The ongoing battle with bindweed

Wednesday, May 23, 2018 9:47 PM
Field bindweed’s creeping nature makes it imperative to control, while its deep root system makes it difficult to control.

I’ve been weeding in my garden in the evenings to get it ready for spring planting, and I’ve decided that there is one weed that I hate above all others. Bindweed is the bane of my gardening existence.

If you have this weed, you know how difficult it can be to eliminate.

The origin of this plant is unclear, but it is thought to have migrated from Russia in the oats and wheat that were brought by immigrants. Also discovered in Virginia in 1739, bindweed is considered to be one of the most destructive and invasive weeks found in gardens and fields.

Bindweed is aptly named because once it is established, it will grow on just about anything. I’ve seen it wrapped around my roses once when they were thick and lush. One statistic I found claims that bindweed can reduce grain crop yields by 20-50 percent and vegetable crops by 50-80 percent. It has also been known to bind up farming equipment.

It’s fairly easy to identify, and if you’ve ever grown morning glories, you know that the flower resembles a smaller version. It has small white or pink flowers, small arrow-shaped leaves, and it creeps along close to the soil until it finds something to climb up and around. Often it resembles a mat on the ground. It’s a perennial, which means it comes back year after year from the same root system. Since it grows from both seeds and roots, and the seeds can remain in the soil and viable for up to 30 years, it can be practically impossible to eliminate once it becomes established. Even a very small piece of root in your garden is enough to give it a hold, and soon it will spread rapidly, growing up to 10 feet each growing season. Since it competes for water with desirable crops, be they either field crops or ornamentals, it’s important to get it under control, especially in a dry year.

Controlling bindweed can be a full-time job, and there are several methods to try, but patience and vigilance are two things you’ll definitely need in your fight against this obnoxious weed.

The obvious method for removal would be to pull it by hand; however, this isn’t always a great idea. Since it’s almost impossible to get the entire root system when you pull it by hand, it will simply send more runners underground to sprout up somewhere else. It’s similar to aspen trees in this regard, and it’s how bindweed develops a very large and healthy root system.

If you aren’t opposed to chemical controls, an application of a herbicide such as glyphosate (Roundup) may work to burn the top back, but since the roots can run down as far as 3-4 feet, it often doesn’t kill it. The trick is to keep the top pulled or burned back to keep the plant from photosynthesizing so that it will eventually starve and die.

The product Weed Free Zone may also be used. This can be applied in cool or hot weather. Although it will kill the above-ground growth fairly quickly, it won’t always translocate down to kill the root system. One of the big deterrents for using chemical is that they might also damage other desirable plants in the vicinity of your problem bindweed, especially if it is windy and they drift.

If you prefer an organic method, you can try boiling water to burn the top off. If you try this, be sure to pour the boiling water as far out from the plant as 2-3 feet in order to get as much of the underground root system as possible, taking care not to burn other desirable plants in the vicinity.

A mixture of vinegar, Epsom salts and dish detergent is another favorite among organic gardeners, although I don’t recommend it. Vinegar’s acidic properties will affect the green growth of any plant around where it’s applied, and although it will kill off the bindweed above ground, this too won’t touch the underground roots or seeds. It can also change the pH. Epsom salts will also lower the pH. Dish detergent will work to coat and eventually suffocate bindweed leaves, but might smother leaves of nearby plants. All of these might also harm bugs and earthworms that you want to keep in your garden.

No matter which attack you choose, patience, persistence and vigilance will be the key to keeping this weed under control. The best success will come from repeated applications of the control of your choice, or hand weeding on a regular basis. However, once bindweed has established itself in your garden, your efforts in eliminating it will most likely be ongoing.

I keep telling myself that if I could only think of it as a miniature morning glory, perhaps I wouldn’t mind it so much ... but I’m not there yet.

Gail Vanik can be reached at 970-565-8274 or by email at bindweed’s habit makes it imperative to control, while its deep root system makes it extremely difficult to control