I may well lose more readers through my enthusiasm for weeding, annually expressed, than by being boring, repetitive, out of touch, living in the past and my many other weaknesses. I can’t help it. Weeding for me is the epitome of gardening; the time when every move is decisive and, to use that corny phrase, you can see where you’ve been. Planting is the other supreme gardening pleasure; the satisfaction of settling roots in soil always gives me a glow. But planting is the work of moments, while weeding is a long drawn out pleasure, always (at least in this garden) available.
Why do I love it? Because it calls for total concentration. As I stoop or grovel in the border (or anywhere else where muddle is taking over) my eyes must be fully focussed. What appears at first an agreeable jumble of green shapes becomes progressively clearer as I start to edit it. There are in-your-face weeds: a dock or a nettle makes no attempt to hide. There are insidious weeds that blend with the background: violas and little balsams that can lurk while they multiply. And there are wily, snaky weeds that infiltrate under disguise.
Just now it was bryony in a mahonia that had reached the top without my noticing. Always and everywhere it is goose grass, spreading out from a root no bigger than fuse-wire to launch its sticky tentacles into whatever it encounters. It took me five minutes of patient groping, using its rough texture on my fingers as a guide, to disentangle one plant of it from a patch of Geranium.
I have learnt a few tricks, leaning over the herbage, breathing in its evocative variety of smells. The first is always to use a fork – not always to prong with, but more importantly to lean and balance on. It’s the rule of ‘one hand for the ship’: right hand on the handle for balance, left hand for reaching down and out. You can reach improbably far into a border if you are a tripod.
There are plants that never seem to need weeding, but they are rare. I rarely find weeds in established clumps of hemerocallis, and the big leaves of Phlomis russelliana are exceptionally effective at covering the ground. Some geraniums are hard for casual weeds to penetrate, but nothing, of course, smothers bindweed. Nor I fear is there any pleasure in it. In fact, I exclude bindweed, couch grass and ground elder from my enthusiasm. So perhaps I am not so different from other gardeners after all.