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The Good and the Bad of Prickly Thistles

Our garden is the farm's pride and joy. We love spending time in it, and preparing meals out of our fresh produce.

Our farm mainly consists of large fields for pasture and haying. Mixed grass is part of those fields, like alfalfa, timothy, fescue grass, clover, etc. But as nature likes to balance the world out, there are some not-so-welcomed plants residing in our grass lands: stinging nettles, nasty quack grass, wild caraway, buttercups, and thistles. Those annoying, painful-to-touch, and growing-everywhere-you-truly-don't-need-them plants.

thistles

Why We Don't Like Thistles

We don't appreciate patches of thistles for many reasons, as previously mentioned, they are painful to touch but not just that, they also steal sunlight, nutrients, and water from the plants we do want to grow on our farm. These are good reasons for us not to want them in our garden. Just imagine you want to sit down in the grass after a long day of weeding and you get poked in the bum (that never happened to us). This year our scallion (green onion) spot was swarmed with thistles because we were behind with weeding. Needless to say, as soon as we had time, we got rid of every single one of them. Unfortunately, some of our green onions got hit pretty hard by the lack of sunlight and turned yellow instead of a lush green and also stayed quite small.

Animals don't like walking through large patches of thistles for the same reasons we don't, this includes all of our farm residents, as well. Our sheep, donkeys and ponies miss out on grass because thistles made their way to the surface first. And whenever we walk through the fields with our chihuahua trotting behind us, thistles get in her way, and she needs to be rescued.

Our hay fields don't necessarily fall victims to thistles, as the thistle patches are comparatively small to the rest of the space, and nobody walks through them on a regular basis. But that odd hay bale with a large concentration of thistles, can cause bloat in our equines.

Why Thistles Aren't That Bad

Everything has a good and a bad side to it. And while it seems that thistles are very one-sided they do, however, have some positive aspects about them. For once, thistles indicate nutrient rich soil, so wherever you see thistles you can be assured that the ground below is good for your garden project! The one year, we did not end up cleaning one of our sheep folds (don't worry our sheep had somewhere nice and clean to go), and seemingly hundreds of thistles popped out of the ground embracing the mount of sheep manure.

As much as we like having plant diversity on the farm, we probably like animal diversity even more. From our biggest ram to the smallest spider, (almost) everyone is welcome. And where there are animals, there has to be food. Thistles don't just provide food for our livestock, but they also feed insects. The flowers of thistles attract bees, butterflies and more, and on top of that they smell good and look pretty!

thistles

We keep large patches of thistles on more remote areas on the farm, to feed the bees which pollinate our garden and orchard. Another good reason to keep these prickly guys around is that some butterflies lay their eggs on them, so thistle patches can become butterfly nurseries.

How We Control the Thistle Population

Be careful where your hay and straw bales come from! For years we could not figure out why all these thistles appeared in just a few spots on the farm. Was it the pasture management? Was there something wrong with the soil? Why did thousands of seeds randomly blow into those few spaces? Well, eventually we knew that some of the hay and straw we bought was highly concentrated with thistle seeds, and resulted in us having an infestation of thistles where we bale fed our sheep. Luckily, we grow our own hay now and don't have to worry about bringing in unwanted seeds.

thistles

Our livestock prefers to eat grass over thistles, and while a few thistles here and there are eaten by our animals, on the whole they stay untouched. So, basically everywhere on the farm where thistles aren't eaten or otherwise needed, we take out our weed-eater and cut them off. And this works very well, since without leaves the plant cannot make food, and this results in the thistle dying.

In the garden, we are absolutely ruthless with weeds. Whatever is in the way of our strawberries, carrots, greens, peas, and so on, we get rid off! Thistles are no exception. Our hand weeder (pruning shears work well, too) is our trusty friend when it comes to these prickly guys. We cut off the plant right at ground level and eventually they stop coming back.

In the End, We Need to Try and Coexist

In conclusion thistles are still a prickly weed that steal life-giving elements from the plants that are wanted on our farm. But taking in the whole picture you can see, that there are also good aspects to thistles: they feed a vast variety of animals and even help creating life. When you don't want to be flooded with thistles take out your tools and chop them off, and make sure your hay and straw doesn't come with unwelcome visitors. We don't mean to say that you should love thistles, but be OK to live with them around you, as we can live in balance with the prickly sides of nature.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Bellwether Farming

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