Oh joy! It is the season for…couchgrass

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Rosa sanguinea and friends, including….masses of couchgrass, Tostat, May 2016

I thought it would be best to confess.  I am one of the world’s greatest cultivators of couchgrass.  Well, I assume it is couchgrass although, according to various authorities, it may well be something else botanically.  But I am sticking with couchgrass as a generic term referring to what you see in large clumps above on my shitty bank.  My shitty bank is essentially stones and spoil from the swimming pool excavation, and so you may say, what do I expect?  And you would be right.  I have no expectations of not growing couchgrass.  But this late Spring season when, like last week, you get the fatal combination of warm sun and rain, is when the couchgrass seriously moves in.

And I am much more relaxed about it than I was eleven years ago.  I now understand that it just comes with the territory in a largely agriculturally surrounded village.  And, although I will welly in later when the rain stops and do some pulling up, knowing that this wet period makes the soil, such as it is, able to loosen its grip on the couchgrass roots- I also know that time will help me.  In about six weeks or so, shitty bank will be crispy dry and the couchgrass will burn and dry.  As long as I have made a bit of a dent in it with my pulling activities, time and weather will keep it at bay till the frosts come.  I also know that there is no point in planting small, delicate plants on shitty bank as they will not rise above the couchgrass guerrilla tactics.

Here is an example of how I have learnt to live with couchgrass in a damper part of the garden.

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Anemone hupehensis, Iris pseudacorus, Paeonia ludlowii….and a few wisps of couchgrass waiting to be pulled, Tostat, May 2016

Here, by the ruisseau, is a sunny and dampish part of the garden, which also increases the likelihood of bindweed.  Here, after various attempts at handling the couchgrass, I am opting for ground cover that will blot out most of it, leaving only what I call ‘wisp management’- same technique as above, but again, only after rain, the gentle, sharp tug will bring out root and all…for now.

Just to the left of this group, I have a new colony of Phlomis russeliana, which will do a grand job in a month or two.  I read about Phlomis russeliana as a weed suppressant in the helpful Noel Kingsbury blog.  He helped me see what I could have noticed for myself as I love this plant and have lots in the garden in all sorts of different spaces.  But, in the photograph above, you can see that the Japanese anemone works too…You just have to always manage the suppressor as well.  Otherwise the suppressor becomes the tyrant.

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Phlomis russeliana doing a great job in another part of the garden, no lovely creamy yellow flowers yet, Tostat, May 2016

On the subject, briefly, of bindweed, I have also grown Tagetes minuta from seed, following helpful advice from Sarah Raven’s website and the Wellywoman blog, another great source of help and advice.  I have about 25 good looking small plants, which I am going to plant in a couple of places and try out.  It sounds as if you need to plant them in groups around the affected area and the chemical extrusions from the tagetes root is what deters the bindweed.  It’s got to be worth a try, and at the worst, you have extra, feathery foliage that looks quite nice without much else in the flower department.

But meantime, I did do one thing in time this year- staking the herbaceous paeonies, and this one, not sure which it is, looked terrific even after another blasting by heavy rain.  Good for the soul.

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Droplets of rain on an unknown paeony, Tostat, May 2016

When Shitty Bank isn’t so shitty….

The site of Shitty Bank 2003
The site of Shitty Bank 2003

This is the site of Shitty Bank when we first saw it in 2003.  There is no bank, and it’s not that…bad! Dried out as a result of a huge heatwave that hit France for a month in August 2003, but otherwise fine.  This is was where we decided to put the swimming pool that we built 3 years later, mainly because it was flat, a bit screened by a big hedge from our really nice neighbours, and it was a sun-trap.  So in it went, and with it came a massive heap of spoil, rubbish soil with huge river stones in it, and not much else.

What to do? Well, I had recently read Beth Chatto’s great book about gravel gardening…a new subject to me having previously gardened in Scotland. And so, emboldened by her experiment in gardening with what she’d got, an old carpark space, I decided to do the same with our bank of spoil. An old friend came to visit, laughed, and promptly christened it ‘Shitty Bank’. The name stuck.

Lessons learnt:

– if, like me, your ground is poor and stoney, it will take a couple of years for plants to get their feet down and really take off. So patience really is a virtue.

– don’t bother with ‘small and interesting’ plants…go for rough, tough stuff that will see off all the bindweed and other weeds, or at least sit on them. The ‘small and interesting’ things just get lost in the bigger things and don’t make it. I love Nepeta tuberosa, and did have a good clump which I grew from seed, but rain and other plants pushed it out, and now I have it in a kinder place.

– do plant beautiful and tolerant plants. Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ loves it. She started as a one-foot weakling and is now 3m high x 4m spread.  A few years ago, we had quite a wet summer and the bindweed was growing to serious strangulation point.  So, in the winter, we crawled underneath and anchored black tarpaulin material as tightly as we could around the underneath of the rose.  This has been quite effective and reduced the bindweed by about 80%. With us, this rose is in bloom for easily 10 months of the year.

Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis' changes from deep pink to peach to yellow as the flowers age..
Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ changes from yellow to peach to deep pink as the flowers age..

– another toughie, which is now a small tree, is Vitex agnus castus, which has fabulous purple blossom in late summer.

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Vitex agnus castus flowering amongst Eryngium agavifolium

– and I wouldn’t be without, though it doesn’t last long, I love the way the colour in the flowers fills up like a cartoon blush, and it does happily colonise everywhere….Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’.

Echinops sphaerocephalus 'Arctic Glow'
Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’

And, although like everything else in the garden, there is constant change as plants, and me, change our minds about each other, and each year brings new weather challenges, Shitty Bank does a good job and I have learnt that it survives pretty well now with one really good tidy-up of bramble, bindweed and their pals each year. And now, the plants are big enough to fend for themselves.

Small footnote: I grew my Nepeta tuberosa from seed from Derry Watkins at Special Plants, near Bath, back in 2005.  She is a fount of wisdom, and her brochure is a torture to read- you could choose everything.  Her seed is always good.  If she was down the road from me, I would be penniless.

Early Shitty Bank: Rosa sanguinea, Phlomis purpurea (pink), Stachys byzantina,  yellow Asphodeline lutea, Euphorbia characias wulfenii
Early Shitty Bank: Rosa sanguinea, Armeria maritima Dusseldorf Pride  (pink), Stachys byzantina, yellow Asphodeline lute, Euphorbia characias wulfenii