Friday, July 8, 2011

Beware the Dreadful Bindweed

Just don’t show off!
Over the July 4th weekend, I had some of the extended family over for a cookout, in the best Midwestern tradition. One of my family-centered pleasures is cooking with my brother while my resolutely non-cooking sister kibitzes. I am a vegetarian, my brother is not. He brought some homebrew and manned the grill, I made fresh salsa, salad and desert. Between us, we put out a pretty good spread, made even better by contributions from other family members.

After a fine, noisy, friendly meal, I showed off my garden to an in-law from the East coast. We walked along, starting with the vegetable bed near the house, walked past the pagoda dogwood shading its collection of natives, past the prairie patch, all the way back to the pollinator reserve by the alley—which hadn’t been tended to in some time. After all, by permaculture standards, it more-or-less corresponds to a combination of zone four (wildish, semi-managed), and zone five (just plain native and wild).

“How nice,” she said, “you have wild morning glories. Those white flowers are so pretty.”


I looked, fearfully. Yep, arrow-shaped leaves and white flowers festooned the ripening raspberries. The flowers glowed in the late afternoon sun. It was the dreaded hedge bindweed. Not only that, but some pokeweed had unaccountably grown several feet tall, the mint was marching boldly towards the rhubarb, creeping Charlie was growing in the Siberian iris, oregano threatened the milkweed, and quack grass lounged beneath the Coreopsis. I turned my head aside in shame and dismay: I had succumbed to the charm of the new (my beautiful, neat raised bed, with its ranks of basil and chard, its lettuce and leeks, with a row of nasturtiums, said to repel white fly, arrayed down the middle) and had forgotten old friends. That area is always somewhat unkempt, even blowsy, but now it was a little too close to anarchy, perhaps even crossing the line. Pretty soon the rules of the civilized garden would break down and…let’s just say overgrown is an understatement.

Something had to be done, and in fact I’m still working on it, evenings, so as not to disturb the extremely busy bees, wasps, flower flies, butterflies and all their friends and relations at work during the day. I’ve been tidying up, but not too much.

About bindweed
Hedge bindweed
Illinois is blessed (!?) with a number of plants that go by the name of bindweed, all members of the Convolvulaceae family. The type that loves to twine around my raspberries, up the fence and even into the lilacs is hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium, formerly Convulvulus sepium), about which Plants of the Chicago Region says, “The taxonomy of Hedge Bindweed is unbelievably complex for a common weed,” with possibly four subspecies in the Chicago region alone. It is widespread across the world. Yours may be native or introduced. You know it by its white or pale pink morning-glory-like, trumpet-shaped flowers, its arrow-shaped leaves, and the fact that by the time you get after it, it has probably twined counter-clockwise up anything vertical—up to 30 feet. It can actually pull down plants and even small trees. It has a couple of other weedy attributes: seeds that remain viable for up to thirty years and white, brittle roots that can extend down and out fifteen feet, and that break when you cultivate or pull them and then send up new shoots.

Field bindweed
If you see a smaller-flowered, smaller-leaved bindweed sprawling in the grass or between the flowers, you most likely have field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis). This one was introduced from Europe in the 18th century. Plants of the Chicago Region, which usually maintains a neutral to positive attitude, calls it “one of our worst weeds.” That it certainly is: it grows nearly everywhere and, as the book further states, it is “a bad weed of nursery crops.” It also has arrow-shaped eaves and white-to-pink flowers, but on a smaller scale—the vines grow three to six feet long. It forms large colonies, chokes plants and creates general mayhem in the garden. It, too, has long-lived seeds and those wide-spreading, wide-branching, practically immortal roots. Farmers take this one very seriously, since it can reduce crop yields by 50%.

Bindweed control
Residents of my house have been battling both kinds of bindweed for close to a hundred years, and the best any of us have achieved is a sort of armed truce. Farmers may use frequent cultivation, planting competitive plant species, and herbicides (see here). We ecological gardeners can try mulching, which I’ve found to be of limited use since the roots just keep traveling to where the mulch isn't.

Field bindweed seedling
What I’ve found is that weekly (or more often) scouting and pulling—or you may prefer hoeing—achieves a measure of control. This is not a case where you want to “get the whole root.” You can’t do it. What’s best is to remove the vines at or just below ground level, and make sure you do so before they have a chance to set seed. That way you are gradually weakening the plant, since it can’t photosynthesize. But be aware that the shoots you don’t get will be sending nutrients to the decapitated shoots even ten feet away. It’s also wise to recognize the seedlings and pull them before they develop much in the way of roots.

No parts of this plant should be composted. For one thing, the roots and seeds don’t seem to break down easily. This is one reason I screen and inspect my compost before spreading it—I have enough bindweed, thanks. I keep a covered trash barrel, with a very large yardwaste sticker on it, where I put this and other noxious weeds and every few months, I put the container out for pickup.

Luckily, I hadn’t let the bindweed get too advanced. But I know that from now until the first hard freeze in fall, I’ll be on daily weed patrol for “wild morning glory,” not to be confused with its cousin, the pink, purple or sky blue morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) from South America. In my yard this pretty, bee-attracting plant isn't much of a weed and is easily controlled.

Note:  There are good pictures at the Virginia Tech Weed Identification Site. Dr. John Hilty has posted good information and pictures at Weedy Wildflowers of Illinois. Plants of the Chicago Region, by Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm, is an indispensable classic. It is available from the Indiana Academy of Science.

Related Posts:
Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society's Must-have Handbook
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard

13 comments:

Don Plummer said...

Bindweed and Canada thistle are both big problems. Fortunately, here I haven't seen bindweed around much. We had bindweed problems at our old home in northwest Ohio. But Canada thistle is a big problem here. Same deal--roots that spread all over and are impossible to dig out.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Don,
Yeah, we have that too (not in my yard, though). I've heard that if you cut Canada thistle down just as it flowers you can reduce it, since it has put so much energy into flowering. What do you do to control it?

jeansgarden said...

Adrian, I'm not sure which of these species of Convolvulus I have in my Gettysburg garden (I think arvensis), but my neighbor in the next door townhouse also thinks of it as "that pretty wild morning glory." I haven't been successful in trying to educate her about it (since I grow Ipoema on the fence, I think she thinks I'm just being hysterical), so I just try to police it at the line between her property and mine. Like you, all I hope to do is keep it under control. -Jean

Janet said...

We have a small piece if bindweed poking it's way round and through the fence.from our neighbour's and so far i just pull it out . If it gets any nearer my kiwi fruit growing up the same piece of fence there will be trouble.
I haven't come across quack grass or creeping Charlie. I presume these are local names?

margaretart said...

Fascinating. Sounds destructive enough. But with all that strength and ability to survive, too bad it can't be tamed in some way for gardeners who have a patch where nothing else will grow. Dreaming, right?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Jean, Sometimes I think half a gardener's job is educating others! Or trying to, at any rate.

Hi Janet, yes, keep pulling it. Quack grass and creeping Charlie are names that are fairly widespread. Perhaps I should do more weed posts.


Hi Margaretart, sadly, in this case just dreaming.

Elephant's Eye said...

I guess every gardener battles at least one monster weed. Mine is Patterson's Curse. I can now recognise it from the first innocent looking little rosette of leaves. OUT OUT!!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi E. E., I like the name "Patterson's Curse." It would be interesting to learn the names of these kinds of weeds around the world. I bet they're imaginative. Who was Patterson, I wonder.

Don Plummer said...

I just pull it as it comes up. Sometimes that weakens the plant and it goes away. I used to try to burn it out with vinegar, but that wasn't any more effective.

Thomas said...

Bindweed is definitely one of my daily battles. I was looking through pictures of the house when we bought it last fall. One whole side of the house was covered in flowering Bindweed. It explained why I pull up 30-40 seedlings of it a day.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Yes, Don, I agree. Usually there's no real substitute for pulling.

Hi Thomas,
That sounds like quite a lot. If you're diligent, it should subside somewhat--but unfortunately it never really goes away. I guess a zen attitude is called for.

garden girl said...

I've battled bindweed in clients' gardens, and have found that with weekly inspections and cutting it or pulling it as you described, it takes about three years to stop it from resprouting.

I've never had to deal with it on my property, but it's unfortunately marching this way thanks to neighbors behind us who neglect their property. (along with pokeweed, honeysuckle, buckthorn, burdock, wild grape, garlic mustard, and a few other lovelies.) Arg!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Garden Girl,

Yes, I agree about the timeline--but then one must continue vigilance, since it can come back at any time. I've never completely finished mine off.

Now that's an aggressive group of plants you've listed. I believe that if you own property, some management is required, even in "natural" areas--I've spent too much time chopping buckthorn in the woods (even last Saturday) to feel otherwise.