Weed of the month: broad-leaved dock

20:49, Jan 13 2013

I've been thinking about opening Wild Estate to the public as a botanic garden dedicated to various species of weeds. We seem to have them all: stubborn ones, ornery ones, ugly ones and sneaky ones. Some weeds could fall into two or more of those categories. One that we have in all its forms, from baby seedlings right up to massive specimens with trunks and spires of seeds, is broad leaved dock. It's up there in the holy quartet of weeds in my book, alongside wandering willie, agapanthus, and convolvulus. I'm sure there are worse horrors - Japanese knotweed doesn't sound nice and I'm grateful I don't have any of it - but these four seem to work together to make my dreams of a perfect quarter-acre paradise tantamount to having Brad Pitt over for a cuppa, or being headhunted by Michelle Obama to come run her amazing White House garden. (I'm available, Michelle, any time.)

Broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) is a nasty piece of work. It puts down a long, thick tap root that drills down to what often feels like the core of the Earth. Even when its tiny seedling leaves look relatively harmless from above the soil, you can bet it's sent that root down and is clinging on for dear life; trying to pull it up with your hands is like playing tug of war with a child, and finding it has Popeye arms under the soil. 

The other ugly thing about broad-leaved dock is the longevity of its seed. That baby seedling you didn't manage to pull up can quickly turn into a small kauri dripping with seeds. They say if you let a weed set seed, you're in for seven years' weeding. I'd revise that with dock: I'd say you'll be weeding for a lifetime. That's because the seeds can live in your topsoil and lay in wait for 50 freaking years. All it takes to revive those seeds and bring them back into vicious life is, say, digging up the agapanthus from the same soil the seeds have been dormant in. I know this because that's what happened at Wild Estate. 

So how do you get rid of dock? Are you stuck with it? No, but in all matters to do with gardening and especially weed eradication, you must be persistent. As persistent as dock! 

Roundup and its glyphosate brothers aren't that effective and need repeat applications, so if you're herbicide inclined, you have to use something with a bit more grunt. If you're not much into anything with the suffix -cide in your garden, Hard Labour is required. 

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Just cutting the tops off won't kill the dock, says this paper by Garden Organic. Instead, "Frequent cutting, encouraged regeneration of tap roots and branching of the shoots, increasing the potential for future growth". Lopping of the head of anything that is about to set seed is okay, as long as you go back later and get rid of the weed itself. Make sure to dispose of the seed head - taking it to the council's green waste facility is possibly the best way to get that thing away from your garden.

My preferred method for getting rid of dock is to dig it up, and to get as much of the root out as possible. I have yet to find a great tool to do this with. Other solutions that I haven't tried include pouring boiling water or vinegar on the plant, or using an organic weed control spray that basically cooks the plant. 

And if you have to put up with dock, it does have one rather nice property in its favour - it's good for rubbing on the skin should you happen to have fallen into a patch of stinging nettle. 

Have you had any success with eradicating dock? Or do you just put up with it? Does it have any good properties that might make it an asset in the garden, rather than a pest?

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Image source: Wikipedia and Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen