Bindweed #2: Digging it out

Several days ago I mentioned the bindweed question I’d gotten from someone by e-mail, and started this long, involved answer. This is the second installment.

So far I’ve gotten one response, from Mr. McGregor’s Daughter, detailing a novel way of handling bindweed: she snips the stem and dabs the cut end with a cotton swab dipped in Roundup. Read all about it on her blog.

When I look at the number of shoots coming up in Laura’s garden, I quail at the thought of dabbing each one with a bit of anything. Of course, once you see what I’m recommending below, you may think I’ve got my priorities seriously skewed. I prefer to drastically reduce the number of sprouts and then kill off those that remain with a method like the cotton swab favored by Mr. McG’s Daughter.

There’s an unwritten rule against running the same photo twice, but in order to understand my recommending hours of heavy labor over hours of intense work with a swab, it helps to see what Laura’s up against. So I’d recommend taking a look at the first installment, if only for the pictures.

Please do chime in with your own methods of dealing with this most pernicious and persistent pest.

Planting Rows:

I’d try to tackle one row or one section of the garden a year, probably in the fall. There are several possible tactics, but the basic strategy is to get as many roots out of the growing area as you possibly can. Unless you cover your garden with cement (or weed-cloth) and build new, enclosed beds on top of it—with new, imported dirt in them—you won’t get all the roots, so you won’t keep a few new shoots appearing, but you’ll give the stuff a serious set-back and make hand-weeding a bearable possibility, in that row at least. If you can do this row by row, you’ll gradually get the stuff under control.

What might seem the simplest tactic, just yanking all the plants from a designated area, can be a total nightmare. At best, it’s a stop-gap measure, because they’ll be back. I generally figure fighting bindweed is an all-or-nothing activity. I’m remembering one of my next-door neighbors, encouraging a friend to make the step from our pinetree to their roof: “You’ve got to commit.” Exactly.

In this case, that means laying down a tarp and digging out all the dirt from the growing space, lining it either with newspaper or weed-cloth, sifting the worst of the roots out of the dirt, then dumping it back. You won’t get all the bits of roots, but at least you know nothing really major is going to be sprouting there in the next few weeks. It’s easy to weed in the soft, newly sifted dirt, and the process provides a perfect chance to amend the dirt—probably to an unprecedented level.

Newspaper is a better liner for the soil and the garden because it will gradually decompose, but it requires about 15 thicknesses overlapping at least 6 inches, and it’s surprisingly time-consuming and difficult to do. Weed cloth is easier to deal with, but it limits the movement of worms and other soil creatures, which is not good for the soil long-term. Neither, however, is bindweed. If you make the rows a good four feet wide, there’s plenty of space for soil movement.

At that point, though, they’re too wide for some gardeners to deal with comfortably. One option is to establish a number of 4×4 foot raised beds down the length of the garden, eliminating long, narrow rows. In most cases, such an arrangement (usually with 20” paths between beds) results in more growing space and less space wasted on paths, yet the beds will be easier to get at, since you can access them from all sides.

If you choose this option, be sure that any place you reach the end of a piece of weed cloth, the new and old pieces overlap by six inches or more, and that they are practically glued together, they meet so closely. Dirt between them gives the bindweed a route out to follow up and out.

I spent much of last summer—not this one—doing precisely this job in the bindweed-infested garden next door. I was younger then and full of hope, so I used newspaper. When I saw the first bind-weed sprouts this spring, I knew the bitter taste of betrayal. However, there may have been ten sprouts that first week—and that’s all I’ve seen all season. That row is densely planted in beans, potatoes, and the occasional stalk of corn, but I find weeding it quite easy. Only once or twice have I found a bindweed stem that’s actually managed to wrap itself around something more even once. In other words, it’s under control–which is the most I hope for, with bindweed. Tomorrow, I promise, I’ll get out there with a camera and take photos to prove it.

So come on, all you chumps out there–how do you do it?

5 Responses to Bindweed #2: Digging it out

  1. I hand-weed. I don’t use herbicides or pesticides (tho I’m sometimes tempted…) We used to have a climbing frame at the end of our garden, which I’m sure the bindweed thought was a custom-built trellis. Around the time that we took it out, I heard an expert called Bob Flowerdew on the British radio programme, Gardener’s Question Time, advising that hand-weeding (ie tearing out chuncks of the stuff) reduced the amount of leaf, and thus the plant’s ability to photosynthesise. I was sceptical, but I found that a combination of hand-weeding and digging out roots, where I could get at them, did actually seem to weaken the plant. I still get the odd bit of bindweed, but it’s not a problem so long as I keep an eye on it. “You have to commit” sums it up pretty well!

  2. If I remember correctly bind weed, night shade, and thistle, are indicators of calcium imbalance. get a soil test done by a company that can give you more than nkp and pH and follow their recommendations for balancing your soil. You can find a pretty good list of testing companies in Acres mag. or on the ATTRA web site under alternative testing. It wont be an instant solution, but if you pair it with weeding/mowing it should work pretty quickly.

  3. Thanks for the link love. My method is a last-ditch, desperation effort. The other methods suggested should always be tried first. Then, if they don’t work, try the weedkiller. I truly was desperate when I decided to cave in & go with it. I had tried digging, cutting off the foliage, pulling off flower buds every morning to prevent reseeding, fertilizing the lawn. Nothing worked on the well & long-established Bindweed. And still I get a few popping up every year. It’s very persistent stuff. When using the chemical, you need not put it on every stump of it, as most of the Bindweed is connected underground & if the plants are deprived of their foliage, they will be more likely to succumb to less chemical.

  4. Sometimes you just need a new frame of reference! Check out: ‘Invasive Plant Medicine’ by Timothy Lee Scott. It’s all about the ‘Ecological Benefits & Healing Abilities of Invasives’. And if the bindweed still must go, then there is AllDown!

  5. Wow, I just discovered that for some reason I never responded to these comments. My bad.
    Weeding had been my first line of defense as well, Victoria, but the stuff has such a head start in the lawn, the alley, that whole end of the block, that it's hard to make much headway, I find.
    That bindweed might indicate soil imbalances I hadn't heard, Alan, and I'll check it out. Part of the problem, though, is that so far at least, the bindweed is next door. It's not even my property. So there's a limit to what I can do—or am willing to do—on someone else's property.
    Finally, I don't know how much can be done to adjust the soil under an established lawn.
    I may be driven to this yet, Mr. McGregor's Daughter, but if I do have to go that route, I refuse to go willingly.
    This book is a new one on me, Katrina, and looks interesting. I do try to keep an open mind, but I can't imagine making friends with bindweed! I wonder what Scott says about it.
    –Kate

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