This year in the Orkney International Science Festival, I teamed up with Anna Canning, ethnobiologist, researcher and forager, to explore the world of the wilder, the world of herbaceous or herbal perennials that are commonly called weeds, finding great wealth and richness in their fibre, and re-establishing the importance of their fundamental presence in our lives and gardens.
We explored a change of attitude of the gardener to re-discover the web of life and relationship in the garden. It’s ecology, and eco-therapy for us.
A world of plants
I trained as a gardener through practical hands-on experience and with the RHS. Each week on the RHS course we were instructed to learn plant idents, learning the basic character of hundreds of plants. Included in these were ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’.
With a background of playing in mud as a child, encapsulated and held by the whole of nature, I realise I didn’t come from a binary system of good and bad. My parents weren’t gardeners, I have no memories of loving dahlias or nicotianas because my grandfather or mother did. I have no memories of lavender wafting in the house or collecting horse manure for the roses and rhubarb. I have no memories of catastrophe when potato blight struck or carrot fly landed, or an invasion of bindweed.
I do remember a great elm dying of Dutch elm disease. That was sad. Amazingly, it is now growing again, 30 years later, shoots rising up from a great and old root stock.
My memories are of an entanglement of dense and lush undergrowth, birds calling loudly overhead, hazels nuts dangling to be picked, dodging wasps for plums and apples dropping into the grass, collecting them before the slugs tucked in. Feeling safe and belonging to the mud that sucked my wellies off, feeling joy and satisfaction as spring leaves unfurled overhead. Tumbling and being part of. Climbing into overgrown gooseberry bushes and returning with scratches but full of fruit. Then, that raspberry AND maggot pie. No-one ever pruned anything, everything grew as it wished. No-one stressed about daisies or moss on the lawn. I realise now my history with plants is a wilder uncultivated one, where there seemed to be an abundance for all.
A garden community
After training as a gardener, I began with great fervour, after the RHS course to do things ‘properly.’ Cutting, pruning, edges, getting the right look. But now, with an approach of curiosity, I’ve come to tend the middle way. There is no wild or complete taming, that endeavour will create great stress and instigate a never-ending battle. Gardening is relationships, and I’m an Ecological Gardener, working with a community of people, plants and animals of all sizes, who all have effects on one another.
If I had a mission in life, it would be this, to reach out to all who garden and show, explain, inspire, persuade why we all need to go back to basics in our gardens and re – search these relations for ourselves to discover why we must stop reaching for chemicals and poisons, broaden our minds, and embrace all of life.
A few days ago, I checked on potatoes I’d planted for a client the previous fortnight. I was not greeted with the pleasant sight of shoots and roots establishing, but a writhing mass of small, thin worms, devouring the chit. Chit after chit was the same. All covered to a greater or lesser degree. It was like a Hitchcock movie in miniature. I’d never seen these before, and they weren’t ‘good’. From a feeling of horror arose curiosity, ‘…but what are they?’ From searching my brain and books, I realised they were most probably wireworms.
From plant to plant
In papers by Herk and Vernon, they recorded that:
The subterranean habits of wireworms, their ability to quickly locate food by following carbon dioxide gradients produced by plant material in the soil, and their remarkable ability to recover from illness induced by insecticide exposure (sometimes after many months), make it hard to exterminate them once they have begun to attack a crop. Wireworms can pass easily through the soil on account of their shape and their propensity for following pre-existing burrows, and can travel from plant to plant, thus injuring the roots of multiple plants within a short time.”
Pretty well adapted to live I’d say. And after up to 6 years in the soil, they pupate to become click beetles. So where did they come from? Well, Mama Click Beetle had laid her eggs in a good thatch of wild grass, mainly couch, which is native in the UK. This was so much, year round vegetative matter for her offspring, but I’d removed that to create a vegetable plot.
This garden had been ‘let go’ 6 years ago. 6 years of grass which I’d ripped out. I’d inadvertently disturbed and taken away the food source of many wireworms. In the conventional dialogue, they are bad and should be eradicated. The broad beans I’d planted in the autumn had also vanished, I’d blamed the rabbits and voles. However, it was hungry wireworms and the potatoes were their next feast.
Couch grass or Elymus repens, their food source, is also considered ‘bad’ and should be eradicated. Researching the upcoming talk at the Festival, A Wealth of Weeds, I couldn’t answer a question: ‘What is the role of couch grass?’
A network underground
Let me introduce you to this plant if you do not know it. Enter Elymus repens or couch, couchgrass, quackgrass, quicks, scutch, squitch, twitch, wickens, wicks, and grandmother grass. It has a lot of familiars, and is the rampant gatecrasher of the plant world. It breeds fear into the heart of certain folk because it spreads by extensive long, stout and sharply pointed white rhizomes.
Even a tiny segment grows again. My RHS lecturer was known to sieve soil to expel ALL white, fleshy rhizomes. These rhizomes look like roots but are actually underground stems, running under the soil, sprouting roots down and shooting up new vertical stems as they go. They create a dense thatch, a network.
The rhizomes store energy, and are fat and fleshy, holding lots of nutrients and minerals for larvae, and in the past, for us. The Wildlife Trust notes that they feed the larvae of the Speckled Wood and Ringlet butterflies, also the Essex Skipper butterfly.
And on the farm
Further research shows that farmers very much dislike couch too, even though it has a number of benefits, including being a year-round fodder which has evolved to grow under heavy footfall, also helping bind the soil together. Sick animals, including dogs, will often hunt it out, and in the past the rhizomes were sold in apothecaries for quite some money.
Interestingly pigs are the only animals able to eat and completely digest it preventing further germination. An article on Farmers Direct from 2019 begins:
“It may not be the national problem it once was, but we ignore couch grasses at our peril, stresses Barrie Hunt … Even though couch is no longer the immense challenge it was before the introduction of Roundup, the latest grower research shows it continues to be problematic on 10 per cent of the UK winter cereals area.”
On this thread of farmers and couch, my reading took me to the Invasive Species Compendium who list “invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide”. I was interested in the H. marginata larvae or the saddle-gall midge. It is considered a common cereal pest BUT its preferred food is Elymus repens, and:
The main reasons for the recent rapid growth of H. marginata populations are the intensification of plant production, planting cereal crops without rotation and the selection of highly productive cereal varieties which do not have natural resistance against the pest.”
Science Direct continues:
Among wild grasses, several authors have suggested that couch grass … is the main host of H. marginata, its larvae being able to complete their development easily on this plant … Couch grass can support populations of up to 100 larvae per stem…”
Losing a food source, becoming a pest
Nancy Ostiguy, Associate Professor of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University writes in Nature Education:
Insects seldom become pests in natural ecosystems, but in managed or simplified ecosystems … insects may be categorized as pests.”
She also says:
Agricultural pests, along with pests found in …landscaping, are usually problematic because of human created circumstances. In managed, or simplified, ecosystems, such as … orchards, or landscaped areas, the food supply for a pest may be increased while the habitat/niche of predators may be removed or reduced… While adult butterflies and moths are important pollinators, their larvae may be pests.“
So couch grass is a food for miserable ‘pests’, which is beginning to answer my questions of “Why does couch exist and what part does it play? How does it ‘stick’ the web of life together?” because nothing was created to stand alone, everything has a role. Or as composer Arvo Pärt said lyrically about music, there is
A need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.“
There is a need to concentrate on each plant, so we can understand and act appropriately.
A fuller picture of the world
In the recent book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement by Sunstein, Kahneman, and Sibony, the authors look at decision-making. Noise is all the extraneous factors that impact and bias our decision-making, from cultural predisposition to the time of the day. The noise and bias in our brains, prevents us from ‘seeing’ the full picture, or hearing the rich notes in the full orchestra.
As a gardener, the prevalent culture is ‘kill couch’ and this is passed down like a Mexican potter hands down the generational polishing pebble. I asked an elderly client why did she want me to remove it. She stopped and looked at me as though I was crazy. “Seriously,” I said, “I’m researching the plant, why in your mind, do you want it all removed?” She faltered and replied, “Because it strangles and kills all the garden plants.”
Couch does indeed find bare, sun-drenched earth, it doesn’t care for shade, stretches out, loves nitrogen-rich soil, so plenty of food, gathers all its rhizomes, and creates a dense thatch if left.
It ‘invades’ monocultures and manicure plots but happily co-exists in verges as other plants shade it out, and the larvae that feed on the fleshy rhizomes become beetles, moths and butterflies. What eats the beetles and butterflies? Well, in the case of the wireworm and click beetle, the worms are eaten by nematodes and birds, and the beetle is devoured by birds, bats, frogs, and lizards.
Good and bad insects. We want pollinators, which include beetles, flies, ants, moths, butterflies, bumble bees, honey bees, solitary bees, and wasps, but we’re troubled by the larvae of some that feed on vegetative matter of ‘our’ plants and their roots. But we don’t want ‘bad’ plants in our gardens like couch grass that would feed some. If you internet search Couch grass you’ll be rewarded with ‘old enemy’, ‘stealthy invader’, ‘contributes nothing’, ‘aggressive’. Dig deeper and snippets pop up like “E. repens is an early successional species, and thus declines in abundance may occur with time without active management…” in a paper by the US-based Nature Conservancy’s Global Invasive Species Team. There is so much we don’t know, having lost a connection to nature time, vegetative time, plant time. We want results, now.
And in the garden with the wireworms the owner is taking a philosophical approach: “It would seem I need to look at my garden as a nature reserve.” It was a hallelujah moment. In a couple of years, the wireworms will have hatched into click beetles and many will be eaten, and many will lay eggs into wilder grassland surrounding the garden to begin their cycle again.
And as for the garden, we will plant mustard, field beans and phacelia, called green manures, to encourage the growth and departure of the worm, and these plants are a ground cover which will help to replenish the land. Then in a few years we will plant vegetables, aligned with vegetative time. Meanwhile, for now, we can grow in pots, bags, tyres and build a relationship with the land and all the life in it.
Finding a way
If you want couch grass-free beds, create hard impenetrable bedding borders of stone or metal. These deter the rhizomes. Infrequently it can seed and feed grassland birds, particularly buntings and finches. The choicest removal is by hand, particularly in the autumn to spring period. Don’t compost it directly, but dry, or cover for at least 2 years or put it in the green bin.
You’ll see here couch growing in a wilder part of my garden. It likes sun, avoiding shade, and colonises bare earth.
See here the rhizome between the two shoots. I’ve had a great time finding the longest rhizome I can tease out intact.
This one pictured is 125cm and dried as I’d heard it was used as incense once upon a time. So we lit it last night and the aroma is sweet, necessary in more stinky times.
To find out more about the medicinal, foraging and historical uses of couch, tune in, in September as Anna Canning from Floramedica has a wealth of information. You may change your mind and have an area a little more unkempt and wilder, keeping some rhizomes, as a food source for those who need it.
We can approach and manage our gardens with an attitude of ‘I can do what I want’. Rip everything out, RoundUp the stragglers, eradicate all we perceive as ‘bad’ and introduce what we perceive as ‘good’. And with this approach we can wreak damage. Imagine your garden as a thatch-work of invisible threads, an intimate layering of life, all connected. Touch one and all vibrate like the orchestra, that’s ecology. And we’re one of those threads too, belonging to the land, a sound running through the bark and root bacteria. Let that sound ripple through you and if you care for the land, it will care for you, and bring you deep joy. Relax and imagine you are embraced by the plants, and get curious as each one deserves your attention. Each one plays a vital role, a role you might not have ever imagined. All that life is in your hands.
Elizabeth Woodcock and Anna Canning spoke on A Different Kind of Garden in the 2022 Orkney International Science Festival.