Every gardener knows about plantains. With their ground-hugging rosettes of leathery, ribbed leaves and irritatingly erect flowering spikes, they bedevil many a lawn though usually not in significant numbers. While for most of us, the occasional invader is a nuisance but something which can be relatively simply eradicated, if they have once been allowed to get a hold, as John Dickson discovered when he moved to the seaside, they can be rather more problematic.
“As a keen organic gardener, I was pleased that the lawn seemed to be in pretty decent shape on the whole, but in April, as the grass started growing, I did begin to notice one or two plantains popping up. Well there’s nothing new about that, I thought, so fetched what I call my ‘magic claw’ and whipped them out in no time.”
These were Ribwort Plantains (Plantago lanceolata), an all too common unwelcome arrival in lawns across the country, but John’s real problems were still to come and they would be caused by an altogether different member of the clan.
“A few weeks later, I noticed a whole new crop of plantain heads but on much shorter, thicker and hairier stems. I’d never seen anything like them before.”
Closer inspection revealed a leaf rosette of narrow and irregularly toothed leaves, covered in a light downy fluff. Unsure what he was dealing with, John took an example down to his new local garden centre and asked for advice.
“It didn’t take the chap there two minutes to identify it as ‘Starweed’ – and tell me that it’s a notorious weed in these coastal areas. It wasn’t exactly welcome news, as you can imagine. He recommended I used weed-killer to shift it, but I try to avoid chemicals if I possibly can, so as soon as I got home, it was out with the claw again!”
Unfortunately, as the summer drew on and the numbers of Starweed – also known as Buckshorn Plantain (Plantago coronopus) – continued to grow, it became evident that John was in danger of digging holes all over his lawn, and still losing the battle.
“The trouble with this wretched stuff is that once it gets going, it keeps popping up well into October; it’s an absolute nightmare and I seemed to be giving a home to every single one there along this stretch of coastline. I knew I didn’t really have any option but to swallow hard and take the garden centre’s advice.”
Returning armed with the recommended brand of selective weed-killer – this one contained the herbicide 2,4-D as its main ingredient, though there’s a number of other suitable types available – John lost no time in setting about dealing with his plantains.
“Well, I’m really no fan of weed-killers, but I have to admit I was terribly impressed with the results. Even with just one dose, most of them had disappeared, but all the same I followed the advice I’d been given and as soon as it was the right time for a second application, I did the lawn again – and that was that! I can’t say I’m entirely happy about the need to use chemicals, but realistically I can’t think what else would have done the trick and if they show their heads around here again next year, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I’ll be buying some more!”