An unwelcome visitor – ground elder invasion….

We have a number of borders around the top section of the garden, all visible from the windows of the house. For the main part, they’re filled with pretty cottage garden-style planting which is just bursting into life at this time of year. If you ask me what that planting contains then you’ll have bear with me, as I’m still identifying plants as I go along…I can name daffodils and geraniums, but anything else typically requires a book and a lot of internet images. It’s a learning curve.

One of the borders however has been harbouring a problem. A problem that I hadn’t actually realised was a problem until fairly recently. We have a large border on the left hand side as you come up the path to the house. Last year we pretty much ignored it as it was wild and full and green and looked healthy. And, if I’m honest, I was more interested in my new vegetable beds. There’s a mixture of small trees, large shrubs and flowers in this border, all intertwined with ground cover of a green spreading plant which was everywhere in the border. By everywhere, it was not only in the spaces between plants but growing up through them too, sprouting through the stone wall which retains the border at one side and starting to encroach on the grass next to it.

Ground cover weed

Then last summer, a neighbour visited and we walked around the garden. ‘Oh dear, looks like you’ve got white ash’ was his comment on the lush green ground cover spread across our border. He remarked how difficult it was to dig out as the roots are so prolific, and how quickly it spread. This was clearly a problem. But what was white ash? My internet searches brought up nothing but pages on the white ash tree. Was it saplings taking root? No, the leaves are clearly a different shape. I started searching on weeds, common weeds, prolific weeds, weeds so weedy that a special section on the RHS website is devoted to these ‘garden thugs’.

And then I found it. Ground elder. Aegopodium podagraria. Up there with Japanese knotweed as a weed nightmarish to discover and remove (although granted it doesn’t undermine foundations and affect house prices, so it’s all relative in the gardening world I suppose). It spreads via rhizomes which break off easily in the ground, making digging out extremely difficult unless you’re vigilant enough to remove every single tiny white piece.

elder in lily1)
Ground elder growing up through day lilies

So, I tried digging it out. And, sure enough, I wasn’t vigilant enough with my fork to get all those tiny pieces out and had the frustration of watching it reshoot. Then, I tried glyphosate, applying it with a sprayer and waiting several weeks for it to turn brown. It didn’t. So, I tried a second application of glyphosate this time applied via a watering can, which feels like it’s applying it more effectively. This seems to be working in that the leaves are now turning brown, but of course short of spraying the entire border and losing all the plants within it, it’s a bit of a heavy handed response.

elder going brown
Sprayed ground elder turning yellowy brown

Then I spoke with my dad (who knows everything) who promptly said ‘Marigolds…try planting marigolds next to them – I think it’s English Marigolds though – there’s something in them which weeds don’t like’.  Brilliant! I searched for this piece of seemingly homespun advice only to find that it seems to be true, an excellent piece here confirms that the University of Swansea has done trials on it. It’s Mexican Marigolds however, not the English variety – tagetes minuta. Apparently, the roots give off a noxious smell which repels perennial weeds like ground elder and bindweed.

Several days later and I have 1000 Mexican Marigold seeds delivered from Sarah Raven (who incidentally has cleared a bed of ground elder with them at Perch Hill, although I can’t find a write up or pictures of this – that would be fascinating). Advice is to plant them under cover then plant out after the treat of frosts. I’ve planted a couple of trays which have started to come through, kept on the window sill in my utility room, and they’re now looking good, a couple of inches tall. I’ve also trialled sowing some direct into the border – nothing yet however.

Mexican Marigold seedlings at three weeks

I’ll keep this updated as they continue to grow and I plant them out. If anyone has any advice on using tagetes minuta to kill ground elder though I’d love to hear it.

A few points however: one of the common names of tagetes minuta is ‘stinking roger’ because of the smell it’s leaves give off. It can grow to 4-6 feet and all I can find about its appearance is the repeated assertion that it ‘isn’t a looker’. So, whilst I might be ridding myself of the ground elder looks like I’ll be stuck with lots of this smelly, unattractive yet large plant right next to the house for the coming months.


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