Life

The Casual Gardener: Alexanders are not so great

Weeds test every gardener's patience but a fresh addition to the list of unwelcome guests has put strain on John Manley's green credentials

Alexanders originate in the Mediterranean but are at home on the east coast of Ireland

THE reason I know I'm not like other gardening columnists is because they rarely, if ever, write about weeds. How can this be? My experience of gardening tends to be dominated by weeds and my endless battle against them, from the smallest ephemeral to imposing perennials.

The subject of my ire changes over time and tends to depend on what stage of cultivation a particular piece of ground is at. For example, nettles tend to be confined to the far reaches of the garden where I'm inclined to venture less often. They don't bother me too much and are good for insect life, particularly moths. They also prosper in places where in the past I've had a compost heap – which is quite a few – as here the ground is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients.

With lots of nettles in the garden it makes sense to have some dockens, though thankfully they no longer flourish on the scale they once did on ground that had been turned over the previous year. Likewise ragweed, which I reckon is pretty much eradicated form my garden, though I can't say the same for hogweed.

In spots where in the past I've deposited horse manure as fertiliser, bindweed tends to grow. Like nettles, I can tolerate it in the wilder parts but despair to find it among the strawberries, in the herbaceous borders or clambering alongside a clematis. Yanking it is folly, as bindweed thrives on such treatment, with each segment of root ready to become a new plant.

Creeping buttercups and daisies can be pretty, as can two of the larger 'weeds' that inhabit my garden. Flowering currant and plum trees were established, though for many years neglected, when I arrived here nearly 17 years ago. I've kept plenty of both and enjoy their respective spring blossom displays, but elsewhere they are a curse, the currants seed profusely while the plums send up suckers.

In the past I've regaled readers with my experience of all the above and how my effort to control them is best described as ‘organic containment', which keeps weeds at bay without the use of harmful chemicals. However, a new addition to this list of garden undesirables has tempted me to reach for the glyphosate, a systemic herbicide which in one guise is manufactured by agrichemical giant Monsanto and sold as Round-Up.

Smyrnium olusatrum, also known as Alexanders – or Lusrán grándubh, as Gaeilge – is a tall perennial that would put you in mind of celery. It came to Ireland from Britain where it was introduced by the Romans, who used it as a pot herb. Its common name is thought to come from Alexander the Great, who we can surmise either liked it a lot or was plagued by it in his garden.

A glance at the distribution map in Zoe Devlin's excellent Wildflowers of Ireland shows that this plant of Mediterranean origin likes the east coast especially and not far from my house there are areas thick with Alexanders. It's neither a particularly attractive or an ugly plant but in its favour it has insect-friendly flowers in spring when little else is in bloom.

A member of the carrot family, it typically has a long tap root easily reaching one foot (30 cms) into the ground – and this is why Alexanders are such a pain. No matter how deep you dig and gently tease out the tap root, a little is always left behind, which in a similar way to bindweed will grow back.

An obvious option therefore is to poison the root with glyphosate. It's certainly tempting but the impact on my conscience and green credentials would be too much. For now therefore, I'll tolerate the Alexanders and endeavour to keep them contained.

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