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Canadian Thistle -- is it beneficial?

 
Diane Murray
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Welcome, Dave. I expect that we'll be "seeing" a lot of you on the Permies website. I'm totally new to permaculture but feel very excited by all the things I'm reading here...would love to attend your workshop in Montana and learn first hand. Here's my question: I would sure like to know how to use my bountiful supply of Canadian Thistle. It seems to have a taproot so I suppose it might have some benefits similar to dandelion. But the thorny beauty is a bit off-putting with all the prickly parts. Does thistle have a place in a forest garden? If no, what's the best way to eliminate it so something else can have the space? Get a goat? (Do goats fit in a forest garden?)
 
Dave Jacke
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Diane,

Yes CAnadian thistle is beneficial, of course! Especially to itself! Beyond that, I am sure Canadian thistle has plenty of uses and value in ecosystems. It helps heal land by keeping people and livestock off it, for one thing! I'm sure its tap root is quite good for loosening and building soil. It has its community niches to fill, its services to the system to do. You can either let it do them and deal, or work out what its services are, perform them yourself and make it unnecessary for the system to be healthy. I suggest doing a good thorough niche analysis of the thistle to see what you can find out about it. Start with the Fire Effects Info System http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/index.html and see if it is in their database. POke arounda bit and accumulate all the data you can on it. That will help you learn how to work with or around it.

I do not own goats, so I do not know if they will eat this species. I'll let someone else answer that question, though my guess is that at least one breed will do so under the right conditions.

To eliminate--test soil and correct mineral imbalances, number one. Two: dig pits and see if there are restrictive horizons the thistle is helping to break up. Then work out how to break them up yourself. Three, do a comprehensive site analysis and assessment and work out a comprehensive site preparation plan that will deal with all the issues you face there, including the thistle.

In a project I am involved in we invented a great new technique for hard to kill species. We sheet mulch with cardboard, very dense cardboard coverage, really careful overlaps and covering ALL holes. We pin the cardboard down with metal earth staples. Then we lay either jute mesh or coconut fiber mesh over the cardboard and pin that down. Then we leave it for at least two years! The mesh holds the cardboard down, makes it look decent from a distance, and ALLOWS THE CARDBOARD TO DRY OUT. By doing this the cardboard can cover the ground completely for two or more years without decomposing, and shade out all our problem species. Then we can plant through the cardboard, sheet mulch with wood chips or whatever over it, and the whole thing turns to soil. It has worked well so far with our problem species, crown vetch. It may work for you.

You may need some deep ripping to break up hard pan. You can also try composting the thistle and applying the compost to the soil. Or you can throw the thistle into a barrel of water, let it rot, then water things with that--this can help spread around the minerals the thistle is pulling up, help it do its job, while also killing the thistle plants.

Enough said for now, I have to go. this post feels incomplete to me, but I hope it helps.

Blessed be!

d
 
Diane Murray
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Thank you, Dave. That is not only helpful...I'm now having a "duh" moment because I've already been doing something similar.

As an absentee landowner, I acquired a small acreage that once was a sheep farm (probably 60 years ago) and is rumored to have been a strawberry farm (there are no living witnesses). The woodlot had been almost entirely stripped of large conifers; alder filled in densely where the forest was cut down. Part of the land remained as low-grade pasture which is gradually filling in with wild rose and thistle (hence my question). There was a small apple orchard, dreadfully neglected, which I'm now learning how to prune. In back of the house there was about 100 sf raised garden beds fenced in and overgrown to jungle stage.

I moved to the land full time six years ago without ambition to be a farmer or gardener...simply wanting a quiet life in a kind of private park if you will. There was no gardening whatsoever in my family culture but it seemed such a waste to have all this room for a garden and not use it.

Managing the whole acreage felt overwhelming so four years ago I fenced a back yard 100 x 100 ft to keep out the deer. I'm not physically strong enough to till and turn soil with a shovel but someone had told me about "lasagna gardening." So, one area at a time, I started using cardboard and a thick layer of oat straw as sheet mulch to kill grass so it could be converted to grow veggies. Where I wanted pathways I laid down overlapping burlap coffee bags and covered them with wood chips. Do burlap bags equal jute mesh?

The two year period you mention jibes with my experience in the "stage one" conversion of lawn to soil. However, with the method I was taught, the cardboard disintegrates because the straw traps moisture. I was told that it was desirable for the cardboard to disappear -- eaten by worms that are attracted to the glue in the cardboard. After about two years there was no trace of cardboard OR lawn under the straw but it was alive with worms. I began amending with compost and planting food crops. I've heard that decent garden soil can be built in about four years with the right combination of compost, green mulch, crop rotation and resting.

Once I got my first area under active cultivation, I expanded with cardboard and straw to adjacent plots and let that start working with the ultimate aim of replacing all the grass with veggie garden and flowers & shrubs for bees, birds, butterflies. I have only been growing veggies for two seasons and now "suddenly" (to me) the word permaculture popped up on a gardening website I was reading. It is a totally new concept and forest gardening is even more exciting. Wow -- major eye openers. After reading some of the other posts here at Permies I'm beginning to realize that so much more can be done compared to my original vision.

Thank you for giving consideration to my question -- I was about to delete the question as too trivial when I saw that you'd replied.
 
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