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Dealing with Thistles!

 
Roberto pokachinni
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Hi all,

So one of the many things I've been observing on my mostly undeveloped 8 acre meadow, is that I've got some serious patches of Canada Thistle.

For those who are not familiar with this plant it is considered by many a noxious weed, and in my valley the government forces farmers to deal with it, or their lackies will come in with pesticides. This plant grows from spreading rhizomes that are strong enough to pierce into a potato but fragile enough that they are easily broken into multipliers. The plant regularly flowers just past mid summer, and quickly goes to fluffy seed. Seed germinates in any bared soil.

FYI : I'm Zone 3, south by south east-ish facing slope on the west side of the Central Canadian Rockies. The meadow had been used as pasture for various domestic critters, including sheep and horses. Horses in particular have a tendency to pull up grasses and herbs by the roots and have been known to give places for thistles to grow and expand. The field has not been maintained as far as I know since it was cleared and then seeded with pasture grasses a few decades ago. As one might imagine, the soil has eroded down slope, and the meadow is not in the best condition (I guess that goes without saying with a thistle infestation!), and much of the soil has gone into the roadside ditch at the meadow's base, and been washed off into the creek. That said, there is a large diversity of species of plants in the meadow as nature has tried to repair the damage of man with more than just thistles, and some plants were obviously part of the meadow seeding, including alfalfa, vetch and both red and white clover for nitrogen. Timothy, fescues, dandelion, and wild strawberries are also in abundance. I have poplar trees and cottonwoods marching into the meadow from the creek side. I do not yet have a water system or anything on the land, but adjacent to the meadow, just in the forest (I've got 32 acres of forest!) is a small perennial creek that I can gravity feed anywhere in the meadow. I have double the allowable water rights on the creek and only one land owner on the mountain above me. The property above mine is largely forested and undeveloped.

What most people around here do is to mow the thistles down, particularly just as the first flowers come purple out of bud, but before any have gone to seed. I've heard that watering the hollow stocks is a way to kill it by rotting the plant out.

One of my ideas for dealing with the thistles, besides mowing repeatedly with a brush saw or scythe, or sheet mulching on top with cardboard or thick newspaper as barrier, is to utilize the thistles as a perpetual mulch source. But the very idea of prickly mulch is not really fun.

Thistles might be useful once I was ensured it was thoroughly dead to bury it deep in a hugul bed. But I haven't started any beds yet at all.

Another idea I had was to broadcast a large quantity of field peas into the patches as the thistles rise in the spring. The peas will climb the plants, and with their weight bring them down. The end result would be to nourish the soil with nitrogen, and cover the soil with pea straw. It would certainly not eliminate the thistles, but it would be a step in the right direction.

In this regard I was thinking of possibly digging some swales on the contour, say 10 feet apart, sowing peas, and after the peas bring the thistles down, to mow it and rake it into the swale lines and sow peas again. The second crop of peas would not be able to go to full size because of the short season, but would compete with the rising thistles. After the first year, I would sow more of a poly culture. I was also thinking that the berm of the swale could have cardboard under it to prevent most of the thistles from entering it, and even possibly cardboard (weighted by rocks), on top, so that I could just place the thistle and pea rakings under the cardboard to decompose, and begin a sheet mulch.

Anybody have any experience dealing with Thistles? Or comments on my ideas?
 
R Scott
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Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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It is there for a reason--it is a tap-root dynamic accumulator that is there because you are compacted and/or deficient in organic matter or minerals or improper pH. Pick any dynamic accumulating taproot that is more beneficial to your end-goal that can outcompete or succession through. Comfrey, chicory, daikon, etc.
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Cheers Scott,

Yeah, I get that aspect of things; using similar functioning plants to replace. And I'd certainly rather have any of those plants in my yard than the thistles. The comfrey I know where I can find locally where people want to get rid of it. That and the chicory, once I get some (it's on the list), at least are easy to multiply rapidly with small root cuttings. I also love the idea of using daikon and other self seeders, but I'm not as hyped on that as on the ones that can multiply vegetatively, just for the ease of doing it on scale without much cost. I have no money right now, and I have to put it where it will generate income for the land. Comfrey and chicory I think I can market. Really appreciate your input. Thanks.
 
R Scott
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Daikon is cheap for what it does http://www.amazon.com/Organic-Diakon-Radish-Sprouting-Seeds/dp/B0001W2VZE/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1390431856&sr=8-6&keywords=daikon
That is probably the second most expensive way to buy it, other than a seed packet.

These guys sell them for $4/pound in small quantity http://www.greencoverseed.com/seed.htm I went in with a couple friends to split a whole bag, then you are under $3 including shipping.

At commercial farming cover crop rates, they say to use anywhere from 2 to 12 lbs/acre as a monocrop. If you cut that rate because you are sowing into a living polyculture, a little radish seed will go a LONG way.

It is a great food crop for animals or YOU!! Don't underestimate the food value to your family for smaller radishes and leaves. I agree with Ben Falk that you shouldn't dedicate garden space to radishes or turnips, to just harvest them from the surplus of a forage or cover crop.

 
Michael Cox
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Sounds like you need something to eat them for you.

Goats prefer thistle and other scrubby stuff over grass. They would probably at least keep the tops down and limit flowering. Pigs, if fenced in small areas at a time, would dig for the roots and eat them.

Also, remember that you soil will have a lot of thistle seeds in the seed bank - when you start disturbing the soil you may bring fresh seeds to the surface. Something to be aware of.
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
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Yeeeeaah buddy! I'm there for sure. That's cheap seed! And I'm totally there with the idea of building ground with food crops. I know there is going to be some investment in this regard to get things rolling. Turnips and Sunchokes, diakon, and maybe beets too, and other rampant easy growers, can do the favour of feeding me and the soil. Only problem with that idea (and without tall electric fences I don't know what I'll do) but the deer, elk, and maybe the grizzly bears will love that too. I'll check out the second resource you sent, hoping they will send to Canada. Freakin borders anyways! Thanks again, Scott.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Thanks for the reply Michael. I appreciate the advice/warning about the seeds. Yeah, I know. That's one of the reasons I want to get them under a bit of control to stop them from throwing more seeds, and another reason why I was going to cover the ground quickly with cardboard or with a fast grower like field peas. I am planning on doing some major initial excavator work at some point in the next couple years to establish my swale system, my ponds, and possibly a berm between my house site and my orchard site. When that happens, it will be immediately broadcast with fast growing poly-cultures. In order to establish some beds for a garlic crop this year I will be moving some deeper soil up from where it has eroded to closer to the proposed house site. I will be sure to keep the thistle seedlings out as I weed and mulch the little garlic bulbil shoots. I have a community recycling area that I can get lots of cardboard (gotta remove the plastic tape and staples while sitting around the fire at night, but whatever), and the local newspaper "The Rocky Mountain Goat" might be a source of waste for mulch. One or the other of these will likely go under the beds on top of the chop + dropped and dampened meadow sod. Not sure if I can certify organic with those things though, and that's where I'm heading, I think. As for pigs and goats, I might be able to do that with someone else (co-op critters), but I don't have any infrastructure on the land yet. It's feral pasture/woodland. I like your critter ideas, as well as the idea of possibly using cattle to trample and eat in small paddocks where the thistles are. Pigs will root down into the thistles and nip them as they come up, but those thistles go down for a yard sometimes and then go lateral and come up as much as twenty feet away. They are tenacious as... well they're tenacious, let's leave it civil. I have a big task ahead, but I'll try to have fun with it. Thanks again, Michael
 
R Scott
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Roberto pokachinni wrote: I'll check out the second resource you sent, hoping they will send to Canada. Freakin borders anyways! Thanks again, Scott.


D'OH. I read Canadian Rockies, but my mind was still thinking Canadian thistle only.

I know there are cover crop dealers in Canada that deal daikon to organic and conventional farmers, but don't know the names or how to find them. Might not be worth the hassle for 10 lbs. Probably easier to find a sprout source for small amounts.
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
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Cheers. Yeah sometimes in these forums I don't look at where the person is and it can make a huge difference. It's nice to know that the seed might be available cheaper than I thought. I'll look into it in Canada. I'm going to an Agricultural/horticultural conference in Feb so I may hold off until then, and network with the farmers.
 
Kirk Hockin
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Location: Merville, BC
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Hey Roberto!

Did you ever track down a cheap Canadian source of seeds? I'm on Van Isle with an old pasture (I've got thistle patches too) and looking to try overseeding, hopefully I can build soil, establish better plants and eventually transition to food focused silvopasture (pastured pork and nuts and fruit!).

I'd love to find some super cheap seeds...

Cheers!
 
R Scott
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I stumbled across this while looking again: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/resource/covercrp.htm

I bet the whole border thing gets extra weird with seeds. So make sure you are buying 50 lb bags of sprouts--food may be easier than agricultural supplies.
 
Delilah Gill
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For what its worth, Canadian thistles are great for making blow gun darts. They are even sold as a few powwow's in the SE. They need to be harvested just before they open to fly off the chute, tied off with thread or rubber bands and packaged. The seeds are still attached, so they aren't allowed to escape. In the SE we have some bull thistles (coastal regions) as well, but they are usually to big to use for blowgun darts. The thistles make the flower head on the 2nd year of their life, first year is just a rosette.
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
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Hi all,

Kirk, I never did track down cheap Canadian seeds, but if I do, I'll post it on this site.

I've recently decided to go with some combination of comfrey and peas as the plants in the thistle patches, with mowing as the first thistles appear. Or not. I may not mow and just let the comfrey get really established in the first year. I could also go in with a machete or hand brusher and wack the thistles, leaving the comfrey mostly intact. I may not plant the peas until the second year. It's hard to say Those are decisions I'll have to make later this spring and summer.

It's hard to even contemplate any of this as my field is currently under 4 feet of drifted and multi-layered snow and it's 15 below, and getting colder... again. Remarkably the thistles (dead flower stalks) are some of the only plants that are poking out of the snow!

I can get bulk field pea seeds easily locally, and I know people who want to get rid of their comfrey locally. The comfrey divides and multiplies from small cuttings easily. I should be able to cover a large area with it especially because the surface of the vegetative plant is fairly large.

I figure that the deep and extensive roots of the comfrey as well as it's lush vegetative growth will boost the soil fertility and depth at a faster rate than any other plant. I know from experience that excessive mowing will kill both thistles and comfrey, so in the end after a couple years of this work, I will mow and mow again in the areas, until I end up with a mass of biomass, but no living plants, and then I will be able to build my beds. The peas, of course, do as peas do: fix nitrogen and climb up plants, often weighing them down. I figure that this will be the fastest and cheapest method to rehabilitate those areas.

Delilah, Thanks for your interesting aside about blowgun darts! I doubt I will try to export blowgun darts to the SE U.S. though.

 
Kirk Hockin
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Location: Merville, BC
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Roberto (and other Canuck-Permies on a budget),

I've done some digging myself regarding cheap seeds. Here's what I've learned:

* I was unable to find anything online that was substantially cheaper than everywhere else. Seems the market is consistent.

* In an effort to seek out 'low quality' or 'expired' seeds I called West Coast Seeds and spoke to a very helpful gentleman there. He claims their margins on cover crops are so tight, they are selling almost at cost. They are a small enough distributor that they can't store excess seed and try and estimate how much they'll sell in a year. He also suggested that buying a rail car worth of seed quarters the price, so connecting with a farmer ordering seeds by the ton might be a way to find cheap seed (not going to happen on Van Isle).

* I called CFIA and asked about seed importation from the states. No problem as long as you obtain a seed inspection certificate (ostensibly US regulations regarding noxious weeds are less stringent). I doubt that would be worth it for a few acres worth of seed.

So, long story short... buying cheap seed in Canada is out of reach for the small scale operator.

Now... how does one seed save from clover??

In any case I attacked my thistles with a machete last year. Worked pretty well, but I've only got a few small patches.
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
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Hi Kirk,

I've never tried to save clover seed, but that and vetch and alfalfa I would love to collect off my pasture to utilize.

My patches aren't so huge that I can't mechanically brush them, or manually hack them down. That said, the patches are just large enough that it will be a substantial chore. I'd say I have less than a quarter acre total with all the patches. I would rather not JUST hack them down, but would rather nourish the soil, and hopefully deepen the organic structure of the soil, and eliminate the Earth's need for thistles.

I do hope to put in a polyculture of root types at some point, but comfrey, and dandelion are by far the easiest (drop a root cutting into a shallow hole punched in the ground), and cheapest (I may even get paid to remove the comfrey).

If I put a pile of chopped dandelion roots in one of my tree planting bags and a pile of chopped comfrey roots in the other, I could whack a lot of them into the ground in a relatively small amount of time.

Some sprout seeds might be the ticket for the daikon and some other radishes, because-as was mentioned by R Scott-the amount of seed needed in the polyculture is considerably less per acre. Besides if I leave them, they produce a ton of seed themselves. I can buy cylindra beet seed, and swiss chard seed pretty cheap locally by the quarter pound as well. A 22kg sack of sunflower seeds is also quite cheap here.

I guess I'm fortunate that I am in an agricultural valley! If I can just convince the Mennonites across the road to deal with their thistles... then I'd really be getting somewhere.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Hey Kirk,

got this on ehow.com:

Observe the growth of your clover as it progresses throughout the season. As soon as the flowers begin to fade for the season, the seeds will be visible; you want to spot the seeds as soon as possible to guarantee that you collect them at the right time.

2
Pick the clover seeds as they begin to look brown or dry on the stem. Do not pick them while they are still green, because these seeds are not ripe and will not produce good plants.

3
Pinch the stem of the clover between your thumb and index finger and gently pull the seeds off of the stem. Store them in a dry container until you are ready to replant them.



Read more: http://www.ehow.com/how_5579128_collect-clover-seed.html#ixzz2uZfVBKJ0
 
Hester Winterbourne
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Creeping thistle is native here in the UK and classed as injurious weed. This means that if you are on agricultural land and let it set seed onto other agricultural land, you may get a visit from my team leader (who is a very nice chap) asking you to stop it setting seed and advising how to tackle it. The farmers here say "cut in June, cut too soon - cut in July, sure to die". Trouble is cut once it is flowering and it will continue to set seed on the ground, so ideally you need to remove it and burn or compost hot enough to kill the seeds. The other piece of advice we give (apart from herbicides) is not to graze too hard in the autumn as grass left a bit longer is better competition for the stuff and there will be no bare ground for it to seed into.

And that's about all I know 'bout creeping thistle.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Hi Hester,

They call this weed Canada Thistle, but it comes from your neck of the woods.

Similar sort of wisdom around here, without the rhymes. This work is often done in July, but sometimes in August around here. Here in June the green flower buds, if they exist, are often tiny. It is only when they are damn near ready to burst out of the green into those beautiful purple flowers but (except for a few) haven't yet actually shown the globe of petals, that the cutting is done.

Around here, most folks try to cut it as it flowers, but, from what I understand, the wisest cut it just as the first flowers appear.

The majority of the plant's energy has shot up to produce the flower head at this time. The idea is that while the whole crop wants to flower, most of it has only gotten to the stage to produce Very mature flower buds. If only one flower or two has fully developed then it's time to 'harvest' the entire "crop", before it goes to full flower. In this way only the flowers which are developed will go to fluff, but the ones which are not developed will not, and consequently will rot as flowers emerging, without producing seeds, and at the same time the energy of the colony is depleted greatly by the cutting at the peak of it's energetic cycle. This, as well as repeated mowing, throughout the year, have proven effective tactics on getting rid of thistle.

A good rain falling in the exposed hollow stems of the chopped mature plants ensures that the roots rot. Watering in lieu of rain is effective to this end. That's what I understand.

Does that sound about right? Or do you believe that to be effective it actually has to go to seed before mowing?
 
Galadriel Freden
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Here's an article about eating and preparing thistles: http://www.eattheweeds.com/thistle-touch-me-not-but-add-butter-2/. I also read on a different post in this site that thistles are one of the few wild foods which are a net positive as far as calories expended/calories gained: http://www.eattheweeds.com/finding-caloric-staples/.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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cool thanks for making that connection. I agree that they are a wonderful source of nutrients and water, and they have really been given a bad reputation considering all the good that they do. I'm no weed hater by any means. But I like to walk barefoot at least a little and these patches are big. Thistles run great through the juicer, and I love them as a celery substitute, but I seriously have way to many of them to process effectively. I'll check out the info though. Thanks.
 
Cal Burns
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I've got a TON of bull thistle out in my pasture blooming. Have heard about the nutritional benefits, especially from the seed. Have seen thistle sold in the natural foods section. Does anyone know of marketing sources and if it would be worth my time to sell? It's overgrown, and if can't use want to till up and plant cover crop such as clover this fall.
 
Tim Wells
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Here in uk the 1959 countryside act state thistle must be controlled.

I love to let it seed on my pasture with pigs and sheep grazing. The butterflies and other insects love it.

The fluff if harvested and dried is an amazing soft down for a cushion.

The thistles are doing pretty much exactly what comfrey and daikon would do and yo ualready have them.

I till and sheet mulch the thistles in my vegetable beds. Sow into it, but thistles will always out germinate, and you will have to hand weed or tolerate the odd thistle in your polyculture.

Comfrey tends to prefer different spots to thistle, shaded and water, with the nettles, rarely among the thistles on my land.

I would plant trees where the thistles are and chop and drop for mulch.
 
Cal Burns
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There already are about 20 pecan trees out in that pasture. Looking to put a ring of mulch around every tree and keep more moisture, as am in central Texas.
 
Dale Hodgins
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Cj Sloane
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Cal Burns wrote:I've got a TON of bull thistle out in my pasture blooming....It's overgrown, and if can't use want to till up and plant cover crop such as clover this fall.


I think its a bienniel, which is to say, once you see the flowers it's going to die anyway, so I'm not sure if tilling will do much good. I chop and drop. This is an area on ledge so I couldn't till if I wanted to, but I think the roots are helping to aerate what soil there is.
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