The original version of these notes was written in the context of my work in public open spaces with Putting Down Roots, St Mungo’s gardening project for homeless people.
I tell Chris (still the faithful volunteer at St John’s) that one day we’ll beat the chickweed; all we have to do is keep pulling it up and stop it setting seed, and bit by bit all the seed already in the soil will germinate and be pulled up in its turn, and one day the chickweed will be extinct. But he seems to believe that chickweed, like life, is a misery to be endured until the end; ours, not the chickweed’s. But it gives us something to do, and that is important. As Estragon said to Vladimir, “we always find something, eh Didi, to give us the illusion that we exist.”
The trouble is, we have these gardens which are partly created and controlled by the dynamics of self seeding, so we don’t use hoes. We don’t have, in spring, clearly defined clumps of desirable plants surrounded by a fuzz of little weeds which can be easily hoed out. We have a carpet, a tapestry, a crazily darned and patched old blanket maybe of forget-me-nots, evening primrose, honesty, aquilegia, marigold, violets, motherwort, geranium nodosum, larkspur etc. etc, all mixed up with bindweed, speedwell, nipplewort, black horehound, dandelion, chickweed, etc. etc. And although certain plants have been designated as weeds pure and simple and always, others are sometimes weeds and sometimes garden plants, depending on where they grow and how many of them there are. (Now in March celandine is a classic example.) So the work of weeding is constant, especially when wet, cold weather brings out the strength of all the undesirable plants. The gardens are rich and fascinating, always changing, but the gardeners are always squatting, labouring; the work of their fingers is like a pianist’s or an embroiderer’s. Maybe. Chickweed seems so fragile, but from a tight little centre its stems radiate outwards, weaving through its neighbours to create a dense, secure structure which can sacrifice any number of individual stems without significant damage to the whole. So your fingers have to feel down towards the place where all the stems come together and then if you pull from as low down as possible, the roots will come up. You could do it if you were blind; you often can’t see where you’re going, but you come to recognise by touch the chickweed’s sappy, fragile stems. You have to learn also how to move through a dense cover of plants without crushing any (or too many) of them; you need a pianist’s fingers and a dancer’s feet which isn’t so easy when you’re wearing gloves and boots. I would say that you can’t do proper weeding with gloves on; many weeds need to be grasped firmly at their base between finger and thumb.
I admit there was a time when I scorned clean, pale nails and hands and took pride in scratches, callouses and stains and felt invigorated by the stinging glow of nettles. I hoped that it was something to do with a synthesis between the physical and the intellectual. But it wasn’t. And it was so hard to write anything between April and October – or March and December.
Once I met a radical ecologist, in one of the gardens where we were working, who regarded the whole business of gardening with quiet contempt. He laughed at the sentimental heritage business of creating wild flower meadows in urban parks which were scrappy imitations of Kentish grassland. He embraced the reality of the city with all its vegetable hooligans and aliens; he was against nativism. If you have a patch of ground, do nothing and see what happens. What if it becomes just a wood of buddleias cloaked in bindweed, or a dense stand of sycamores? I only met him once and so never had a chance to hear more, but I think he took the long view, you would see what evolved in time. (In time even a vigorous army of buddleias would be infiltrated, there would be a succession.) But I do remember that on the other hand he wasn’t opposed to the use of weedkiller, so that if you wanted to get rid of hemlock, for example, just spray it.
While he was a wanderer and an observer, we are rooted to the spot, weeding. The strange thing is that while some people think that our complicated, untidy gardens must be less work than more orderly ones, they demand constant attention and labour. They seem natural but are highly artificial. They seem to express a kind of freedom, but we can never relax, we can never just sit and look, we are always compelled to do something.