The Neglected Garden

by Alec McCarter  2001


A garden cannot be untended long without showing signs of serious neglect.  To the casual observer, the lush growth may appear impressive.  So it was recently, when I showed an old friend around our garden.  As we walked about, he commented on the bronzy new foliage of Rhododendron luteum, the vivid watermelon-coloured and black-centered oriental poppies and the handsome arrangement of flower and leaf of a Rodgersia.  I was painfully aware of the background foliage being a mass of weeds.


The garden-worthy plants that we have in that particular border are New England Asters.  Mimicking them in structure and leaf were hundreds of plants, which I think we identified some years ago as a species of Epilobium.  It grows much branched from a shallow tuft of roots, to a height of 75 cm., branching from the axils of the elongated, willow-leaf-like leaves.  These are slightly serrated and very narrow, tapering to the tip.  Each branch terminates in a flower atop a four-sided seed receptacle that is less than 2 mm. wide but 5 cm. long.  The flowers are 4 petalled, only 4 mm. long, and pink – which accounts for my wife and I calling it ‘pink-weed.’  When ripe (and this happens all too soon), the pod splits lengthwise to release many tiny seeds, each with a tuft of silky hairs that permit the seeds to be carried by the wind to distant locations.


The area that I cleaned out, that where the asters grow, contained enough of these plants to fill a wheelbarrow.  There were far more here than elsewhere in the garden.  Perhaps we missed seeing them last year, or seeds might have been deposited here in the lee of shrubs where the air currents were still enough to allow the seeds to collect.


If this is an Epilobium, it is not the familiar fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium.  We have that in another part of the garden where it has been for more than twenty years without spreading.  It is a welcome sight when it blooms, reminding us of so many places where we have seen it – from sea to sea in Canada, and north to the Arctic.  Masses of it grew in the burned-out bomb-sites near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London after the war.  Why it should be so well-behaved in our garden is a bit of a mystery.  We wish its cousin would learn from example.


In another area of the garden, three huge plants of Angelica, left because they did a good job of obscuring the compost boxes, had grown to block the path to those amenities.  Their umbels were a mass of immature seeds.  Had they not been cut down, these seeds would have fallen mainly in the compost with disastrous results next year when Angelica would have turned up everywhere.  Behind the Angelica, unseen until it was taken down, were two plants of Notoscordum inodorum – the un-smelly relative of False Garlic.  I removed the plants but I am certain not to have removed all of the bulblets on which this plant depends for its claim on eternal life.  After digging out what can be dug, this terrible nuisance is immediately deposited in the garbage.  Perhaps it would be better to kill it by putting it in the microwave, but I doubt I would be allowed in the house afterwards.


No desperate but infrequent foray into the garden can make up for the continuous surveillance and constant removal of weeds and unwanted plants.  Trees produce branches that need sawing-off, shrubs need pruning to constrain and shape them.  Asparagus beetles attack their favourite plant, something has eaten all the leaves on the Prunus subhirtella, and the seed-pods of Columbines need to be removed before they drop their shiny black contents to propagate themselves.  The rhodos and roses need dead-heading.  I had better get with it!

(reprinted with permission from the Finnerty Gardens newsletter of July 2001)