There are a number of challenges to be faced at Little Acre, the complete redesign of the main garden, the digging over and re establishment of the kitchen garden, the thinning of the woodland, yet prior to addressing any of these there is an overriding need to tackle the presence of highly invasive perennial weeds (as touched on previously). Bindweed works it way through both the kitchen and main garden and although currently the old paddock and woodland remain vine free, they have their own set of infuriating attributes. The most dominant of which is Aegopodium podagrariagoes, which more commonly goes by the name of ground elder but also know as herb gerard, bishop’s weed, goutweed, gout wort or snow-in-the-mountain to name a few. (the fact it has so many aliases hints at its suspect nature)
It stretches out across the woodland like a blanket, engulfing the undergrowth and massing around the trees. Individually the plants look harmless enough, producing small white flowers on umbels (umbrella-like clusters), but like the hooligans they are, they are quick to multiply and if you allow a group of them to gather, soon enough ground elder will surround you, out competing and bullying all in its path until it reigns dominant and becomes all you can see……as is very much the case in the woodland.
The long term plan in the this area is to create a natural wildlife centric environment. We want an underplanting of wildflowers, ferns and shade tolerant shrubs, with an abundance of log piles and wildlife refuges, surrounded by native hedgerows. The vision of a woodland teeming with wildlife, being home to a wide range of animals that thrive in and amongst the varied aesthetically pleasing undergrowth, does not allow for the presence of this all dominating beast of a plant.
There are a number of ways you can take on ground elder, you can attempt to attack it through digging and clearing, although you have to be thorough in your approach as similar to that of bindweed any morsel of root missed will form a new plant. The other option is a full on chemical assault. As a quick attack, using a gylphosate containing weedkiller as it emerges in spring and reapplying at frequent intervals can be effective in small isolated spaces, although this tends to go against the ecologically focused attitude we were attempting. Should ground elder make its way into your lawn you can repeatedly mow it allowing the grass to take hold and fight for its place, although again this is not suitable for the situation we find ourselves in.
Due to the scale of our battle we opted for the all encompassing approach whereas covering the area to remove light and starve out the ground elder. After stripping out the top layer of the soil containing the majority of the ground elder plants (something we took on whilst having the mini excavator on site during the digging of the wildlife pond) we proceeded to cover the area in a thick black polythene. We will then proceed to check this a number of times, removing any new signs of ground elder roots over the coming months. The negative of this of course is you also starve out anything else that may have been growing in the area, along with effecting the composition and structure of the soil. Given the fact however that we have the time to allow the area to recover post elder obliteration, this seems like the only viable option.
If you can get beyond the invasive all consuming nature of ground elder it does have its benefits. Ecologically speaking it can provide a substantial food source for a insect larvae and can give shelter for smaller creatures. Its use as a food source is also not exclusive to that of insects, with records dating back to the roman era of it being used as a spring leaf similar to that of spinach. Its also had a place as a medicinal herb, although its use is not in common practice today.
In spite of whatever technique we apply to the management of the ground elder, the source of the problem lies beyond the boundaries of our plot. Our neighbours are also held hostage by this demon plant and there is a certain inevitability to its reemergence no matter how hard we attack it. There are parts of me therefore that wonders if our time would be spent better elsewhere. Leaving the woodland to exist and self manage its own ground cover, in the hope that planting some larger ferns and shrub species would out compete the elder and where it has free reign, just to let it be.
There are certainly a considerable number of alternate jobs at Little Acre that would rank much higher on the enjoyment scale than battling this potentially endless foe and so the phrase ‘pick your battles’ comes to mind.
In the meantime we will see how our little management trial fairs and make that call next year when we will undoubtably once again be confronted by the blanket of ground elder.