My life is entangled with bindweed roots. They writhe through my dreams and wind around my fingers; every fork full of soil turns up another spaghetti nest of fat white worms reaching deep into the ground.
I have always gardened with bindweed. It is, for me anyway, a fact of horticultural life. Other perennial weeds I find easier to live with: couch grass is a pain, but at least it grows in between your plants and the roots don’t break so easily, so they pull out in a hawser rope that, if you pull carefully and steadily, comes away cleanly. It’s so satisfying to weed: each time a bit comes free of the soil it’s an intense pleasure, like peeling off an intact strip of sunburnt skin. Sorry. But you know what I mean.
But bindweed breaks easily: however thick the rope you pull from the ground, however carefully you work it free, it always, always breaks. It is a plant killer, creeping up and strangling them with wire-like stems until they croak into submission. It wraps itself around their roots like some subterranean boa constrictor. And you can never, never get rid of it.
I’ve become an accidental expert on bindweed over the years. For example: though we know bindweed as convolvulus, the better known one (the one that strangles your plants) isn’t convolvulus at all but Calystegia, specifically C. sepium.
The true convolvulus is a much milder version (though still very annoying in the garden), the field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis. It’s smaller, and grows sideways more readily than upwards, though it will climb a handy stalk if it really gets going.
My terrace garden is infested with it: if you work your fingers under the crown and pull, the central long root untwines like a coil out of the ground (snapping, of course, to regenerate again). It comes back again within a matter of a week or two and makes mats across the ground, and (unlike Calystegia) spreads from seed as readily as from roots, so there’s no getting rid of it.
Calystegia sepium, aka hedge bindweed, is altogether worse, a plant-murdering thug of a weed. It would be quite pretty if it wasn’t such a psychopath: heart-shaped leaves, showy white bell-shaped flowers. But it is hell-bent on garden domination and lets nothing, but nothing stand in its path.
I have, over the years, given up trying to get rid of it. You simply can’t. I battled it for eight long years in my previous garden: I tried forking it out endlessly, that cane trick (train it up a cane, blitz with glyphosate), stuffing it in jamjars then spraying into that, black plastic, the lot. Nothing worked: as inevitably as the first frosts of winter, back it came. There is a (possibly apocryphal) tale of a man who dug out his city garden to a depth of two metres to get rid of the bindweed, and sieved every bit of soil he put back to make sure he removed the tiniest shred of root. He put his garden back together again and within two years the bindweed was back stronger than ever. So don’t try to banish it: you will just spend a lot of time raging and frustrate yourself into an early grave (liberally laced with bindweed roots after a few weeks, no doubt).
I’ve noticed a few things about bindweed in my long acquaintance with it: first, it hates cultivated soil and thrives best in that patch of ground you haven’t touched in a few months. So if you keep planting and sowing, moving and dividing, it rarely takes hold: it is telling that in my main veg garden, where I’m constantly cultivating, the bindweed is struggling to make inroads from the hedgerows, while in the more ornamental, mostly permanently planted bit it is much more rampant.
Second, if you dig it out, it comes back twice as vigorously. If you just pull out the stem by hand (don’t cut it) it just returns as a single stem. So I don’t try to fork it out any more.
Instead, I reason that if you don’t have to look at it, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on under the ground. So I do my best to pull out strands by hand, as above, whenever I see them: and in between I hoe, keeping the ground moving and cultivated and chopping off the heads (rather satisfyingly) of any bindweed that might be impertinent enough to poke its nose above ground level.
Amazingly, that has all but eliminated a fairly serious bindweed infestation in one garden I look after: I’m sure it’s all still there, biding its time till the gardener goes away again, but the borders are definitely bindweed-free, to look at at least.
In my own garden it’s a bit trickier: I don’t have as much time there as I get paid to spend in other people’s gardens, so the scorched-earth policy is a bit more hit and miss. In those areas I get to regularly, though, you wouldn’t think there was a bindweed army just beneath the surface. And as far as I’m concerned, if you can’t see it, it ain’t there. Sorted.
Kathie Jarva said:
But, if it also binds around the roots of desirable plants, then what’s going on unseen does matter…..or does pulling it often enough weaken the roots to the extent that they can’t survive “forever”?
Hi Kathie, well it doesn’t seem to do the roots of the plants any harm (unlike the growth above ground) so the only difficulty it causes when it infiltrates the roots of desirable plants is that you can’t move the plant without also spreading the bindweed. And I think that if you pull it often enough, and persistently enough, yes you will weaken the plant: though we tend to demonise it, it is after all just a plant and can’t survive if it can’t photosynthesise. However it would take an eagle eye and pulling shoots every couple of days to actually kill it – I’ve certainly never managed it…
Katherine Jarva said:
we have lived at my house since 1988, and like you have battled ‘bindweed’ yep, the hedge type. I also always believed it could be beaten mainly because my then neighbour, a landscape gardener, did exactly what you described, dug and riddled and I have never seen bind weed in his garden since. That was 3 neighbours ago, so I know its not his ‘tending’! I have found the worst place roots grow is around the fence posts.I keep battling on!
Hi Libby, well there’s always a first time for everything! That’s so interesting – so it is possible then. Mind you he must have neighbours who have no bindweed either then – it usually sneaks back under the fence from next door even if you do manage to knock it back a bit…
That’s my experience. The standard advice of digging it out is useless, loads of work and you never will. I just pull the top growth off whenever I see it – and a loose mulch helps in pulling up a long, intact root with it. The plant gets weaker. Who knows, one day it might give up!
Lol well we can all hope, can’t we! 😀
Melissa Mabbitt said:
This could be my garden, exactly. I’m glad I’m not the only one. Every time I dig out bindweed it seems to double, like evil magic, so I just pull out the stems and pretend it’s not there. (Until a new tendril appears…)
And I agree field bindweed is infinitely preferable to deal with!
Yes I know Melissa, the pretending it’s not there thing soothes a troubled gardener’s soul no end… out of sight, out of mind, that’s what I say!
Your blog has come too late for me… I’m moving from my home of 26 yrs and whilst, no doubt, I’ve been here too long.. it is the neighbours bindweed that has finally ‘pushed’ me out. When the old lady next door to me died I hoped the new young neighbours would tend to her neglected and overgrown garden with its tendrils of bindweed creeping up and over my fence on her side. Convinced that the new owners would welcome some tips on how to get rid of it I researched and typed up some info for them (including the tip on pushing sticks in for it to grow up and be identified). I did say that they might find it useful when they had time to deal with the garden. 2 yrs later – they never dealt with the garden & laughed at my note which was meant to be helpful but I guess they somehow must have thought was pressurizing them. The bindweed sneaks up and under my fence and is now under one whole border and entwining my climbers, the brickwork, the gravel, behind my greenhouse where I can’t get to it, it even snuck in through the greenhouse window and entwined a tomato plant. My small reserves of energy have been spent trying to remove it from my border this summer rather than spend time doing the things I want in my garden. Their garden is just a dump with bindweed flowing over every fence into their neighbours, the kids toys they dumped out there entwined with it and neither child nor neighbours bother with the garden at all. Quite heartbreaking.
Oh well, a new home beckons and no doubt I will find some new garden challenges there. Hmmm… I wonder if the surveyors said anything about bindweed…
Crikey Arabella, you have the neighbours from hell, don’t you. I really think that if yo’uve got it so rampant next door then any amount of effort on your part is simply trying to hold back the waves. Poor you. I didn’t realise you were moving though – fantastic for you, where are you going? Oh – and no, they won’t have said a word about the bindweed, knotweed is the only one that’s notifiable, so let’s hope your buyers aren’t gardeners… xx
we’re moving to Dorset near coast. New garden is much bigger than here so will be a new challenge, we want to have a lovely veg garden and a pond and loads of wildlife. I’m hoping when we move (and I’m over being a miserable old ratbag) I can call in to see you and your garden – get some tips.
Wow that’s fantastic news! You will love Dorset 😀 Can I ask which bit of coast? near our stretch? (that’s Lyme Regis). It would be lovely to see you, so do drop in as soon as you’re able though you will be horrified by the state of my garden – I suffer badly from plumber’s leaky tap syndrome, all the gardens I look after for other people are immaculate but my own is a sorry mess most of the time…!