May 29, 2013

Caught In a Bind

Growing up in Florida, I was painfully aware that my home state was – pest-wise – a national laughingstock.  Every week, it seemed, the pages of Time magazine or the evening news had stories about walking catfish; giant African snails that could eat the paint off of your house; and a large toad, bufo marinus that, when licked, produced a hallucinogenic reaction (although exactly how this was discovered remains a mystery I have declined to ponder). 
I learned not to trust
everything I saw on the
cover of the Saturday
Evening Post
My assumption was that the rest of the country was some kind of an agricultural paradise and that New England, with its wholesome Norman Rockwell image, was a place where having a garden was a pleasure.  The growing season would begin on the first day of spring and conclude with a golden-hued harvest at Thanksgiving.
Time has taught me that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.  At the end of May, we consolidated the fifteen miserable kernels of corn that had sprouted (a one-third germination rate) into a single square and re-planted, hoping against hope that, perhaps by the middle of June, the soil temperature will warm up to 70 degrees and it will stop raining.  Moreover, we have yet to pick a single leaf of lettuce or spinach off our miniscule plants and entire rows of other crops in our garden are nowhere to be seen.
But these are minor irritants compared to what is growing in my vegetable garden.  What I have is a bumper crop of bindweed.
In April, I took out an entire
wheelbarrow filled with
bindweed roots
Bindweed, or Convolvulus arvensis to give the plant its proper name, is something that the national media chooses not to report on.  It’s a New England specialty, a weed with a ‘particularly aggressive root and rhizome system’, to quote the Cornell University Extension Service.  What that means in plain English is that, once you get bindweed in your garden, you are consigned to pulling it out for all eternity.  The reason you don’t want bindweed in your garden in the first place is that it will climb other plants and kill them by taking their sunlight and water. 
We never had a bindweed problem until this year; it arrived via a neighboring plot.  But here is how bad it is:  a month ago, I systematically turned over the soil in our vegetable garden and took out a wheelbarrow full of bindweed roots.  This morning, I noticed that little green shoots were poking above the surface in unplanted areas of the garden.  And so, I decided to dig out the shoots, roots and all.  I followed one slender, white root down a foot, where it began running horizontally, ending in a two-inch-long piece of ‘old’ root from our neighbor’s garden that had been turned under by the tractor that plowed our garden last fall. 
Bindweed and its root system.
Double-click on the image to see
at full size.
Think about that:  a tractor chops up a piece of bindweed root and buries it a foot down.  That little piece of root survives being frozen over the winter.  Come spring, it has the energy to send out a tendril eighteen inches in search of light.  Now, repeat this concept several thousand times.  I think I know where the idea for The Invasion of the Body Snatchers came from.
You are probably asking yourself, ‘what about herbicides?’  What, indeed.  A friend recommended an organic solution, a product that is primarily clove oil.  Spray it on anything.  A day later, the leaves of the invasive weed or plant look like they’ve been scorched by fire and the root shrivels into nothingness.  I sprayed this product on a patch of bindweed.  Two days later, the leaves were crispy as advertised.  I followed the roots down into the soil.  They were prospering; pumping iron.  A dozen new shoots already headed for the light.
How about one of those ‘kills everything’ kind of herbicides?  I don’t especially care to use them in my vegetable garden, but this was getting serious.  The Royal Horticultural Society (bindweed, like Simon Cowell, is an unwanted European export to America) offered the bad news:  Spraying in the early spring is ‘generally less successful’.  Instead, the RHS recommends that one wait patiently, sprayer in hand, until bindweed produces its morning glory-type flower (by which time it had taken over your garden).  Even then, the Society cautions, because bindweed roots can reach out twenty feet or more, the herbicide may not reach the ‘mother’ root.  In other words, abandon hope all ye who enter here.
I did find one glimmer of hope in my research.  An enterprising gardener reported that she had eradicated bindweed from her garden.  She diligently dug out every root every time a shoot broke the surface.  She did this day after day, depriving the plant of photosynthesis.  I should add, though, that it took eight years.

Florida ultimately capitalized on its exotic pests by creating things like the ‘International Walking Catfish Derby’ in which fish with rudimentary lungs travel several feet on their pectoral fins.  I have sincere doubts that any such fun events are planned by New England gardeners wondering what to do with their bindweed.

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