If you have a large yard, or if you live in a rural area, thistles can be a pretty common issue. Here are my favourite, most effective and practical ways to deal with thistles in your garden and on your property.
We live on a 1.5 acre property that is basically open to the elements on all sides, except for a line of trees along one side of the house that acts as a wind-break. We have a creek running along one side of the property that is just full of all kinds of native plants and wildflowers, but other than that we’re surrounded by farmers’ fields on every side. It’s pretty much a worst-case-scenario when it comes to weeds because we have all the natural plants (aka weeds) going to seed on the banks of the creek, and all the wind coming off of the fields to blow them right into our veggie patch and our flower gardens. Of course, one of the strongest, most abundantly growing weeds is the thistle so we’ve kind of naturally become experts at how to deal with thistles out of pure necessity. 🙂
How to Deal with Thistles: The Hard Part
I have a little bit of tough love to dish out right now and you’re not going to like it if you’ve been hoping for an easy way to totally eradicate the thistles in your yard.
You are not going to win this one.
Even if you try all kinds of crazy harsh chemicals to kill them (don’t), they’ll still come back, and you’ll just have to end up having to use even more harsh chemicals to keep them down. The end result: You’ll end up very sick and you’ll still have thistles. Those things are strong! The real solution here is to put down the glyphosate and learn with live with your thistles. It can be done! Easily done!
First of all, I realized a few years ago that the thistles growing along our creek are actually quite beautiful when they’re in full bloom with their bright purple flowers. If you have an area of your property that you don’t need to actively walk through, I highly suggest taking a deep breath and just letting them grow and do their thing. Bees love them as well and we definitely need to do everything we can to support our bee population!
How to Keep Thistles Down in Large Open Areas
If you have large open sections of your property that tend to get taken over by thistles, there’s a pretty easy and effective solution that you can employ to make that area both useable and thistle-free: Plant a lawn and mow it. There. Done.
It seems overly simple, but this method is incredibly effective. Your “lawn” definitely doesn’t have to be a perfect 100% grass work of art. Feel free to scatter some grass seed, but also allow other plants like dandelions and clover to naturally set up shop there as well. Keep the whole thing cut just as you would any other lawn and soon you’ll have a nice, soft grassy-isa area to run through, and barely a thistle in sight.
Despite how strong thistles get as they get larger and more established, they’re actually quite delicate when they’re little seedlings and they’re easily suffocated by grasses and other plants, especially when they’re constantly being cut down.
It may seem like a lot of work to have to cut a lawn every week (or several times a week like we do), but it’s actually the quickest, easiest, safest way to deal with thistles and create a useable, thistle-free space.
How to Deal with Thistles in Your Garden
If you have a lot of open dirt in your garden and wind to bring in thistle seeds, then you’ll probably end up with thistles in your garden. We almost always have them! The good news is that they’re super easy to pull as long as you get them before they’re 12 inches tall or so. Once they get to be taller than that, I find it’s kind of like trying to pull a tree out of the ground and you really need to use a shovel to dig them up, which can be a pain.
To pull a thistle and its whole root out of the ground, go out to your garden after it has rained, or just after you’ve watered everything. This is the best time because the ground will be soft and the roots will release more easily. Put on some good garden gloves with a protective coating on the palm so you don’t get spiked and pull away! Telling you to just pull your weeds might sound like I’m asking you to do something that you don’t have time for, but you really only need to pull your thistles every two to three weeks-ish to keep them manageable. So it’s really not a lot. It’s not as hard as we make it out to be in our minds.
I’ve let my garden get out of control many times over the years because I thought I just didn’t have the time I needed to deal with the weeds properly. I’ve since learned that a few minutes here and there will do the trick, and even if I let the garden go unweeded for a couple of weeks, it’s nothing I can’t fix in an hour or so if I just get out there and do it. 🙂
Combine the Two for Complete Thistle Freedom!
Another really great way to deal with thistles is to actually grow a lawn within your garden! We have a grass path down the centre of our garden and while we get thistles growing in the more open areas, we don’t get them at all down the centre path. The key is to only have open soil in areas where you’ll actually be growing things, and to create cut-able lawn areas in between wherever you’ll be wanting to walk. Of course, the less open dirt you have, the fewer thistles you’ll have so the goal is to fill the whole garden up. Try to fill your planting beds as much as possible with flowers and veggies while covering every other area in grass/dandelions/whatever and you’ll wonder how you ever gave thistles a second thought!
What have you done to keep thistles down on your property?
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Courtenay Hartford is the author of creeklinehouse.com, a blog based on her adventures renovating a 120-year-old farmhouse in rural Ontario, Canada. On her blog, Courtenay shares interior design tips based on her own farmhouse and her work as founder and stylist of the interior photography firm Art & Spaces. She also writes about her farmhouse garden, plant-based recipes, family travel, and homekeeping best practices. Courtenay is the author of the book The Cleaning Ninja and has been featured in numerous magazines including Country Sampler Farmhouse Style, Better Homes and Gardens, Parents Magazine, Real Simple, and Our Homes.