How to keep paths free of weeds without burning down your house – a personal journey of enlightenment (here’s hoping)

Donkey spurge and stachys edge the beds

Eight years ago, I turned a a farmyard that had been covered in concrete for decades into a garden. I sketched island beds out on a bit of paper and then sprayed the shapes on the ground with line paint. The paths between were covered with golden Breedon gravel. So flat, so pristine, so weed free.

It didn’t take long for the weeds to move in. I don’t mind this sometimes – I can’t blame verbascum, verbena, donkey tail spurge, thyme and oreganos for preferring that nice free-draining limestone atop a type 1 base to the poorly drained sludge of subsoil and compost I plonked them in. But the grass that covers the gravel in a green fuzz with a mossy understorey isn’t quite the look I’m after.

Nice hot tub, shame about the manky, grassy, mossy path

The past eight years has been an unequal, time-consuming battle between myself and the path weeds. Hand-weeding seemed the obvious solution at first. But with ‘self-binding’ gravels like Breedon, all this does is wrench big clods of gravel out of the path with the rootball, leaving holes and dips in the surface and revealing the type 1 beneath. So I resorted to the chemical route with Roundup. Yes I know. Bad. After around three weeks the path weeds turned a sickly yellow. Trouble was – quite apart from all the insects I probably killed in the process of spraying and the general eco awfulness of the whole thing – the yellow plants just stayed there looking horrible.

Next try was propane gas. Yes, bad too since it’s a fossil fuel. First I bought an enormous red metal flame gun on the internet. We lit it and very nearly burnt the garden and house down. Even after we turned the gas off, the flames shot out into the flower beds setting fire to the dry plants and heading frighteningly near our wooden weatherboarded house. It went back in the shed and I will never touch it again.

Verbascum seedlings might be allowed to stay, but the grass and moss has to go

Chastened, I downgraded to a light weed gun, also powered by fossil fuel propane, but this time with a neat, unscary can that you screw on. It’s fun to use as you zap around the garden and quickly nukes dried path weeds like grasses in high summer. But it’s time consuming and unless the plants are are dry, you need a couple of sessions. Also, I’m sure I’ve vaporised a few ground insects on my Ripley-like sessions and those empty propane cannisters will end up in landfill.

Santolina, so pretty, but the grass is never far away

Hot water was the next weapon I mobilised, inspired by Bob Flowerdew. Every time I boiled the kettle I went outside and dribbled the remains onto weeds on the paths. It worked brilliantly on dandelions which quickly went a satisfying khaki colour and then shrivelled up in days. Eco-wise not so bad, especially if you don’t boil the kettle specially (and have a renewable electricity provider). But the grass seemed pretty much immune.

It was only this winter that I realised a possible solution. One that is eco-friendly. One that costs nothing. One that was staring me in the face for the past eight years.

Verbena thinking about setting seed into the path last summer

One day I had the sudden (and, it would be fair to say, belated) realisation that the only parts of the path that weren’t covered in moss, grass and weeds were the parts we walked on the most. What would happen, I thought, if I tried to fool the path into thinking we walked on it everywhere? I started scuffing my boot across the surface of the gravel in an imitation of an army of walking feet and moss and grass scudded away leaving a flat surface. The roots are still there underneath but underneath a clayey cap and, I figure, if I keep repeating the scuffing, they will eventually give up. Won’t they?

After the flame gun

So far I’ve spent a few happy half hours kicking around the paths – it’s an excellent displacement activity when I have a deadline looming. Plus what else are you going to do in the garden in January? It takes no longer than blasting with flames. It won’t kill insects. It’s kinder than Roundup. It’s much faster than walking around with a dribbling kettle. At the very least, I’ll end up with very strong thigh muscles.

Winter blues? Go to seed

We made it! It’s a month since the shortest day and there’s a lightening in the air. Every day, we’re getting another minute or so of daylight. For me it’s like a heaviness lifting, the raising of a lead blanket, inch by inch. Are gardeners more prone to winter blues than other people? Is this why we garden? To remind ourselves that, with every new shoot, every seed sown, winter won’t last for ever?

The light at the end of the tunnel turns my thoughts to what I’m going to grow in my vegetable patch this year. It’s a very good time to order seeds and plan. What grew well for you last year? What wasn’t worth the bother?

For what it’s worth, here are my top 5 crops from last year. All, apart from the first one, will thrive in pots if you don’t have much space. None require ANY chemicals to grow. There are plenty more ideas in my book Crops in Tight Spots if you want more inspiration.

My jam – raspberries from Crops in Tight Spots. Photo by Sarah Cuttle
  • Raspberries

My 3x1m raspberry bed is seven years old now and last year I got it together to make jam rather than just grab a handful ad hoc. So glad I did since we now have jars of the stuff which will see us through to summer and it’s blooming marvellous. The secret of good raspberries is weeds. Don’t let them in! Spend a bit of time hand weeding around the bottom of the canes and all the rain and fertility from any compost you add will actually get to the raspberries not the dandelions.

  • Kale

In truth I’ve often struggled to eat the kale I’ve grown. The kids don’t love it and my enthusiasm wanes in the face of sprightlier spinach alternatives. But that was before I discovered Anna Jones A Modern Way to Eat and her insanely good tahini recipe so I’ll be growing this again this year with more gusto. Kale grows really well in pots. Cabbage white caterpillars will eat your plants, but live and let live. Last year I had some sacrificial seedlings in another pot and every time I found a caterpillar I carried it over to eat them instead. Seemed to work and I felt terribly good about myself.

  • Padron peppers

Winner. Sow now under a grow light – I got my Bittergurka one from Ikea last year and it was excellent. I got my seeds from Seaspring and grew the plants on in six terracotta pots outside. We couldn’t keep up with the peppers. Some were fearsomely hot but most pretty mild and super easy to fry with a little olive oil then sprinkle with salt – perfect tapas.

  • Edamame beans

Just like Wagamamas! These are just immature soya beans and really high in protein so great if you’re vegan or cutting down meat and dairy. I grew Summer Shell from the Organic Catalogue in a wooden crate I got from eBay. Sow them outside from late March and give them about 10cm space around them. Prop with twiggy sticks and pick before the beans start to yellow then boil the pods whole in salty water. I forgot and ended up with mature soya beans which were ok roasted in the oven – a bit like roasted broad beans – but this year I WILL do better.

Candelabra tomato from Crops in Tight Spots. Photo by Sarah Cuttle
  • Tomatoes

‘It’s impossible to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato’ said the US humorist Lewis Grizzard (no I’ve never heard of him either, but he has a point). Summer without homegrown tomatoes is no summer at all. When space is tight it’s tempting to grow tomatoes in a grow bag, but they’re tricky to keep well watered. An easier method is to grow one cordon tomato plant (such as Sungold or Gardener’s Delight) in a large pot and train it ‘candelabra style’. It’s really easy to do. Just grow a plant as normal and when it starts to sprout side shoots, leave the two lowest ones to grow on. Train these up canes so you end up with a three stemmed plant, each of which will produce loads of tomatoes. You get three times the fruit on one plant and only have one pot to keep watered. Result! There’s more about this method in Crops in Tight Spots.