Miss Floribunda: A Herculean task: A weeder’s work is never done
Dear Miss Floribunda,
I love blue morning glories and planted seeds for them after moving to a house with a lattice porch. Since then, I’ve gotten vines with purple, pink or white blooms even though I keep replanting the blue ones. Also, these seem to be popping up in places other than where I originally planted them, even in deep mulch! They’ve climbed all over my shrubs, and I’m always pulling them off. I can’t really get them OUT because they always break off. A neighbor told me they are not morning glories but bindweed. What’s that? What should I do? What can I do? Should I even care?
In a Bind on Buchanan Street
Dear In a Bind,
Some of the purple flowering vines might be progeny of your original morning glories, hybrids that don’t return with blue flowers when they self-seed, and some of them might even have been flown over by birds who often share seeds they’ve sampled in other gardens. However, I do suspect your neighbor is right, and that you are plagued with field bindweed. Bindweed seeds could have been lurking in compost or the mulch you spread. Once again, birds can spread these seeds.
Morning glories and bindweed are related, in the family Convolvulaceae, but there are important differences between them.
Morning glories are annuals that will die with the first frost, although they will reappear in successive years because they self-seed prolifically. They have heart-shaped leaves; they have a shallow root system that can be easily pulled out whole; their slender stems are hairy, and if you snap them, no liquid will ooze out.
Bindweeds are perennials. They have arrowhead-shaped leaves; they are very difficult to root out because they have extensive systems of underground rhizomes that penetrate very deeply; if you snap their smooth stems a milky substance will ooze out.
Bindweeds are invasive, and they strangle and steal moisture from young crops. Farmers have expressed their opinion of bindweed by giving it such sobriquets as “devil’s guts” and “possession vine.” Not only do they keep growing from their roots after their top portions are pulled or hoed away, but bits and pieces of stems left on the ground can regenerate and make new plants. It would take a Hercules, who managed to kill the nine-headed hydra who grew a new head each time one was cut off, to conquer this weed.
In the absence of a superhero, other means of conquest have been tried. Although pesticides have been found to suppress bindweed to some extent, while harming the surrounding ecosystem, they have been ineffectual at long-term eradication.
Black plastic won’t work either because the roots can go as far down as 20 feet. Pouring boiling water on the plants is another dubious recommendation. For the water not to cool by the time it’s brought to the plants, you’d have to drag out an electric kettle with a very long extension cord to your garden — and tap roots would survive anyway. Sheep and goats are being used successfully in orchards and fields to control weeds, but it would take constant vigilance to make sure your hiree(s) didn’t eat more than just bindweed. Another reportedly successful solution is to plant pumpkins in areas usurped by bindweed. The pumpkin vines shade the sun-loving bindweed, and their roots secrete an allelopathic chemical that makes surrounding soil inhospitable to weeds. This could mean that instead of bindweed, you might well have more pumpkins sprawling about than you really want, but maybe a sheep or two could help you reduce the number.
In reality, the only thing that home gardeners agree is effective is frequent weeding. Choose dry weather so that pieces of the bindweed you might drop won’t regenerate, and, of course, don’t try to compost the weeds. Think of this work the way you do dusting, vacuuming, washing dishes or doing laundry. Weeding is just one more chore that has to be repeated, and chores are the price of having an orderly home and garden.
Now, let’s turn to the problem of nurturing the desirable blue morning glories. I asked my blue-flower expert, Voloshka Jhovto-Blakitna, for advice. She told me she starts morning glory seeds in peat pots. As soon as the vines sprout, she plants them, biodegradable pots and all, in the garden. She places plastic markers around them to make sure she doesn’t inadvertently pull them up. Cousin Parsimony told me she plants vine seeds in emptied eggshells and uses washed popsicle sticks as markers. Both Voloshka and Parsimony weed carefully around their morning glory plantings to make sure there is no confusion.
To discuss this and other gardening dilemmas, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on July 16 at 10 a.m. in the lovely garden of Gina De Ferrari (4306 Oliver Street).