Keith and I planted our first garden the year before we married. We saw it as a sort of compatibility test, an opportunity to prove that if we planned carefully and worked collaboratively, of course we could turn a 40’-by-80’ rectangle of sod into a paradise of everything we loved to eat—asparagus, tomatoes, basil, garlic, super sweet corn, meaty green beans, sugar snap peas, zucchini, zephyr squash, and a profusion of peppers: red, yellow, and purple; sweet, hot, and crying hot. We also had a division of labor: because Keith can wrangle our big old tiller, plow the straightest lines, and sow seeds to a perfect depth, these chores were his. Because I can spot a white fly a mile away and am a patient picker of produce, these were mine. Weeding, however, was a joint endeavor. The first year, from late April to the end of September, we were in the garden from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, tilling, raking, planting, picking, weeding, and protecting our little patch of Eden.
We also talked. We learned that we both had been reared by mothers who had raised a hundred tomato plants in one season, and that we both had been paid a dime apiece to pick off tomato hornworms, (though Keith confessed to returning some to his jar unsquished so that he could count them again). We haggled over whether we should plant some of the tomatoes alongside the asparagus bed, already mulched and offering some shade in the late afternoon. We took time to listen to the mockingbird in the cherry tree sing a dozen different songs. We took time to share salty kisses at the end of a hoed row.
We didn’t say this out loud, but our garden became the workbook in which we erased all the mistakes of previous relationships: We communicated. We compromised. We worked hard. We had fun. And a year after we planted our first garden, we married.
Convolvulus–i.e., bindweed—appeared in our garden in Year Two, probably as renegade seed in straw we’d used to mulch a nearby strawberry bed. We knew it on sight, a deceptively fragilelooking vine that was using my sage for a trellis. But we did not take it seriously at first. It was just another weed, no match for a weekly whack with a hoe.
Except that, from time to time, our jobs, family, and vacations intervened, and whole weeks escaped. As a result, by the end of Year Two, a belt of bindweed encircled our garden. By Year Three, it had crept into the south end, garroting the herbs in its merciless climb. By Year Four, hungry for altitude, it ventured north to the sweet corn and sunflowers. By Year Five, it had so insidiously infiltrated the strawberry bed that it bound the berries to the earth in a net that ultimately suffocated them.
Bindweed is Eurasian in origin, a plant Renaissance herbalists called “wythwynde” for its habit of twining “wyth” other plants in its counterclockwise ascent. Sometime in the eighteenth century, it made its way to North America the way vegetative interlopers usually do, as seeds in the digestive tracts of birds or in stores of grain. Its spade-shaped leaves snake alternately up its vining stems. Its flowers are trumpet-shaped, small, white-to-pink.
A double root system makes it nearly impossible to eradicate: Bindweed has a vertical tap root that may reach depths of 30 feet, while lateral roots as long as ten feet eventually grow downward and produce stem-like rhizomes that establish leafy crowns on the surface. A single plant can produce as many as 25 crowns and in this way occupy a space nearly 20 feet in diameter. Today bindweed is one of North America’s top ten noxious weeds, right up there with thistle, kudzu, and multiflora rose.
At first, Keith and I made the mistake of tilling under what the weeds strangled. But bindweed loves raw earth, the more fertile the better. It is compelled to recover vacant ground, to sew its edges shut with green thread. We finally came to understand we were walking over a sleeping giant. With every whack of the hoe we imagined it regenerating fleshy, subterranean tentacles that, long after we were asleep, prodded up through the surface of the soil, reaching hungrily for the moon.
A typical bindweed season goes like this: Spring comes early, and we are able to put out the cool-weather vegetables we are often denied: lettuce, radishes, sugar snap peas. Then the temperature soars. For three weeks, we carry water to the garden in five-gallon buckets. We make dust clouds with our hoes, though in truth, nothing—neither basil nor crabgrass nor bindweed–is growing.
And then it rains … steadily … for two weeks.
By the time it is dry enough for us to set foot in our garden, it has been consumed again by a vast convolvular bloom. Every year we are stunned, the way people must be when they find themselves sitting in the middle of a whelping elk herd just after their ski lift breaks. All that bare earth between the rows is once again as lushly green as a 70s shag carpet. Bindweed pins the tomatoes to their cages and strangles the Kentucky Wonders on their trellises.
Short of spraying the weeds with chemicals–which we will not do—we have little recourse. Whack, the garden specialists say, and then compost and cover with impenetrable black plastic. But don’t expect miracles.
All we want is a little basil in our tomato soup. And so year after year, we keep watch, amputating each wiry little green arm with our terrier fingers and shining silver hoes.
It won’t be long before our green beans come on, thick, meaty Romas grown from seeds handed down for generations among members of Keith’s family. I am fortunate to be part of this history of planting and weeding and reaping and eating and saving just enough beans for the next garden. So when I notice that the remnants of our very first belt of bindweed have reappeared in the beans along the western edge the garden, I head back to the shed to get my hoe.
Perhaps because Keith and I have a shared history with bindweed, (Both of our mothers called it “wild morning glory”), we can view it as a minor, though tenacious, inconvenience. Here at the Perry Farm, we whack our bindweed using hundred-year-old hoes kept for this purpose, their wooden handles smooth as marble, their blades worn smaller but kept clean and sharp, good for work close to the vegetables we’re trying to protect.
I wave to Keith. He joins me at the opposite end of the garden, our twentieth.
We are ready to begin again. ❖