Monday 17 July 2017

Establishing bulbs and plants in an overgrown field

Lyndi's field

Eight months after starting
Word came from Cathi’s friend Lyndi who lives in the next village that she had a problem with her quarter acre field. Ten years ago a horse paddock, it was now overgrown with five foot high nettles and docks with little grass surviving. Worse the friendly farmer who  had been mowing it off in Autumn had now retired. Her handyman Chris could barely traverse the field to mend some electrical pumping contraption - or so he claimed!
At one side of the field were the remains of ancient wooden stables. With perhaps two metres of elevation the near rectangular field served as some kind of bund to exclude floodwater from low lying fields.
The luxuriance of the weeds gave evidence of high soil fertility. No doubt thanks to long gone horses. The fecundity of the weeds also removed evidence of a hardcore surface adjacent to the old horse sheds. There would be no cultivation! Fortunately if healthy weeds thrive so will plants.
There had been talk of a scorch earthed policy to eliminate the weeds. I shudder to think of land managed devoid of vegetation!
You could barely cross the field
It was too good an opportunity for me. I am currently indulging my whim  of using un-mown Chewing’s fescue grass grown as ground cover between naturalised plants and in particular bulbs. I will write about my early efforts very soon and have already revealed my thinking in my series of posts about Cathi’s grass verge.
The fact that Lyndi’s soil is a heavy clay would give me further opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of establishing vegetation without soil cultivation. Even better there was no perennial weed problem! It might surprise you that I don’t regard nettles and docks as a problem but compared to noxious mares tail, ground elder, bindweed and Japanese knotweed whose hard won elimination I have previously described they are a complete cinch and now nine months later Lyndi’s perennial weeds are completely gone. As ever removing established perennial weed is always followed by a series of avalanches of weeds germinating from seed! Weed control never stops in a garden!
The dye is now cast. I volunteered to carry out a long term project to convert the field to my own ‘cemetery style planting’ (see my articles about Bolton Percy churchyard and Worsbrough cemetery). On this occasion my plants will be surrounded by fescue grass and my choices of vegetation will differ and will not contain shrubs or herbaceous plants that die down to leave ‘heavy debris’. My planting will primarily be bulbs and other similar monocotyledons. Other herbaceous annuals, biennials and perennials will be initially sparse and often self seeding.
I shall visit Lyndi’s garden for two hours once a month every month of the year. 

A month after the first spray
Inevitably I had missed a few patches
Later on in September
l need ‘roundup’ for a project like this
Regular readers will know that using professional glyphosate usually applied with a knapsack sprayer is fundamental to my gardening. Most good gardeners use glyphosate to eliminate perennial weeds and often then stop;  none gardeners use it unwittingly when they repeatedly apply path clear type products. (Nothing wrong with that). Widespread misinformation has created the image that using glyphosate is a sin. This in my view is unfortunate and wrong and leads gardeners into bad practices such as excessive cultivation. More than a million of tons of glyphosate have been used in agriculture and horticulture safely worldwide over fifty years now. It is one of the most innocuous agrochemicals ever invented. (Not if you spray it on desirable plants or use it for nefarious purpose). 
For good or bad reasons many gardeners refuse to use it. I have no such inhibitions and regard prejudice about it as a widespread example of ‘false news’ which in the hands of its purveyors is very convincing.  

Other than glyphosate and sometimes MCPA I never use any chemicals in my three naturalistic gardens. Without glyphosate I might even qualify as ‘organic’ - I hate that overused inaccurate unfortunate term! 
In my ‘wild gardens’ I use zero fungicides and insecticides. No chemical pest killers for such as slug control. I use no fertilisers and my organic matter is directly recycled and no supplements are imported. There is no expensive and might I suggest unnatural biological control. On the contrary garden plants, wild flowers, pests and their predators do there own thing. I do not disapprove of sensible use of garden chemicals - they are merely unnecessary in my naturalised ecologies.

Using glyphosate to clear and to continue weed Lyndi’s field is easy for me. I have used glyphosate for forty years. It is not so simple for an inexperienced gardener. Most advice about spraying to gardeners from professional sources is relevant to agriculture and engineering and bares little resemblance to gardening situations. Most other advise to amateurs is…. well just amateur.
I have made it my mission to write numerous posts about glyphosate (and also none chemical weed control) and have tried to make the posts coherent and where possible un-repetitive. You need to settle down and read them if you wish to undergo a project like Lyndi's.

Early Autumn
 A single spray is insufficient - perennial weeds start to regenerate and new weeds come from seed 
It took about an hour to spray at this stage and bulb planting started a few days later
Bulbs that need early planting - such as narcissi were planted first
The first ten months

The first spray in late July was difficult as I attempted to walk in straight lines through the jungle. I had failed to bring gloves and when holding the spray wand high and downwards my hands brushed through the nettles when I failed to dodge them. I used a 1 in 40 mix - rather stronger than normal. The overall rate of application was never-the-less normal as I moved quickly to deliver my fine droplet spray. With a huge weed leaf surface area when using  a translocated weedkiller it is not necessary to attain complete coverage. Nor is it  possible to apply sufficient glyphosate to every last weed. I would get them next time. I applied in total 20 litres of diluted glyphosate that day.
A month later I sprayed again. Access was now much easier and I could ensure that this time all the nettles received a thorough dose of MCPA.(Glyphosate does not kill nettles very well). 

I got my bulb order in early from Parker’s Wholesale immediately on receiving their Autumn catalogue and invested £500 of Lyndi’s money to buy about 6000 bulbs. The daffodils and narcissus were mixed bags selected from several named types. I tried the bags priced by weight and those priced by number. I was too busy planting to determine which provided the best value. You really do get a lot of crocus for your money and I chose several hundred of the cheaper varieties of camassias. I regret now not having planted scilla, chinodoxa and tulips. They will be added next year. I did indulge in a few lilies and liatris that were very cheap at Aldi.

In October I planted the bulbs and a few very previously strong resisting clumps of nettles were spot sprayed again. I avoided the remains of the nettles when planting  and where possible I found vacant spaces; some  bulbs of necessity were tucked between dead stumps of the docks. I just planted the bulbs by levering up spadefuls of soil and pushing handfuls of bulbs under. The number usually varied around half a dozen. As I tired the numbers got bigger! I doubt if many of the bulbs were completely upright and the varying depth does not matter. It was very wet at the time and my boots got quite muddy with clay. The bulbs got a very good start with the wet Autumn conditions.
In late Winter I scavenged Cathi’s garden as well as my own to find about 500 each of bluebells and snowdrops. I recently wrote about establishing snowdrops. Perhaps ten percent of the snowdrops were dug up by rabbits. They were popped back in on the next monthly visit and all survived
Planting the bulbs on the heavy soil was harder than doing the same on my own sandy soil - and even more difficult through any hardcore! I have to confess I had help from Lyndi’s part time gardener, Andrew. It took six man-hours to plant the 6000 dry bulbs. It was all very random over the whole of the field. Planting was denser where the bulbs would be seen better  and in some cases where the remains of the weeds were lighter.

It was necessary to spot respray  a couple of times through the Winter and Spring - and of course as routine weed control it will continue through the Summer as weeds from seed ever appear. It gets quicker every time and now averages less than an hour and in the Winter not every month. I must emphasise that when the bulbs had come through it was necessary when spraying near the clumps to spray at very low pressure with the cone spray nozzle held pointing low and firmly down. It is very easy and none of the thousands suffered any damage whatsoever.

From the very first spray I made sure that my attention covered the complete field and particularly the margins. I do not want weed invasion through any hedge and over the fence line. There is no one to complain.

On a couple of visits I slit in a few bits and pieces from home including  crocosmia, tradescantia virginiana, bulbous buttercups, a nice red lythrum, poached egg plant, forget-me-nots, red campion and golden creeping Jenny. A bog plant  hitched a ride with some of the snowdrops!  It will stand proud in the boggy part of the field with the lythrum and tradescantia. Some of these plants will be seed parents to eventually spread. As the field will strongly feature upright monocotyledons I made a special effort to steal fifty strong agapanthus divisions from home. They will look great this summer and the clumps will enlarge every year.

We had a wet spell in February
Moisture loving plants such as primulas will be sown here
A view back to the house in March
The denser planting was nearer the house
View of horizon at the top of the field
Wet patch and hardcore area in front of shed
Another bulb order went in to Parkers in January for the kinds of Summer bulbs that will  naturalise - about 300 quid’s worth this time. Gladiolus were strongly represented  and included both the hardy compact varieties and allegedly less hardy compact varieties of the normal types. I personally find that If I leave ‘regular’ glads in the ground over Winter that although they are erratic in their reliability many go on to make strengthening stands each year. These Summer bulbs went in March.
I will discuss the future potential of a pure stand of Chewings fescue grass next post

You may be wondering about the grass. Only token amounts have been sown on two occasions so far. It is only possible to establish a pure stand of a single grass species when you cease to have wild grasses popping up everywhere. I am taking this slowly and my next post will be about how I am currently using fescue grass here and in several other places. It is still early stages but by this time next year it will look more like a fine-grass field. Lyndi I hope you are reading!
The field is now becoming less weedy and on each monthly visit I will seek out every last weed I find. In addition I will take along seasonal flower seed to scatter!

Two months later
The first year is now over in mid July. I write my posts early and this update brings us to the present. 
The Spring bulbs had more or less died down by mid June. Old still green bulb leaves are not very vulnerable to glyphosate but I was still fairly careful spraying near the clumps and even more careful where Summer bulbs were sprouting.
There had been some heavy rain in mid May followed by lovely warm weather. My June visit was a little late, five weeks after the last one. The new weeds from seed were lush, tall and magnificent. It was difficult to discern which ones I had sprayed that day. It is not easy to gauge over an area in excess 1000 square metres. I spent my two hours spraying and a further ten minutes scattering Spring seed collected from my garden and my cemeteries. At this crucial juncture I returned ten days later to spray off the weeds I had missed! 
It was very revealing and very worthwhile. It looked a complete mess with tall dead weeds and green ones I had missed. It’s all  down hill now (or do I mean up?) and weed control will be easier. On this last visit before writing, a few small clumps of my initial half hearted and sparse sowing of fescue grass were melding together - not that anyone other than me would notice! This time I made a more generous scatter of fescue.
Anyone not interested in Chewing’s fescue should give my next post a miss.

See the annual poached egg plant from seed in the weed
Most of it will survive when I spray round it and will be seed parent for a large weed free clump next year

The early Summer bulbs will look better next year
Note the importance of the field  margin being weed free
The £1.99 box of lilies from Aldi looked rather forlorn

The camassias will look better surrounded by fescues next year
You can read about a not dissimilar project in my posts about Cathi's grass verge via the links in the theme column. This and this in particular discuss planting in previously undisturbed soil.
My  posts about using glyphosate are also to be found in the theme column

To be continued…..

My post about sowing fescue grass in the field is now published - and might I add today in September 2017 hardly anyone has bothered to read it!


  1. We could do with you taking on the overgrown plot opposite ours which is so bad no-one wants to know. A major issue is large elders. The council refuse to clear it which may make it more tempting to someone. Before you suggest it we have enough.

    1. Oh why not?
      As to Elderberry I don't generally rate glyphosate against woody weeds but elder is very susceptable.

  2. I'm very interested in this!!! It's something I'd like to try. But in the long term, how do you control the grasses? We have yorkshire fog, and it appears from nowhere. It's very difficult to spray when it's amongst things you don't want to kill. We also have rushes. I think they both arrive by seed, so eliminating them in the first place isn't going to help.

    1. Yes it is a very difficult project fraught with obstacles which I will discuss in my very next post (well if something more topical does not squeeze in first)
      I have two pilots going which are working well. The key thing is to get pure stands of chewing fescue going and I have to be very ruthless. I have been dabbling on the edge of our next-door farm field for 18 months and on the paths on the village plot for 9 months with apparent but early success. The key thing there is the absence of much coarse grass seed such as annual meadow grass and Yorkshire fog as a result of several years of practicing the antidote to ‘one years seeding is seven years weeding” Not so at Lyndi’s!
      I have previously always eschewed grass as ground cover amongst plants .It is a keen competitor and if invaded with coarse grasses or composed of conventional grass mixtures needs cutting and would swamp out other plants.
      I am NOT making a lawn and although grass will under grow such as bulbs clumps, under say phlox, it will be weed and grass-free at the base. The grass just becomes a weed in the wrong place. I already practice weed control with my knapsack in such intimate situations around my plants and as long as you share this method you might be able to take on a field yourself.
      Without glyphosate it would only be practical to achieve success on a very small scale

    2. I'm looking forwards to the next post!

      I've been experimenting on a much smaller scale, trying to establish a few chosen 'weeds' on paths and paving cracks. The daisies did a great job of suppressing everything else....until they disappeared, so I guess they must be annuals. As a result of your previous posts mentioning fescues, I noticed some fine grasses were present on the path. They looked very like your photos, so I allowed a few of those to grow....the idea being maybe I could have a grass and daisies combo. Unfortunately the grass also seem to be an annual, as I now have some nice patches of thatch. I definitely didn't spray them!
      Perhaps I should try neatly clipped horsetail? :-)

    3. No not the horsetail!
      As it happens I have another go at the equisetum in a post coming up in the next couple of weeks
      My fescue post is on in a couple of days - shortly after a follow up on box caterpillar

    4. Roger, I've just re-read this, as I need to make my mind up soon about what to do in my own garden. It's on a slope and we've raised the level at the bottom of the garden. We brought in some subsoil last year to terrace it, and some topsoil is coming in next week. In the interim it's had some annual meadow seed, and also shown up some nasties that came in with the I'll be spraying bindweed and winter heliotrope for a while, but at least I know they are there, and can stop them from getting a foothold.
      What I'm confused about is how much exposed soil you seem to have. Is it a constant cycle of respraying? I think the creeping buttercup would just thank me for giving it more space!
      It's about 20-30m2 so should be manageable, but I do feel it's going to trip me up!

    5. A few thoughts Sarah
      1. Buying in bindweed yuk
      2 Buying in pestltes -even worse!
      3 Yes it is a constant cycle of spraying but I do that already in all my gardens and it is much much quicker than weeding. I am finding with the path grassed down on the village pilot that although I need to keep this weed free and coarse grass free the ground cover of pure fescue is helping me to speed upon previously
      4. As to grass density I am making it up as I go along. The bolder the plants the less grass. I expect at Lyndis it will be about 80% grass. The bulbs will grow up through the grass and also some meadow plants.Some clumpy plants will be just kept clear of grass at their base.As yo might have noticed I have planted some bulbous buttercup - but I won't tolerate ordinary buttercup. On the other hand I have allowed some silver weed in Cathi's verge in the rougher grass that persists next to the road.
      I expect the maintenance in Lyndi's quarter acre will be about 1.5 hours per month - every month when it is established in another years time.

    6. You can get subsoil for free, but it’s straight from the building site so you take your chances. I’m just happy that it didn’t have more horsetail! It could still come in with the topsoil, but at least it will only be in the top layer, not 2m below ground. Considering that I’m starting with bare soil in September, what do you think is the best way to start? Leave it alone so the weeds grow? Or sow something sacrificial just to cover it for the winter?

    7. I presume you need the wretched stuff to elevate levels. Needs must
      Shame you have not started earlier in the Summer to start to work the plethora of weeds and vegetative propagules of the nasties out of the system. I don't anticipate you will be ready to sow grass seed until next Autumn if you wish to emulate my own methods in the above article. Depending on your accuracy of spraying you might get away with a few clumps of bulbs planted this autumn.
      You might get in a few flushes of weed seed and two or three sprays over Autumn and Winter.
      Spring weeds from seeds tend in a significant number of cases to be seasonal in timing and you will have plenty until next Summer. I am still very active spraying at Lyndi's! It took two hours on the last visit! Yours in the end should be a doddle compared to my 1000 sq. metres.
      I definitely would not sow a ground cover! Your dead weeds will provide plenty of green manure

    8. We had nothing to lose, unless you like mossy sloping lawns with rushes on very poor clay soil. We had a one off chance to make a mess and change it before we put in a new driveway, so a few nasties are ok in the grand scheme. I'm not sure how I'll do with bulbs as we hold the national collection of slugs and beetles, so I'll have restricted options. I might give the lower terrace another year of annual meadow as I have collected seeds, and I'm not precious about spraying amongst it for the bindweed and winter heliotrope. There is a steep bank between the lower terrace and the higher one, and that would be a great place to try the fescue and bulbs. The higher one is going to be patio and a bit of lawn, so I think the fescue + bulbs will be a really good option between the two areas. I just need to find things that don't get too chewed by slugs. I even found one halfway up a thorny rose stem today!!!

  3. great tips. thanku

  4. Hi Roger. I'm new to your blog and have spent the last few days ploughing through all your entries with interest. My current interest lies with the ground elder ones. Thank you for writing in such detail. I am however new to gardening and have just moved to a third of an acre established garden with huge nettles and a few borders of ground elder. Does anyone know of an experienced sprayer in North Yorkshire that would be able to tackle the ground elder for me following Rogers glyphosate regime please and hopefully not harming my plants? I am currently to scared to try!

    1. (Anon has previously contacted me and I have suggested she makes her plea on the blog in the hope that someone in North Yorks can help and wants to earn an honest crust. They can make contact via my email nodiggardener@

      My own advice is that anon should pluck up some courage. It is easier than I often suggest - I am afraid of encouraging the innocent for fear of them doing something silly…

      Thank you for reading my posts - if you study all my weed control posts you will be in a position to start

      Invest in a professional knapsack sprayer. Sensitively used they are so much more accurate and versatile than anything else Think how the greenest of none gardeners manage to safely spray their paths with ready to use glyphosate sold in the cheapest of sprayers and how much more you can do compared to a mere toy.
      Buy five litres of professional glyphosate on the net. It will be enough for five years for your third acre
      Practice using your knapsack using pure water!
      First try paths and open areas and vegetation well away from plants
      Graduate to fence bases and under hedges and then under shrubs
      Start to spray your herbaceous areas when your plants are dormant
      Eventually spray between clumps at very low pressure with your nozzle low and pointing down.
      I know you are planning to come on an Open day - I will give you a demo. It is usually quieter later
      You will have to learn what is a plant and what is a weed!

    2. Thank you so much Roger. You have been extremely helpful. I am going to take your advice and first practice getting a bit of precision on the herringbone driveway. I just need to wait for a still dry day now, which seem to be a bit of rarity at the moment here in North Yorkshire.


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