Bill walked me through his house until we reached the back door.

“I’ll need your help to open the door,” he whispered, as he handed me the key. I put the key in the lock and turned it. The mechanism opened instantly. I turned the handle of the door and pushed. And pushed. And pushed some more. It wouldn’t move. I then put my shoulder against the door and gave it a serious shove. It moved. An inch. I thrust repeatedly, until, inch-by-inch, the door opened enough for me to squeeze through. And there, in the garden, I looked up, and up, towards a towering wall of blackthorn, bramble and nettles. It reached the height of the upstairs windows and allowed little light below.

“Er, Bill,” said I, “When exactly did you last garden out here?”

“What, out the back?” he exclaimed, in complete puzzlement. “I’ve never set foot in this back garden. Never seen the need. I keep that front garden tidy, for sure, as it keeps the neighbours happy, but this back garden’s always been full of weeds and junk. Ever since I moved here.”

“When exactly was that?” I enquired, fearing the answer.

“1957,” replied Bill. “Same year Aston Villa won the FA Cup.”

“So you’re telling me you want thirty-four years’ worth of wilderness cleared in half a day? It’s unlikely. I can’t even see into your garden, let alone work out the size of the task.”

“Oh. Well if I remember correctly,” said Bill, stroking his chin, “the garden stretches back to those Lombardy poplars over there.”

“What?!” exclaimed I, and then made a noise like a high-pitched tuning fork. “They must be eighty yards away.”

“Suppose so,” said Bill, raising his eyebrows. “But that shouldn’t be a problem to a young chap like you. So here’s what we’ll do. You get your tools, roll up your sleeves, and get cracking; and I’ll be in the kitchen, making a cuppa.”

Bill left me standing in the garden with my hands on my head, wondering what to do. Blackthorn is menacing at the best of times, its thorns being viciously sharp. It may provide wonderful sloes in winter and flowers in early spring, but it provides cuts and curses for the rest of the year. It also suckers from the base, making it spread as a tangled mass of thorns and stems. Add to this a Medusa’s hair of brambles clambering atop the blackthorn crown, and a stinging weave of nettles knitted throughout, and I was presented with the ultimate example of Nature saying, “Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough.” I returned to the front garden. There, on the drive, was my bicycle and rucksack. I grabbed the bag, removing the secateurs, loppers, billhook, bow saw, and leather gauntlet gloves, and returned to the scene of the challenge.

I knew from experience that the best way to tackle blackthorn is to cut it at the base and drag it out. But I had nowhere to drag it to. So I got onto my hands and knees and – using the loppers, billhook and saw – began carving a tunnel into the thicket. I sliced, sawed and slashed my way, cutting and then pushing aside the branches. They hung above the ground, supported by the mesh of limbs above. I inched forward on my knees and then, in an agonising flash of pain, felt a thorn pierce through the cartilage beneath my kneecap.

I screamed in agony, and then noticed the patch of blood appearing though my trousers. The thorn had snapped clean from the branch, so I had no option but to remove my trousers (keeping my knee bent) and tease the spike from my flesh. I pulled down my trousers and then, with one eye closed and the other on my knee, I tweaked and nudged the thorn from my body. I held it aloft. There, covered in blood, was a thorn two inches long and as menacing as a dagger held to one’s throat. Thankfully it was still intact. I threw the thorn to one side, pulled up my trousers, and hobbled forward, squatting down so to keep my bodyweight on my boots rather than my knees.

Three hours and sixty yards later, I hit something solid and immovable: a cast iron bath propped up against a rotten (but dry) sofa. Behind it was a small clearing, wide and high enough for me to stand up in without scratching my face or stinging my eyes. I rubbed my bruised and blood-soaked knee, and then cursed the evil thicket. While blackthorn flowers are beautiful, and their berries supremely tasty when infused with gin, this wall of thorns had proven nearly impossible to conquer. (As Fletcher Steele said, “Any healthy plant will develop shocking bad manners if left to itself.”) 

I’d had enough. I’d spent most of the time inching along a tunnel like the Viet Cong, fearing for my safety and knowing that, even if I made it out alive, I wouldn’t get paid for my troubles. I looked at the foam cushions of the sofa, and had an idea. I reached into my pocket, removed a box of matches, struck a match and flicked it onto the sofa. The flame grew steadily and then, as the foam caught light, burned rapidly upwards and outwards. I grabbed my tools and crawled as quickly as possible back down the tunnel.

When I reached the house, and looked back, I could see flames twenty feet high roaring up from the wiry stems of bramble. It crackled, spitted and hissed, and then I heard a loud ‘clung’ as the bath buckled in the heat. The wind was driving the flames away from the house and up against the poplars. Soon one of them was alight, and I heard a screaming coming from the end of the garden. A woman was hysterical, not for fear of her life or damage to the trees, but because of something far more domestic.

“You barsturd!” She cried. “Don’t you know this is a smokeless zone? I’ve got my washing out!”

Bill, whose phone was now ringing off the hook, came outside to see what all the fuss was about. “Ohh,” he said, with a smile. “You made it all the way back there, did you? Good job! Though I think you’ve had it with the neighbour.”

“Yeah,” I replied, sheepishly, “She doesn’t sound too happy.”

“Not to worry,” said Bill, in an upbeat way. “It won’t matter soon.”

“What do you mean?” I enquired.

“I’m moving house next week; got myself a room in one of those comfy retirement places.”

“So why did you want this mess sorting out?”

“Ah, well, yes, I was going to get round to that. I’ve sold the house to a young couple. Nice they are. Wouldn’t be fair to expect them to have to tidy their new garden, would it? Terribly nasty stuff blackthorn. Wouldn’t wish it on my enemies. Still, you’re a professional. It wouldn’t bother you one bit, would it?”

This is a sample chapter from A Gardener's Year, Fennel's Journal No. 9

If you like the work of lifestyle and countryside author Fennel Hudson, then please subscribe to Fennel on Friday. You'll receive a blog, video or podcast sent direct to your email inbox in time for the weekend.