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12 August 2020

As an assistant gardener, I learned that some of the most banal, daily-grind jobs can be rather satisfying

Still, few tasks are as tedious as weeding.

By John Burnside

Decades ago, when I was an assistant gardener, I inevitably got more than my fair share of the basic, daily-grind jobs, some of which were rather satisfying. (Before the advent of the noisy and environmentally disastrous leaf-blower, for example, I spent the best part of one autumn sweeping leaves off King’s College Bridge in Cambridge; a highly rewarding contemplative experience).

Other tasks were less pleasant, however – and I did not go into them armed with the knowledge that any garden work, no matter how banal, could teach me something, if I was smart enough to treat it as a gift. At King’s, the head gardener was something of a sadist, who delighted in finding tedious and near-pointless tasks to occupy his underlings, and I learned nothing very useful there.

This stood in marked contrast to my time at Robinson College, on the other side of the River Cam. Then in its infancy, the college was presided over by a young head gardener whose inclusive approach and generosity of spirit made every day worthwhile. At Robinson, I learned new things all the time, from him and my colleagues, who felt free to break off from their assigned tasks to offer advice and help when needed.

Still, few jobs in the garden are as tedious and frustrating as weeding, especially when horsetails are involved. The field horsetail, unlike its prettier, decorative cousins, comes up scruffy and ragged and, because its roots can grow to a depth of two metres, it is well-nigh impossible to dig out. Even grubbing away at the surface makes little impact, as every scrap of vegetation you leave behind quickly grows, Hydra-like, into a new specimen. In my ignorance, however, I opted for this aggressive approach, and when my fellow gardener, Andy, found me on my knees in a border, sweating profusely and cursing under my breath, he probably had to suppress a knowing smile as he enquired what the difficulty was.

How he resolved my problem was a simple matter, but it was a lesson that extended beyond the bounds of that garden. Horsetails are vigorous, but brittle, which makes it hard to dig them out (they keep breaking off in your hands) and, as noted, they soon return, from both the broadcast scraps of vegetation that result from furious weeding and from the deep root system below. You can fight them all you like, but the more effort you put in, the more vigorously they return.

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What is needed is a softly-softly approach – gently cutting away the visible stems, then covering the affected area with a thick mulch. Problem solved – for a while, at least, and perhaps even for a whole season. Then, whenever new shoots appear, remove these in the same way, and mulch again. What you are doing, now, is depriving the plant of light energy and so exhausting its reserves – and you can use the stems to make a rich brew that will nourish the plants you do want to encourage. It takes a little more time, and some patience, but it also demands a good deal less effort.

A good tip, then, for the gardener. Yet, even then, with sweat itching my eyes on that hot summer’s day, I thought there might be a wider lesson to be learned from the field horsetail – one that can be applied to any problem that is vigorous and deep-rooted and so difficult to eradicate. All kinds of change can be effected by the application of a gardener’s quiet commitment.