Growing Concerns 610: To get rid of bindweed, Christmas cactus

Early Spring!

All-out war is necessary to root out the terrible bindweed


Dear Janet,

Before I reached the age of 82 years, which I am now, I was able to keep up with the morning glories from my neighbor's yard by pulling them out when they were just starting to grow in the spring. They became out of control last year and were choking my flowers to death. Will you please tell me how to get rid of them?


Dear E.H.,

I'll hope you're dealing with one of the Convolvulus species, morning glory relatives that go most often by the name bindweed. These native perennial weeds establish such vast and deep root systems over time that it can take years of vigilant pulling, digging and weed-killing of every sort to vanquish them. 

Fortunately, in Michigan you don't see much of another member of this family, the weed that's most correctly called wild morning glory, Ipomoea pandurata. This species, even more tenacious than the bindweeds, was known to native Americans as "man underground" because the thick main roots might be as big around as a man's leg, lying in the soil horizontally as deep as if in a grave.

All of these twining vines grow very quickly and open white trumpet flowers in summer that become pink with age. The flowers are small on hedge bindweed and field bindweed, but those on wild morning glory are as large as the blooms of its cultivated cousin, annual morning glory.

Although you pulled the leafy parts from your beds for all those years, the plant must have had the run of the lawn, a fence or bed in the neighbor's yard. From a stronghold there, even if it was repeatedly mowed short in the lawn, it was producing enough foliage to be able to replenish its root system annually and make another foray into your yard the next spring. Once you fell behind, it grew for a season with enough leaf surface to not only replenish its roots but enlarge them.

I know how you feel when it comes to being overwhelmed by a garden that's gotten  beyond you. I've been there myself, and helped others in the same situation reclaim their gardens.

In your situation I would start by digging out the most desirable perennials from your bed. I'd remove all the soil from the roots to be sure that none of the brittle white bindweed root is transplanted with the "keeper plants." I'd put the keepers into large containers.

Next, turn the bindweed-infested bed into lawn. Although we do like a garden along a fence line, that location is the most difficult to maintain in many yards. One-sided, it's awkward to tend and open to invasion from one or more edges that are not under your control. As a strip that's mowed weekly it will make a better barrier to the spread of the bindweed than a flower bed.

Now make a garden of the large containers. You'll be thrilled with how simple it is to garden in beautiful pots and tubs. You can grow anything from vegetables to trees and shrubs without interference by tree roots or invasion by creeping weeds. The plants themselves will be easier to manage, too, since they'll be unable to spread into and overrun other members of the bed. You can move the pieces around, to give each one its perfect quota of sunlight, air or water. You can rearrange whenever you like, for the season or to showcase individual specimens, even in situations where they could never grow full-time.

If containers just won't do for you, make a new garden in an island in your lawn, where every edge will be under your control.

The only other alternative is to hire a gardener to weed the bed weekly, choosing someone who knows or can be trained to identify bindweed from its first sprout to its roots. With weekly pulling or killing of every shoot, bindweed can be reduced from rampaging colony to a tamer level. If you can convince your neighbor to join the battle as an ally so your combined force attacks it weekly wherever it appears in both yards, you could eliminate it in two to three years.

Short reports


Waiting for Christmas cactus to bloom.

L.S. says it's been ten years since it was accidentally mistreated, yet a Schlumbergera that bloomed reliably for two generations still won't resume blooming. Could be you're treating it too well. Set it outdoors this fall to feel the cool, short of frost, for several weeks. Then watch it bloom next winter

Originally published 3/26/05