Helen McKerralWeeds

When I said in my last blog that I couldn’t wait to get started, that turned out to be literally true! As the months dragged by after our handshake agreement purchase of the block, and the council and government departments all shut down for Christmas, I realised pretty quickly that it’d be ages before anything happened.

And the blackberries were bad to begin with. When the valuer knocked on my door in November 2010, he had his little measuring wheel. I told him he wouldn’t be needing it and he said, “Nah, it’ll come in handy.” We walked around the corner and down through the neighbour’s block, fighting our way through the blackberries. We could hardly walk through them, let alone roll a measuring wheel! He quietly put it away… it was quite funny!

Anyway, more months went by and the blackberries grew bigger and bigger; they were fruiting prolifically. Blackberries don’t spread just through seed: after they fruit, their canes keep growing, and when the tips hit the ground they form roots and a new plant. If I waited another year I’d have exponentially more plants to remove.

So I asked my neighbour if she’d mind if I made a start on the weeds. If the deal fell through, the worst I’d have lost would be a bucketload of elbow grease, and my neighbour would have a lovely cleared block! She said yes, and the next weekend Geoff took down a section of our back fence. I couldn’t actually enter the new area because there was a wall of blackberries, but after Geoff hacked a tunnel through the thicket I could make a start.

I’d decided to dig out the blackberries first, then spray any regrowth. Anyone who’s dug out blackberries knows it’s a backbreaking, time consuming job, but it’s effective if followed up. I don’t have any pictures of the block before I started other than the one at the end of my last entry, but my niece took these after I’d already made a significant dent – you can still see the 2m high thickets we’re walking past, and you can’t see the back (eastern) fence at all.

The blackberries at the western end I could dig out, but it was too rocky at the eastern end and I had to use a pick. I made two huge piles of blackberries, about 15 cubic metres in total, and many piles of rocks dug up in the process. Some of the blackberry rootballs, all knotted and gnarly, were as big as rockmelons! It took me just over three months to dig them all out.

I meant to mulch the blackberries but when I went to the hire place they told me I’d need the large trailer-mounted one, as the canes would tangle in the smaller mulcher models. There’s no trailer access to the back of our block, and no way was I about to drag that much material 60m out to the front, so I’d burn them in late spring once they dried – not environmentally sound, I know, and I’d much prefer to have the compost. In any case they were well dried and burned very quickly and easily with no smoke, so I didn’t feel too guilty.

The regrowth started appearing and I waited till November when a reasonable amount of leaf surface area had developed – you can see the sort of size I wanted in the pic. I was going to cut and swab the canes with treekiller but, when I was chatting to Joe in my local garden centre, he suggested I try glyphosate at woody weed strength, mixed with a product called Penetra. Penetra isn’t a wetting agent but a substances that dissolves the waxy cuticle on plant leaves, so that the herbicide gets absorbed more readily. I tried it and a week later the results are looking promising, but it’ll be a while yet before I’m sure it’s worked. I’ll let you know.

The other major weed, mainly in the areas that didn’t have blackberries on them, was three-corner garlic (Allium triquetrum). I don’t have a single specimen of this weed in the old area of my garden, but the new part had carpets of it! That’s not a grass understorey in the pic, it’s three corner garlic!

I read up on this weed online and it’s apparently resistant to glyphosate, but the bulbs are sensitive to disturbance, and its seeds last only one year, so it’s another plant where thorough work initially will pay off later. So I pulled and dug up the bulbs by hand, just before they flowered when the bulbs were skinny and more easily slipped our of the soil. I had about half a cubic metre in volume of bulbs and topgrowth and of course there will be regrowth, but I might try spot spraying with the Penetra/glyphosate mix next year. I prefer not to spray glyphosate broadly, so this is a good compromise for me.

Composting weedy bulbs is always a bit dodgy because they often don’t rot down, so that when you spread your compost you’re also spreading weeds. But I had too much to throw away, so I made a pile in the spot where the new chicken run will be, layered the heap with coarser, woodier stuff like leaves and twigs, and sprinkled the layers with urea so it might compost hot – see the pic. In any case, I can leave the pile there for a few years and hopefully the chooks, when they come, will do the rest.

Lots of people were amazed that I bothered to tackle the weeds by hand, but it’s not actually a job I mind. It’s peaceful and meditative when I want to literally veg out, and on the other hand it also gives me time to think and absorb and to plan. For me gardening is as much about the process as the end result. To be honest, I can’t stand instant makeover gardens; in my opinion they have no soul and nothing that reflects the owner.

All those days and months as I was out there digging, I was absorbing where the sun was at which time of day, the location of the shadiest and sunniest areas, the differences in soil depth, texture and moisture in different places in the block, where the rockiest place were, and where the tree roots were thickest. I found a few lonely endemic survivors – a little Scaevola, a Dianella revoluta, and three chocolate lilies (Arthropodium spp.).

I made the mistake in my old garden in the early days to race to put plants in without managing the worst weeds first – and besides, this time there wasn’t really much else I could do before the paperwork had all gone through. This time, I’m a bit older and not in a rush. I’m incredibly lucky to have this beautiful (almost) blank slate to work with, and every bit of establishing my garden will be fun… if I decide it will be!

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

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