white flowers on copious green-leaved vines growing around barbed wire. A call-out as if from one flower head reads "You may win the battle, but you'll never win the war!"

Perils of Gardening While Imaginative

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white flowers on copious green-leaved vines growing around barbed wire. A call-out as if from one flower head reads "You may win the battle, but you'll never win the war!"
Adapted from photo by Penny Mayes / Bindweed  CC BY-SA 2.0

This is bindweed. It’s a vine native to Europe but now fairly ubiquitous across North America. It sometimes goes by the sweet-sounding names of “wild morning glory” or “perennial morning glory,” as if to spin its pervasive immortality into something positive. Unlike the annual morning glory plant, bindweed reproduces both from seeds and from its extensive roots. Pull one up, the root inevitably breaks, and two more grow in its place. It wraps itself securely around any other thing near it, both above and below the ground, within days of sprouting.

It is pure evil in plant form, and has been the bane of my garden for the past 15 years I’ve lived here.

Pull it, burn it, spray it with herbicide—some root remains, deep underground, and it will pop up again. Smother the ground for a full season with cardboard and black plastic, the root just creeps outward, searching for light, and now it’s even more widespread than it was to begin with. When the retaining wall was replaced last fall, I had to dig up and replace most of the dirt in the garden, and I dug out every trace of root I could find, but guess what’s still coming up everywhere now that June has arrived? Why, it’s just a lovely perennial morning glory! The best advice gardening websites will give (besides “sell your house“) is “just keep cutting it down, constantly: eventually the roots will get tired and give up!” But after 15 years, I wonder if that’s just wishful thinking.

I’m a storyteller by nature. I can’t help spinning narratives in my head no matter what I’m doing. When I’m working in the garden, bindweed becomes not merely a pesky plant, but The Enemy. This is war. I’m not weeding, I’m rooting out enemy agents.

It’s so easy to imagine bindweed as The Bad Guys. It’s a hydra: cut off one shoot and two more grow in its place. It’s Hydra, capitalized. It winds itself insidiously through the good plants, choking them out, but you can’t avoid harming the good plants if you try to remove it. And once you think you’ve finally eliminated it, it pops up again somewhere else. I am S.H.I.E.L.D., holding back its endless assault with my high-tech spy weeder and clippers.* Simple and apt metaphor.

But there is some serious psychological warfare going on here. Somehow, instead of being S.H.I.E.L.D., this bindweed has got me thinking I’m the evil Empire, instead. My mind says terrible things to these shoots of living things. “We don’t want your kind here!” Honestly, only bad guys talk about “your kind!” Only bad guys deem an entire species as evil. Only a Sith deals in absolutes! “I will wipe you out. I must leave none behind. No mercy.” I’m talking botanical genocide! How can I possibly be the good guy? “I can’t get rid of this one without uprooting this nice vinca. Oh well, guess I’ll just have to sacrifice it for the cause.” I mean if the vinca had stood up and said, “I volunteer to sacrifice myself for this cause,” that’s one thing, but if it’s me making that call, just to get one more bindweed root out of the dirt, I mean, that’s kind of cruel.

Maybe it’s because I like happy endings, and that dogged rebellion just won’t be suppressed. They must be the underdog good guys, right? Never giving up in the face of a big old Goliath like me, who keeps cutting them down, rooting out their secret bases, ruthlessly tearing them apart again and again? What courage the bindweed has in the face of such atrocity! Of course the Rebellion can only grow, with moral rightness on its side!

And so I doubt myself. And maybe I leave the bindweed around the edge of the garden, where it’s not actively choking anything out. Yet.

They are just plants in a little backyard garden. Weeding should not be a moral dilemma. But each time I go out to face the enemy, that cold heartlessness comes over me. I narrow my eyes and point my sword. “And so we meet again. Prepare to die.”

*No, I just have regular incredibly low-tech tools, but I can pretend.

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