I Love Bindweed
In the world of permaculture, this weed has a worthy job to do.
I love bindweed. (Or morning glory, if that’s what you prefer to call it, or Convolvulus, if you’re a proper geek.) No, seriously, I do. Admitting this to any companion in the garden elicits suspicious glances; I cannot be serious, right? The arch nemesis “weed” of most gardeners, relentlessly reappears time and time again, climbing and choking your prized tomatoes and peppers. Seemingly impossible to eradicate, it has a will power and patience that far surpasses your own.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t let bindweed run rampant and choke out the rest of my plants. True love doesn’t mean letting your loved one suffocate you! In fact, my love affair with bindweed is based on my mutual understanding with the role it, and many other “weeds,” are playing in my garden ecosystem.
So what is bindweed’s business? It turns out it has an incredibly important job to do. In disturbed or otherwise poor soils, its job is to send roots deep into the subsoil layers and mine for nutrients. In permaculture we refer to plants that do this as dynamic nutrient accumulators. It pulls up these subsurface nutrients and uses them to grow a massive array of vegetation above ground, spreading itself out over as much area as possible. By spreading itself out, it protects and covers any bare soil from the harsh UV rays of the sun, and when it dies, it contributes the nutrients it accumulated to the soil as it decomposes. By simply growing, it is interacting with the biology in the soil, enhancing the living relationships underground.
This particular ecological niche is the root of my affection for bindweed. In my quest for regenerative agriculture, one of my main goals is to generate fertility on site without the need for imported products. Utilizing the dynamic nutrient-accumulating plants that grow around my garden helps me to do exactly that.
Every time I pull bindweed, or any other weed, I am adding to the fertility bank of my soil. Maybe I get the whole thing, or maybe just the tops, it doesn’t matter, it’s quite a nutritious mass of vegetation for my compost to digest. (Yes, I compost bindweed, but I also monitor my compost pile’s temperature to make sure I hold above 131 degrees F for a full 15 days to sterilize weeds that can propagate from cuttings, and seeds as well). Even before I pull it, it is enhancing the living dynamic of the soil. So literally, I am growing my own fertility. In fact, I no longer think of it as “weeding my garden”; I think of it as “harvesting fertility” and “feeding the compost beast.”
One key joy in my gardening practice is exactly that—making it a daily practice. Like yoga, meditation or other similar activity, it offers me an opportunity to reflect on myself and the natural world, to absorb and digest life, and most importantly, an extremely valid reason to have a cocktail after work. You can choose to host bindweed as your enemy, in which case every time you see it regrow you can be filled with anger, resentment and perhaps hopelessness. Or you could choose to see it as an opportunity to harvest nutrients, engage in meditative physical exercise and become a better person. I trust you’ll handle the situation like a Boss.
Keep pulling. Every time you pull it, even if you don’t get much of the taproot, you’ll rob the plant of strength. Pull at least weekly, if not a few times a week, and bindweed will lose vigor quickly. Wait a couple weeks or longer, and it will build strength and send its taproot ever deeper; some have been found as deep as 30 feet. Let that sucker flower, and you’re totally failing. Keep pulling, and you’ll eventually wear it out.
Improve your soil. Bindweed thrives in poor and compacted soils. Stop tilling. Every time you till, you decimate healthy soil biology, actually increase compaction, and contribute to soil nutrients volatilizing out of the soil. This literally optimizes your soil for weeds! I’ll say it again, Stop tilling!
Rather, add generous amounts of compost twice a year, and generously mulch soil during the heat of summer as well as over winter. Plant cover crops at any point in your season when you don’t have food crops growing. Once the health and tilth of your soil reaches a certain point, the bindweed will literally go away, as it will no longer have a niche to fill.
What doesn’t work:
Smothering. Trying to lay weed barrier over bindweed is generally futile. Bindweed can continue to grow and conquer distance until it finds the end of the your barrier to embrace the sun.
Herbicides. Herbicides are harmful to beneficial fungi and other life in the soil, which retards ecological succession. Try to poison bindweed and you’ll be in essence optimizing your soil for weeds, and becoming increasingly dependent on chemical inputs.
James Loomis is the new Green Team farm manager for Wasatch Community Gardens. Congratulations, James!