Panic, scream, and run around in circles - there is Ground Elder in the Rose bed!
This photo - left - is fairly typical of the sort of problem I am offered, when I go to look at a "new"garden: the owner says that they have tried for years to get rid of it, but have failed, so can I please do it for them.
They then give me the puppy-eyes, so the next thing you know, there I am, digging for victory.
There is only one way to truly get rid of Ground Elder (and Couch Grass, and Bindweed, for that matter - the Terrible Trio as I call them) and that is to dig them out.
I've covered this problem in depth, in this article about Ground Elder, so if this all looks horribly familiar, I'd suggest you go and read that one first.
Right, are you back?
So, the easy answer is to lift all the plants, dig out the filthy stuff, then replant.
Oho, not possible with established roses though!
So what do we do?
Firstly, I'd take a good close look at that cluttered growth, and see if there are any plants worth saving: often, what appears to be a sea of Ground Elder can conceal some treasures.
If you find any, dig them up first: have some buckets of water handy, so that once you have cleaned all the soil off their roots - and that way, you can spot and remove any Ground Elder roots - you can plunge them into the water, so they stay alive and safe while you work on the bed.
Then, dig out as much of the Ground Elder as you can, as per the post mentioned above. Obviously you won't be able to get it all out, because the roses will be in the way: but once you've dug out the Ground Elder all around them, thus loosening the soil, you should be able to get on your knees with a daisy grubber and "winkle out" the last few bits.
The trick is to avoid just heaving on the Ground Elder roots, because if you do, they will snap. And then they will re-grow.
Instead, you need to gently pull them through the soil, and this is where "loosening the soil all around the rose" becomes important.
This sort of job is much, much easier if you can do it at the "right" time of year.
"When is that, Auntie Rachel?" I hear you ask. (*laughs*) (I'm laughing because I'm talking to myself now! Isn't that the first sign of madness? Or is it when you start hearing answers?)
It's a trick question - it's not so much the right time of year, meaning the first week in April, or the middle of September: it means doing it when the soil is in the best possible condition for digging.
There's an old saying, in horticulture: Weed when Wet, Dig when Dry. It's a bit of an over-simplification, of course, but the point is valid: digging wet soil is hard work, heavy going, messy, ruins the soil structure, breaks your back, makes a mess all over the lawn: you get the picture.
Of course, here in Oxfordshire, "Dig when Dry" doesn't always work, as we have a lot of clay, which can turn into concrete overnight, with the addition of those lovely Serengeti-like cracks. However, most garden beds and borders have had mulch and compost added to them over the years, so clay soil has - usually - been improved to the point where you can indeed dig it when it's dry.
So, generally speaking, a big job like this is best done when the soil is fairly dry, but not rock-hard - preferably when it is still crumbly. That way, it's easier to dig, lighter to move around, cleaner to work with (no platform boots, no muddy prints on the lawn) and the roots of the Ground Elder will slide out, rather than snapping off.
Once you've cleared the bed, dig it again! You will always find more bits of root, and if there is time and energy, I always recommend digging a third time. Trust me, you will keep finding bits that you missed the first two times!
Having finally cleared it, you can now look at replanting: but when it comes to roses, I never like to plant too much around them, for several reasons:
1) They need regular dead-heading, so I find that with roses, I am constantly treading on the beds to reach them. This is not good for the plants clustering around their feet.
2) Plus, all the books will tell you that "Roses are greedy feeders" which means that they don't like competition: there is a reason that so many of the big posh gardens have rose beds with nothing but roses in them.
3) It also means that if you feed your roses, as you should, then any planting below them will also benefit from the feed, which will worsen the competition.
4) Roses suffer from a few diseases - Black Spot is a major one, mildew too, and in both cases, good air flow is important to reduce the spread. So having a clutter of planting below and through the roses, as per the photo above, reduces airflow and makes them more susceptible to disease.
5) If you keep the rest of the bed clear, you can hoe around the base of the roses. This is a very quick way to remove weeds. I'm not a big fan of hoeing, for all the reasons in that article, but they do have a use in a rose bed.
6) Ground Elder (and Couch Grass, and Bindweed...) is/are persistent, so even though you have spent three hours digging it out, It Will Be Back. There will inevitably be small bits of broken root, left behind in the soil, which will sprout cheeky little new leaves over the next couple of weeks. However, having dug out all the interconnected yards of roots, these little bits are easy to get out with the faithful Daisy Grubber. But doing so is much, much easier if you can see them as soon as they pop up.
7) "Roses are greedy feeders": so every year, you are going to need to give them a good deep mulch of organic matter or home-made compost, and this is much easier if you can just spread it over the entire bed, without having to fiddle your way between lots of herbaceous plants.
8) Just to repeat reason number one, if you want to keep your roses in the best possible health, and flowering "down here" where you can see them, as opposed to "way, way up there!" where you can't, then you will need to deadhead frequently and properly, and that means being able to get close to the plants, and to get all round them.
So, once you have finished clearing the bed, instead of replanting your rescued plants back into the rose bed, see if you can find other homes for them, and leave the roses in solitary splendour.
Once you are sure that no Ground Elder is going to pop up - this may take several weeks of checking carefully, until you are pretty sure you got it all - you can either spread a thick layer of decorative mulch such as bark chips, or just leave it bare.
If the Client really, really wants some underplanting, then I'd suggest going for something very low growing: good ground cover plants such as Primroses, which will brighten it up in spring, long before the roses start: or something like Ajuga reptans (Bugle) especially the dark purple-leaved one. This makes it impossible to hoe, but at least it doesn't impair air flow, and you can hard-heartedly tread on them, in order to prune.
So there's the story - how to get Ground Elder out of your rose bed, for once and for all - we hope!
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