The Russian Curse

Turn and run!  Nothing can stop them.  Around every river and canal their power is growing.
Stamp them out!  We must destroy them. They infiltrate each city with their thick dark warning odour*.

Plant hunters have over the centuries introduced many beautiful plants to our gardens but they have also brought in others that have, as they escaped from its confines, become troublesome weeds.  Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica, creates problems by damaging river banks and pushing up through concrete, even entering houses; Himalayan Balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, is pretty enough with their hooked pink and white flowers but smothers native plants.  Both are difficult and costly to eradicate.  But the one that can cause the most trouble – and is undoubtedly the most impressive – is Giant Hogweed.

Long ago in the Russian hills, a Victorian explorer found the regal hogweed by a marsh … he came home to London and made a present of the hogweed to the Royal Gardens at Kew*.

Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, was introduced to Britain from the Caucasus in  Victorian times and soon became a popular addition to parks and gardens for, although similar in appearance to our native Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, these were giants in every way.  Huge flower heads above equally large leaves reaching way into the sky – up to twenty feet or more in exceptional specimens – were something to marvel at. A hardy perennial, the plants shot up over the course of just one summer adding to its popularity, although it can be a few years before the plant flowers after which it dies.  With  up to 100,000 seeds from each plant, it soon multiplied and before long had found its way back to the marshy land adjacent to rivers and canals as in its homeland.

I wonder how long it took the Victorian gardeners to discover the problems associated with the plant for it not only spreads rapidly, it also is extremely toxic.  Covered in sharp bristles that scratch the skin it is the sap from the plant that can cause major injury.  Skin contact with the sap when exposed to sunlight results in severe dermatitis: itching and redness develop into blisters and dark wheals.  These can last for several years.  Contact with the eyes is even more dangerous for permanent blindness can follow.

So what do you do if you find Giant Hogweed in your garden apart from turn and run?  It can be treated with weed killer and the ideal time to do this is when the plants have a large leaf area but before they flower.  It is essential not to handle the plant at any time – even when it is dead – for every part of it including its roots will injure you.  If you are tempted to carry out control yourself (and it may be wiser to call in a specialist eradication company (please, not me!)) then you must wear a complete coverall and full face and eye protection.  You also need to remember that the clothing will also be contaminated and should be destroyed.

Fortunately, Giant Hogweed is rarely encountered in gardens.  You are more likely to find it growing in waste places in the wild and it may be wise to report its presence to your local environmental agency.  Attitudes toward it vary from country to country for this is not just a British pest – it is found in many other temperate regions of the world including the USA and Canada.

Perhaps at this point, I should remind you all that the majority of garden plants are harmless enough and that gardening and plants give a huge amount of pleasure.  Happy gardening!

* The Return of the Giant Hogweed: lyrics by Genesis, 1971


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What a Load of Rubbish!

Recently, I visited a waste recycling centre – what would have been called, until recently, a rubbish tip. But it isn’t just political correctness that has brought about this change of name: once not so long ago, this would have ended up in a landfill site, whereas now it is composted on an industrial scale and the resulting material is worth its weight in gold.

Green waste from the garden, as well as other material that will rot down, is brought by lorry to the site and piled up in long lines – windrows -stretching into the distance. The size of these heaps dwarf the heavy machinery used to move it.
Unlike the compost heaps of our gardens, the temperatures that are built up destroy all harmful bacteria, noxious weed roots and seeds, resulting in a clean, fertile and very marketable resource. The compost shown here is destined to be spread on fields and has made a significant reduction to the amount of synthetic chemicals and fertilisers being used on the farm, so there is a double positive effect to the environment.

This method of composting can be recreated on a smaller scale. The compost heap below belongs to a large garden which produces a lot of garden waste, whether from flowers and vegetables, from leaves or from the sheep which help to keep the grass low.

The result is the same: although the temperature does not reach the same height as with the industrial scale, the compost quality is excellent.

These timber compost bins, with removeable fronts, I make for my own garden as well as those of clients. Ideal for the smaller plot, they last for years, and keep the heaps tidy and easily managed. For smaller gardens still, there are numerous plastic compost containers….

…, there is no excuse! Get composting and help the environment as well as saving money on all those expensive bags of fertiliser…..

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