How to get rid of bindweed in grass

Vile Vine: Field Bindweed Can Be Devastating to Your Lawn, Garden & Pasture

Perhaps no other weed invokes as much disgust throughout America as Convolvulus arvensis – or field bindweed. Also referred to as morning glory, creeping Jenny, wild morning glory, and devil’s guts (a very appropriate name in my opinion), this noxious weed is responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in crop loss each year, not to mention the headache it causes for homeowners and gardeners. From my experience, I’ve seen it overwhelm portions of my own pasture where I didn’t take a more aggressive stance. In my lawn service days, I saw morning glory completely consume fences, lawns, and even a trampoline. The fight against bindweed can be long and difficult, so take immediate action the next time you spot this vile vine creeping into your lawn, garden or pasture.

Noxious Invader

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when field bindweed didn’t exist in America. It wasn’t until the 1700s that bindweed was introduced to North America, probably in contaminated hay or as an escaped ornamental. Since then, it’s spread to almost every part of the United States and is particularly invasive in the Pacific Northwest. Most states have placed it on their noxious weed list, and it’s considered invasive in the rest. While it’s hard to find anything good about it, it does have some medicinal properties and is used by many pollinating insects. However, its remarkable ability to survive, spread, and suck the life out of desirable crops and ornamentals overshadows any potential benefit.

Growth Habit & Reproduction

Field bindweed’s incredible success as a weed can be attributed to its growth habit and reproductive methods. As a perennial vine, bindweed loves to crawl up other plants and structures. If no other plants or structures can be found, it’s perfectly content to creep along the ground, extending itself several yards in every direction. Bindweed also produces copious amounts of seed. It’s been estimated that an acre stand of pure bindweed can produce about ¾ ton of seed. These seeds have a hard, impervious seed coat that can lay dormant in the soil for up to 50 years. On top of this, bindweed is able to reproduce from underground rhizomes and aboveground shoots. When chopped up, such as during tillage, each segment of the original plant is capable of growing a new plant. Battling with field bindweed can be compared to fighting the mythical Hydra – cut off its head and two grow back.

Prevention is Best

One of the best ways to control field bindweed, and most other weeds, is with proper pasture management. Because bindweed is a low-growing vine, taller plants are usually able to block the sunlight before it reaches the bindweed, keeping it weak and under control. This means maintaining a healthy, productive pasture through rotational grazing and avoiding overgrazing. While sheep and goats have been known to graze on bindweed, other livestock tend to leave it alone.

Battling Existing Stands

For existing bindweed infestations, mechanical control can work but requires repetition over several years. If tillage is not repeated, you’ll actually be helping the bindweed spread. Mowing is usually not effective due to the low-growing nature of bindweed. For smaller areas, solarization can work well. This involves placing a clear polyethylene tarp over the infested area and using the heat from the sun to bake and kill the bindweed. Keep in mind this won’t kill the deep reproductive roots. Finally, chemical herbicides can be very effective when used responsibly. There are several selective and non-selective herbicides available for controlling bindweed. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for more information on using herbicides for controlling field bindweed in your area.

Colorado State University

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is a common problem in Colorado lawns. Bindweed and other common weeds don’t like the competition they face in a dense, healthy, well cared-for lawn. But this deeply-rooted perennial member of the morning glory family will quickly take over the unhealthy, malnourished lawn, or those lawns suffering from drought stress or poor irrigation coverage.

The first steps towards controlling bindweed in lawns include providing adequate nitrogen fertilization (2-4 applications during the year, depending on turf species and age of the lawn), timely and uniform irrigation, and mowing the lawn in the range of 2½ to 3 inches. These practices alone can substantially, over the course of a couple of years, reduce the amount of bindweed in a lawn. Bindweed can be more quickly controlled when proper management is combined with judicious herbicide use. Pre-emergence herbicides are useless for controlling bindweed. Because of its very deep and extensive root system, systemic post-emergence products must be used.

Bindweed survives many herbicides that kill other plants. For example, 2,4-D is largely ineffective against bindweed if used alone. Three-way mixtures containing dicamba or dichlorprop (combined with the standards 2, 4-D and MCPP/MCPA) can provide moderate to good control.

The herbicide quinclorac is highly effective at controlling bindweed. Quinclorac is also a component of a few professional products. Quinclorac is available to the homeowner in the products Ortho Weed B Gon MAX plus Crabgrass Control and Bayer Advanced ™ All-In-One Lawn Weed and Crabgrass Killer. Remember that these herbicides are labeled only for use in lawns and can’t be legally or safely used in landscape beds or vegetable gardens.

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Glorify Fences, Walls, and Barren Areas with the right kind of glory

If you need to glorify a rocky slope, an ugly fence or a barren area with poor soil, turn to Morning Glory! Its viney threads cling to hard surfaces and thrive with few nutrients. When going for glory, we do advise some care – some varieties may be bold, but their environmental effects are far from beautiful.

Blue Morning Glory (Ipomoea indica)

Waterfalls of deep purple-blue cascade over trees and fences this time of year. Blue morning glory can stop traffic with its bold, large blooms and magnificent color. It is prevalent enough to feel very LA, but,truth be told, this tropical invasive steals shows in many of the Southern California climate-compatible regions of the world from Australia to Portugal.

If it holds on in drought, seems to like our kind of climate, and adds color to our gardens, what could be the problem? The same vines that allow Blue Morning Glory and other non-native invasive morning glories to ensconce fences and foliage erode our slopes, choking out slope-retaining natives as they go. These invasives to our climate so well, they have no trouble jumping from our gardens into the wildlands. There, they receive less water than it does in our gardens and quickly turns to fuel for fire.

California Morning Glory (Calystegia macrostegia)

It’s with a sad irony we note that many consider California Morning Glory, a weed. Like invasive Blue Morning Glory, California Morning Glory thrives in rocky soils and can quickly cover a cinderblock fence or retaining wall. So, if it crawls like an invasive, what makes California Morning Glory friendlier than its cousin?

California Morning Glory, aka Island False Blindweed, has a heartiness its bolder cousin lacks. Its delightfully delicate white and pale pink flowers hide hidden strength to handle heat and a lack of moisture. California Morning Glory enjoys coastal chaparral and coastal scrub climates and will bloom much of the year as a perennial. This along with its viney nature give it great skill as a slope retainer. In fact, it’s a bit of a hero, jumping right in to support slopes as one of the first fire followers to respond after a wildfire.

For a “white” flowering theme to partner with calestegia, you may invite its fire friendly neighbors white sage, Salvia apiana, and Gnaphalium californicum to join the party.

More Information

Las Pilitas Nursery, California Morning Glory

Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States

Bindweed History

Field bindweed, also called perennial morning glory, has the scientific name of Convolvulus arvensis and is widely considered to be one of the most invasive and destructive weeds in cropland and gardens. It was first found in Virginia as early as 1739 and is thought to have originally brought to Kansas and the Midwest from the lower Volga region in Russia, hitching a ride in the oats and wheat brought by immigrants starting new lives. It and its close cousin hedge bindweed (Convolvulus sepium) are both perennials, reproducing from both seeds and shallow creeping roots which make control and eradication much more difficult than if it was an annual.

Bindweed has been so pervasive that in 1937 Kansas wrote official legislation outlawing field bindweed – among a number of other persistent weeds – requiring farmers to use every effort to remove them from their fields and state agencies to do the same with public lands. Several Midwestern states followed suit and adopted this legal approach, approving and vigorously promoting an “eradication through poisoning” approach. As you might assume, all of these laws and efforts were unsuccessful. Perhaps the legislators forgot, if they ever knew, that Mother Nature rarely obeys mankind’s laws.

Bindweed competes very aggressively with adjacent crop plants for water, nutrients, and light, reducing crop yield and quality as well as interfering with harvesting by intertwining with crop plants and clogging up farm equipment – thus giving its name of “bind-weed”. In farming, bindweed infestations can reduce grain crop yields by 20 – 50% and row or vegetable crops by 50 – 80%, with similar reductions in the home garden. This is not a weed to be taken lightly!

Identification and Growth

Bindweed Wrapped Around Morning Glory

It is pretty easy to identify field bindweed and its several cousins. If you’ve ever grown morning glory, then you are already familiar with what bindweed looks like because they are in the same family – Morning Glory. Bindweed has narrower leaves and smaller flowers than Morning Glory, as can be seen in the photo of bindweed vine wrapped around morning glory, and the photo at the top of the article. It is a low growing, drought tolerant with medium green narrow arrowhead-shaped leaves on vigorous vining slender stems. The flowers are funnel-shaped with colors from white to pink. The flowers produce small round capsules with 1 – 4 seeds in each, which can survive in the soil for up to 50 years due to their exceptionally hard and durable seed coats. There is a long central taproot on each plant that can drill down as far as 20 feet or more for moisture that develops numerous lateral roots, mostly in the top 2 feet of soil. Field bindweed reproduces from seed and from buds that form along the lateral roots, sending shoots up to the surface which then become entirely new independent plants. Lateral roots can spread about 10 feet per season, sending up new shoots along the way.

Invading Bindweed

The most common identification is when a gardener realizes there is a mat of green vines that are taking over a section of the garden or yard, or is climbing up the trellis or wall in the case of hedge bindweed. Early in the morning there will be hundreds of small, pretty flowers opened up that will attract a person’s attention.

Early warm weather wakes bindweed up and it grows until the frost or cold stops it in the fall. Extreme heat, drought, and cold will slow down or kill off the top growth, but the underground roots and shoots will go dormant, waiting for enough moisture or better weather to re-emerge. The root systems can spread up to 10 feet per growing season, or by the lateral roots and buds being broken up and re-distributed by tilling. Seed is often spread from irrigation water runoff, birds eating the seeds and depositing them elsewhere, on the feet of gardeners, dogs, and other animals and on the wheels of wheelbarrows, tillers or other machinery and vehicles.

Control Methods

When researching how to control bindweed, the most commonly recommended method is to spray it with a persistent herbicide like glyphosate (Roundup) or worse, but then turn around and caution that care must be used around vegetable or other food crops.

Please understand, we very strongly do not recommend this approach, as is often creates more problems than it solves.

The second most common prevention recommendation is to make sure to avoid bringing in soil, seed, hay or animal feed that has the seeds, buds or pieces of the lateral roots in them. This is somewhat obvious, but too many times the first sign of having a problem is when the little flowers have bloomed and it is way too late for prevention.

The folly of using persistent, petrochemical herbicides to control most weeds – but especially bindweed – is apparent when looking at the multiple mechanisms it uses for reproduction – seeds, buds, lateral roots and the shoots they send up, as well as the vast amount of seeds that can stay dormant for several decades, just waiting for the right soil conditions. Sure, spraying will knock the above ground growth back, but the next season it will be back from all of the different angles it uses to survive, so more spraying is needed. Meanwhile, the spray is also knocking back the exact plants you want to grow and it isn’t beginning to touch the seed or root reservoirs in the soil!

Another common but misguided approach is to use a mixture of vinegar, Epsom salts, and dish detergent. This doesn’t work any better and may wind up killing more plants that just the weeds. Vinegar – whether household strength or the much stronger agricultural vinegar – is an acid and affects the above ground green growth. It will kill that off, but not touch the underground roots, seeds or shoots. It also changes the pH of the soil, potentially creating conditions for worse weeds to come in. Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate, supplying elemental magnesium for the soil microbes to work with and sulfur, which again lowers pH and is a nutrient building block. Dish detergent is a “spreader/sticker” which coats and covers the surface of the leaves, suffocating them. Unfortunately, it can also suffocate beneficial insects, earthworms and the leaves of nearby plants you want to keep.

It is initially easier and much simpler to just spray the weeds, but that quickly becomes a slippery slope as the weeds you are trying to control grow more abundant and you start to notice other invasive weeds appearing that weren’t there to begin with. If you want to get ahead of the weeds, you must understand how they grow, spread, reproduce and the soil conditions that allow them to flourish.

Compare spraying increasing amounts of herbicides multiple times each season to an initial learning curve, some soil improvements and watching as the unwanted weeds start to retreat year after year, while your garden or farm grows stronger, healthier and produces more food that tastes better. Which road do you want to go down?

In looking at methods of controlling bindweed, we need to step back just a bit to understand more of why this, or any other, weed establishes itself in the first place. Contrary to much of the commonly spread information today, weeds don’t just “happen”; they are in a certain place for a very specific reason – the conditions are “just right” for them to grow there.

Weeds are an indication of what is going on with the soil and its fertility, both right and wrong. They show the progression of the soil, whether the fertility and biological diversity and health are improving; or if it is in decline. Very much as a pond will go through several generations of different species of plants until it is filled in and becomes a meadow; or a grass pasture will gradually fill in with a progression of woody shrubs and eventually trees, weeds will have a progression of species that tell the story of improving or failing health of the soil where they grow.

This information is by no means new, untested or untried. It has simply been swept aside in the race toward industrial agriculture shortly after World War II using leftover nitrogen and phosphorus stockpiles from explosives manufacture. This chemical race also happened to home gardening, unfortunately. Dr. Carey Reams and Dr. William Albrecht were some of the last and greatest researchers into the relationship between healthy soils, healthy plants, and healthy people, which naturally extends to the study of weeds in relation to soil conditions. Much of their work is more than 50 years old at this point and is only becoming more proven as more research and testing is done in soil health. One of the best books that we always recommend to anyone wanting to start gaining a better understanding of how and why weeds work is Weeds – Control Without Poisons by Charles Walters, the founder of Acres USA magazine.

The appearance of weeds doesn’t always mean bad things are going on in the soil. For instance, moderate lambsquarter and pigweed are an indication of good soil structure and fertility is good, crops will thrive and insects will generally stay away. They can be managed with light tilling of the top two inches of the soil within one to two days after the weeds have sprouted.

Two Adjacent Raised Garden Beds

What bindweed says about the soil conditions when it appears is that the soil is out of balance, with pH issues and stuck or incomplete decomposition of organic material accompanied by excess heavy soil metals such as magnesium and potassium. There is usually an accumulation of dry and dead plant matter that can’t finish decomposing, creating the right conditions for bindweed to flourish. Most often, the soil is low in humus materials with low available calcium and phosphorus. pH can be either excessively low or high and the soil structure can be clay or sandy.

This is easily seen in the photo above. The near bed was treated with compost and a top dressing of wood chips last fall, while the bed in the background had flowers in it, was not cleaned out for the past couple of years and had little to no compost amended to it. The near bed has a few shoots appearing, but the background bed is over-run and won’t be able to be planted this year.

Bindweed Sneaking In

There are two different, proven methods of stopping and controlling bindweed without using herbicides.

The first method is using weed cloth to block any sunlight from reaching the bindweed plants, much like my article Stopping Bermuda Grass in the Garden.

This method can work if you take care to overlap the shade cloth, avoiding any gaps where the roots will come through. It normally takes about 4 – 5 years to make the roots go dormant, lose their stored energy and then finally rot.

The challenge in trying to shade bindweed out can be seen above, where the bindweed is sneaking in where there is a gap between the weed barrier cloth and the metal raised bed – possibly less than a 1/4 of an inch!

Bindweed Lateral Roots

When the weed barrier is pulled back, it is easy to see the lateral roots running along the bed to where the gap allowed them to put a shoot up and survive.

Bindweed Long Lateral Roots

Moving around to the long side of the raised bed – about in the middle of a 15-foot long bed – we found another shoot poking its head up and pulled the weed barrier fabric back.

This is what we found – a series of lateral roots that had followed the joint of weed barrier fabric and raised bed, poking shoots up wherever it could. These lateral roots went to the shoot in the above two photos.

Handfull of Lateral Roots

Here is what over 10 feet of lateral bindweed roots look like. What we’ve discovered is that when we installed a heavy and fairly non-porous weed barrier fabric several years ago and then put several inches of wood chips on top is that we were creating the perfect environment for bindweed to encroach underneath the weed fabric and pop up in our raised beds.

For most of our beds, this isn’t a serious issue as they are rich and well composted with a fertile and biologically active soil which seriously deters the growth mechanisms of bindweed, so we just see them popping up just inside the raised beds and nowhere else.

The second method involves improving the soil by adding missing or low nutrients, adjusting pH and adding well aged, rich compost to jump-start the decomposition process again.

This short-circuits the growth pattern of bindweed and will soon start to rot the roots and shoots. A complete soil analysis from a professional soil lab is the correct way to determine what nutrients are needed and how to adjust the pH of your soil. There are a number of very good ones, but the two that we know and are familiar with are Crop Services International and Texas Plant and Soil Lab. Either one is excellent and will help you determine what nutrients are needed and in what amounts.

Successfully controlling bindweed depends on several factors that are unique to each garden or farm. Your soil’s pH, mineral levels, clay or sandy based soil and whether you have wet or dry organic matter that is stuck in its decomposition will all determine what nutrients and approach to use. The complete soil analysis from a professional soil lab will provide you the information needed to make the plan to begin reversing the encroachment.

Bear in mind that no single weed species grows independently of all others, they will grow in groups and communities; much like companion plantings of flowers, veggies and herbs do. As you begin to learn more about what different weed species prefer and the conditions that they need for growth, you’ll start to see that groupings of particular weeds mean very specific things related to soil health and fertility. They will indicate exactly what is right or wrong with the soil and what is in excess or lacking. Then you can make the corrections and watch them leave, followed by others that are much less difficult to deal with and indicate a much more fertile soil.

This may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but when you take a step back and realize how much you’ve learned about gardening or farming since you first began, even if it’s only a short time – then you can see how much this knowledge will benefit both your soil and you with fewer weeds, pests and more abundant, healthier plants and veggies, herbs and flowers.

Chemical-free ways to eliminate field bindweed

  • Bindweed’s flowers, with their pink-striped undersides, are pretty, but the weed is very difficult to get rid of. Bindweed can twine its stems around garden plants, killing them. Bindweed’s flowers, with their pink-striped undersides, are pretty, but the weed is very difficult to get rid of. Bindweed can twine its stems around garden plants, killing them. Photo: Pam Peirce

Photo: Pam Peirce Image 1 of / 1

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Image 1 of 1 Bindweed’s flowers, with their pink-striped undersides, are pretty, but the weed is very difficult to get rid of. Bindweed can twine its stems around garden plants, killing them. Bindweed’s flowers, with their pink-striped undersides, are pretty, but the weed is very difficult to get rid of. Bindweed can twine its stems around garden plants, killing them. Photo: Pam Peirce Chemical-free ways to eliminate field bindweed 1 / 1 Back to Gallery

Q:My backyard is being overrun by field bindweed. I’ve tried digging it out, but not only are its roots devilishly deep, it seems that a new plant can generate from the tiniest scrap of root I leave behind.

Would it work to cover it with black plastic weighted down at the edges? Would that take months or years to work, and wouldn’t it just send up its sprouts outside the tarped area?

I’m very reluctantly contemplating Roundup, but this is an area that I want to use for vegetables and I don’t know how long it would take for the soil to be safe for them. (I’ve read that Roundup is not as safe and biodegradable as it’s portrayed.)

What about burning up the emerging shoots with one of those little torches?

A: Rare is the California gardener who will never encounter field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). If you are hoping to get rid of this very common weed, as in never again see its little arrow-shaped leaves blighting your garden, you are in for some serious effort.

This weed, like perennial garden flowers, builds up a root system that lives from year to year. The roots, though thin, run all over the place. They tend to go straight down for 6 inches or so and then run horizontally, connecting many above-ground plants.

If you try to dig it out, but miss pieces of root, these can indeed resprout to form new plants. The leafy stems grow quickly, blanketing the ground or twining up to several feet tall on plants, fences, trellises or other upright structures. They kill other plants by blocking them from light.

Field bindweed flowers look like small white morning glories, with pink markings on petal undersides. Gardeners sometimes find the flowers pretty enough to be lulled to inaction until it’s too late for easy control.

The best control would be to pull out any small bindweed plant growing from a seed that found its way into your garden before it could form all those stringy roots, but you, like most who have this weed, have missed that opportunity.

For established bindweed, some gardeners depend on pulling off the tops repeatedly. If you can pull any leafy stems by the time they are 3 inches tall, the plants will eventually die. This strategy can be combined, especially in a vegetable garden with its ever-changing plantings, with digging for roots whenever you’re preparing the bed for a new crop. (I use a shovel with a 2-foot handle, so I can work sitting down, rather than repeatedly digging and stooping.)

You might be able to kill the weed with solarization, spreading clear plastic, not black, over the soil for six weeks or more during summer’s heat. (You might get enough hot weather to solarize soil in Berkeley, but not near the coast.)

To solarize, water the soil thoroughly, then put down one or, even better, two layers of thick, clear plastic. Fasten the sides down with rocks or bricks. If you have to piece the plastic together, use glue intended for that purpose. The minimum area for a good success rate is 6 by 9 feet.

You probably don’t have enough warm weeks left to solarize this fall so will need to wait till next summer to try. (The plant is dormant in winter, giving you some respite.)

Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, is not registered for (meaning not legal to use around) food crops. It can last in soil for up to a year. While it isn’t highly lethal in an acute poisoning sense, it can have many ill effects on your health. If you wish to avoid polluting pesticides, you can select from ones based on soap, citric acid, or strong vinegar and clove oil. Any of these will require several applications to kill this weed.

I do not suggest a flamer, because of fire hazard, but a new tool based on infrared heat is as effective, less of a fire hazard, and considerably more fuel efficient. You can obtain one from Forevergreen Chemical Free Weed Control (www.chemfree-weedcontrol.com, or (604) 534-9326). It’s pricy, at $250 plus shipping, but thereafter will control weeds for about 2 cents per 100 square feet, taking about 1 1/2 seconds per weed. Still, the vendor thinks you’d have to go after the same bindweed plant two or three times, at weekly intervals, to kill it. (By the way, you don’t have to burn up the weeds, just wilt them with the heat.)

Field bindweed identification and control

Field bindweed is a perennial herbaceous plant with creeping and twining stems that grow along the ground and up through other plants and structures. It has an extensive system of rhizomes that can grow deep into the soil. Flowers are bell or funnel-shaped, white to pinkish and approximately 1 inch in diameter. They have 2 small bracts located 1 inch below the flower. Leaves are alternate, more or less arrowhead-shaped and have pointed or blunt lobes at the base. Stems are perennial and deciduous, growing along the ground and twining around and through other plants, to around 6.5 feet in length. It can be confused with another very invasive plant hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium), which has larger flowers with two large leafy bracts right below the flowers and larger leaves. Field bindweed can grow in a wide range of conditions from full sun to full shade and is drought-tolerant. It is found in fields, turf, farmland, and residential areas. It reproduces via roots, rhizomes, and stem fragments, as well as by seeds that persist in soil 20 years or more. It be extremely difficult to eradicate once it is established due to very deep, extensive rhizomes and long-lived seed bank. It is a Class C noxious weed that is not selected for required control in King County. It is widespread in King County. Dense plantings of sod or shade-producing crops can reduce bindweed problems because it is not very competitive under shady conditions.

Also wanted

Hedge bindweed (Convolvulus sepium or Calystegia sepium) (a.k.a. “morning glory”) looks and acts much like field bindweed, but its leaves and flowers are larger. The leaves are also hairless and more arrow-shaped. It is much more common in urban natural areas and backyard gardens. This species is not on the Washington State Weed List, but it is on the King County Weeds of Concern List due to its invasiveness. For photos and distribution information for hedge bindweed, please see the UW Burke Museum website.

Additional information on field bindweed

  • Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board (external link)
  • Bindweed weed alert (Acrobat file)
  • Colorado Department of Agriculture (external link)
  • Invasive Species Council of British Columbia Photo Gallery (external link)
  • University of California IPM (external link)
  • North Dakota State University Extension (external link)

What to do if you find this plant in King County, Washington

Because field bindweed is so widespread, property owners in King County are not required to control it and we are not generally tracking infestations. We can provide advice on how to control field bindweed, but there is generally no legal requirement to do so.

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