How I’m winning the battle against Canadian Thistle invasion!
Since we moved onto the new place to create our Traditional Catholic Homestead we’ve been engaged in an epic battle of good vs. evil! I’m not referring to some esoteric battle of angels against demons, I’m talking about something far more mundane. Our struggle against the scourge of northern rangeland… the Canadian Thistle! We’ve engaged the fight on multiple fronts from invading patches in the pasture, to full scale occupation of the front yard. That’s right the enemy is literally on the doorstep.
Initially we took up the battle on both fronts, spraying herbicides in the pasture and aggressively mowing the yard. Both techniques proved to be feeble attempts, that didn’t even slow the onslaught. What we ended up with was twisted, and mutated thistles in the pasture that still grew to five feet tall and produced seed… epic fail! In the lawn the result was a thick patch of four inch tall thistles everywhere. These poor results lead me on a quest to determine how to turn the tide in the battle, without endangering the health of my family or the land we depend on to provide nourishment for our bodies. I devised a three pronged approach of selective removal, high mowing/grazing, and loosening the soil.
What I discovered through my research was that the most effective treatments available to counter the thistle invasion were multifaceted. Many recipes for success call for chemical, mechanical, and physical disruption of the plants in order to turn the tide. This three pronged approach proved to be the most prevalent recommendation for control of Canadian thistle. After witnessing the results of spraying the plants I knew that this was not going to happen again. I resolved to come up with a technique to control the thistles without utilizing chemical poisons. Through observation of the property and interacting with the land I came up with my own multi-faceted approach to controlling Canadian thistle.
I noticed that the worst patches, including the front yard, were in areas that had undergone pretty severe disturbance and compaction of the soil, either from the construction of the house or logging operations. This lead me to the conclusion that the Canadian thistle was in fact attempting to heal the land by loosening the compacted soil and adding massive amounts of organic matter to the soil from the plants dying back each year. So this scourge of the range was actually a healing force for good! That’s all nice and well, but I still don’t want them growing in the front yard, and I’d rather have perennial grasses growing on the pasture (Canadian thistle does provide something like an 18% protein source for your livestock if you can convince your animals to look past the pointy leaves and tough stalk). My idea was to hasten the healing of the land that the thistle was trying to accomplish… beat ’em to the punch you might say!
The first stage in the process was to engage in a targeted removal program. I went into the pasture with my scythe and cut individual plants/groves to the ground while selectively leaving behind grasses and brush to compete with the thistles. In the yard the Mother-in-Law went after individual plants by actively digging them from the ground. The idea here is to give the existing plants a competitive advantage in their fight against the thistle.
The second stage was to convince the livestock that Canadian thistle is delicious. I wanted to get the animals onto the specific areas where the thistle was growing. The idea behind this was to increase soil fertility through deposits of manure and urine and some slight trampling of the area (just enough I didn’t want compact the soil though). I accomplished this by planting buckwheat in the thistle patch. This provides a high quality feed for the animals that lures them into the area I want impacted by their presence. The buckwheat grows quickly and competes pretty well with the Canadian thistle. The livestock moved into the area and indiscriminately consumed both buckwheat and thistle alike. Along these same lines I customized my lawn mower so that it would mow the yard bout 5-6 inches high instead of the standard 2-3. This created a similar effect as moving the cattle quickly through the pastured areas. High mowing/grazing gives a competitive advantage to the grass thus replacing thistle through succession.
The final stage is a two pronged approach of aggressive reseeding of desirable plants like clovers, buckwheat, and perennial pasture grasses along with actively loosening the soil via mechanical means. For the yard we purchased a broad-fork. This goes deep into the soil adds oxygen, and breaks up compaction. The broad-fork works well for the yard, but in the pasture I resorted to planting daikon and tillage radish to loosen the soil. Once again the goal here is to provide a competitive advantage to other plants.
To recap the three pronged organic management approach that I’ve come up with to combat Canadian Thistle: 1) Selective removal of plants 2) Graze/mow high 3) Open up the compacted soil. If you engage in all three of these approaches the land will rapidly heal itself and the competitive advantage will be turned from the thistle to the more desirable species like grasses and forbs. This isn’t a quick fix (I’m going into the third season utilizing this approach), but you will see incremental results ( I have), and in the long term the land and the environment are going to be far more productive. This approach is more of a holistic cure for the problem of the disturbed/damaged land vs. the symptomatic treatment of killing the Canadian thistle. Curing the underlying problem rather than treating the symptoms.