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Weeds are a state of mind

April 16, 2010

ETA:  The book I mention in the post, Weeds and Why They Grow, is not a photo ID book for weeds, rather a fairly comprehensive trouble shooting set of tables explaining what soil types and conditions favor common farm and garden weeds.  A good photo ID book for the West is:  Weeds of the West. The main difference is WAWTG gives you a clue on how to change your soil conditions to make your soil less hospitable to weeds that are causing you problems, WOTW has good photos and is a good reference.  Sorry I have no recommendations a similar photo ID book for the East.

I spend a lot of time studying weeds, but I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about them.  Some are poisonous, some I am glad to see, and others are just annoying.  I do not fear them like the Ortho guys want you to, I co-exist with most of them, and sigh about the ones I can’t control.

Bull Thistle.

All weeds will tell you what you need to know about your soil.  A good book on the subject is Weeds and Why They Grow, by Jay McCaman. This book doesn’t list every weed, for every growing locale, but I think it is important because what it represents is a mindset that needs to be addressed more by gardeners and farmers.  Weeds will go away with proper management.  (And with management I don’t mean chemical spraying.)   Or you can learn to read them so you have less fear or hatred towards them.  A thistle going to seed on your neighbors place will not necessarily take hold in your soil conditions, no matter how many seeds come your way – but then again they may if you have the same soil conditions as your neighbor.  A neighbor down the road was always tsk, tsking about her neighbor “allowing” his oxeye daisies to go to seed and blow over on her place.  She never took it into consideration that she was just as poor a pasture manager as he was.  He was legally blind, and very gauche totally old school.  She was very educated and her husband was a soil scientist after all.  Funny thing is, is that she is upwind of his pasture – I doubt the seeds were blowing into her pasture.  She had daisies and wild carrot because her land was depleted.  Since she was convinced it was her neighbors poor land practices that brought in the weeds, she didn’t bother to really pay attention to what was going on with her soils.

Tansy Ragwort.

People love to hate weeds.  Just like bell bottoms and platform shoes, weed hating goes in and out of fashion.  When I was growing up in the 60’s, tansy ragwort was the weed to eradicate.  A threat to the livestock industry and an interloper from Europe, it was basically against the law to have it on your place.  If you didn’t pull it or put chemicals on it, the county would do it for you and charge you.  No one could afford to pay the county guy to do that – so, many teenagers found summer employment pulling tansy.  My dad hired a rosy cheeked teenager to pull ours one summer, and I swear I annoyed the heck out of him following him around.  I would fill my pocket with dog food to snack on…and pester that poor guy until he sent me home.  He wasn’t as much fun as the boys my dad hired to buck bales.  And they were much cuter too, I never would have dreamed of eating dog food in front of them 😉  So I grew up hating tansy, mostly because we all hated to hear the tansy patrol guy’s old 53′ Chev idling along.  In later years IPM became the rage and Cinnabar moths and ragwort flea beetles were employed as a non-chemical control.  I unlearned my hatred for tansy.  It will never really go away since the seeds are viable for decades, but I learned that just by changing from over-grazed continuous grazing to rotational grazing, the tansy just about disappeared in two seasons.  Tansy like  most weeds likes certain conditions, by making my pasture stronger the tansy has a hard time getting a foothold.

While tansy ragwort Senecio jacobea is poisonous, cattle and horses won’t eat it unless it is present in hay in dried form.  They do find it palatable when dried and will ingest it along with their hay.  So we make sure none finds its way into the hay.  A cumulative poison, it takes actually quite bit of tansy to kill a cow – that being said we still try to make sure we do not bale any.  Cinnabar moths haven’t really been able to make a foothold here, so we pull any plants we find where we cut hay, and I look for any rosettes after the cows leave a paddock.  A simple chop with the hoe takes care of that.  Or since sheep can graze the plant without harm, sheep are definitely a worthy tool if you have a tansy infestation.
Staggerweed, Delphinium trollifolium
Some weeds are drop dead poison though, poison Delphinium is one of them.  Cattle will readily graze these in the spring if allowed access to the forest.  Luckily where ours grows it is easy to fence out, it doesn’t really spread.  But it can kill quickly, causing livestock to blindly stagger and die.  If they don’t eat too much, you can keep them moving to relieve the bloat and get them over it, but sometimes it is a losing proposition.

One time my girlfriend got a frantic call from a guy who was helping out on a small farm – he was alone and had a cow down that was having trouble calving, could she come quick?  She came and got me and we drove to his pasture, and the cattle attacked us since we had a few bales of hay in the pickup for her horses.  They were hungry!  He asked why they acted like that and we asked how much they were fed each day – sadly he was instructed to give the 10 head two 50# bales a day!  All winter!  That may have been enough for 2 cows not 10…so with that out of the way we proceeded to walk to the down cow to see just what was going on.  This poor guy was frantic, he couldn’t see anything coming out and he just knew the calf was stuck.  As we got closer, my girlfriend and I exchanged glances and that worried him even more –  we could hardly stifle our laughter, because after all a difficult birth is a trial.  ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE A STEER!   But all laughter aside, we instantly knew that with the poor fencing that steer had probably gotten into the woods and eaten the staggerweed.  When the guy went out to feed them, this steer had come from the woods and that is probably what kept him from eating his fill of the larkspur.  We got him up and chased him for about an hour until the bloat had subsided.  We showed the hired man the weed, and he went straight away to fix fence.

Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea
Weeds are funny things though, foxglove is poisonous and is all around, but nothing touches it.  No worries there.  It just goes to show that careful observation is more important than solely relying on a poisonous plant list.  Many plants are poisonous but if an animal won’t touch it, it’s not worth worrying about.

Buttercup or Ranunculus.

Sometimes like the tansy, certain animals are immune to the poison or will only eat a part that is less poisonous.  We have a few spots around the barnyard, (poorly drained, compacted soil) that buttercup grows, cows graze it a little, the horse never, and when we pastured some pigs near a patch they rooted it up and several died, the ones that didn’t were very sick.  Lesson learned there.


Yesterday when I went to photograph this tansy in the orchard for this post, I was surprised to see it had been nibbled.  But then I remembered the sheep had discovered I had left the fence off and they had gotten out.  Funny, with free rein they chose to nibble the tansy.  Amazing thing – observation.

Curly Dock, Rumex crispus.

After living with all these weeds and watching them, I think sometimes we misinterpret what we see.  Dock grows here only in places where we really have trashed the soil – the usual high traffic farm areas:  driveways, barnyard or once in a while in the new garden in a place that used to be a camp-out spot for the cows.  It’s been my observation here on the farm, that areas that are mistreated take forever to recover, if at all.  Something will always grow in these trashed spots, and the weeds are just trying to fix the soil conditions.   The ground may green up if it is pasture, or vegetables may do OK in the garden but if you look closely the transgression is still visible.  Out of curiosity I looked up Dock to see what conditions it grew in.  Disturbed places is what came up time and again.  But usually written in such a way to evoke images of freshly turned soil, not soil that was disturbed in such a way to render it poor draining, and heavy.

Depending on who you ask, weeds are to be dealt with.  A monoculture lawnist will declare war on clover and dandelions, or even people with grazing animals will recommend spraying a particular weed instead of trying to change the conditions that make it possible for the weed to survive.  Remember spraying will only get rid of the plant that you see, if you don’t change your soil conditions the weeds will persist.  Although sometimes the plant is too invasive to do much about, for instance in our area Himalayan blackberries are the bane of everyone’s existence, including mine.  No amount of blackberry syrup or cobbler will change my feelings for this aggressive ogre.  When I was a kid they hadn’t moved this far up the mountain and we had no idea how fast they would spread.  We just dealt with mild mannered Evergreen and Trailing blackberries.

Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata

I spoke earlier of weeds being in fashion, depending on what the perception of their damage was.  Agriculture is no longer as important as recreation in these parts, so tansy is out and garlic mustard is in.  The Conservation guys are hot and heavy on eradicating this plant that is a new arrival here, for fear that it is going to over-take tender woodland natives.  Most landowners around here are pretty apathetic about it, and others spend days pulling it on federal and state lands to protect the hikers sensibilities.  I fall somewhere in between, I have no desire to eat it since it only grows here on the roadside, and I also have no desire to have county road department spraying it either.  So I pull it when I see it.  I find it interesting that 40 years ago, the county employees could sniff out a tansy plant, nowadays they walk right by one and point to the garlic mustard.  Sigh.  And I didn’t even touch on garden weeds…

Do you have any weeds that caused you grief or have taught you something?

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 12:11 pm

    We have Canadian thistles on the front hillside, but only on the strip that the deep subsoil was disturbed when they put in the drainage pipe (15 years ago). We have curly dock in the back since one of the previous owners drove around the backyard all the time (hence raised beds for gardening).

    We have tons of garlic mustard growing in the back of our lot, we eat it – YUM. The first year plants are really great in salads (pretty too) the second year plants (shown above) are also good in salads, but also good sauteed. I’m considering trying to harvest the seeds to use in cooking as well. It’s a pretty hardy winter green, so it can be harvested very early for salads without any protection. Too bad the deer don’t eat it instead of my blueberries!

  2. April 16, 2010 1:35 pm

    We’ve got a bit of a creeping buttercup problem in our pasture. It grows, and spreads, in the wettest parts that have been compacted over time by equipment and animals. It predates us and we’re slowly working to reduce it. Last year we did some major pasture work to remove wild cherry trees and vine maples that were relentlessly spreading and then harrowed, dragged and seeded pasture grasses. This fall, once the new grass is well established we’ll be spreading lime on the Conservation District’s advice. Finally, we’ve got electric tape up to cross-fence the horse pasture and keep them off of the low wet spots until the dry out to try to minimize additional compaction and damage on the buttercup infested areas.

  3. April 16, 2010 1:46 pm

    Good question. As a transplant to the midwest from central valley of CA, confronting “pigweed” (spiny Amaranth) as a force of nature was something new. If you walk across a pasture and kick over a clod there will be a 3′ tall weed growing there tomorrow! It absolutely defeated our first garden effort here and we’ve been gardening a long while.

    Not only is it very hardy growing from seed, defeating all but the thickest mulch, it harbors cucumber and some other viruses.

    OTOH I discovered quite by accident flea beetles really like it so it can divert their attention until tomato seedlings get tall enough to withstand them. If you were hard up I’m sure it’s leaves are as edible as any Amaranth and probably the seeds too – but it is named Spinosa (?) for a reason.

    We haven’t had a problem with it in our fescue/clover pastures but one year we had a hard freeze right about this time that knocked back the alfalfa and fescue both and I was out with a shovel all summer chopping it and thistle. Most years, since it germinates after the fescue is already up and growing it’s only bad on bare soil. It’s waiting though, feed hay in the pasture over winter, damage the sod at the wrong time, cut it too short, overgraze etc and it’s over your head – there is a seed bank enough for a thousand years just an inch down…

  4. April 16, 2010 2:02 pm

    Thank you for this post. Very informative. I’m still learning my weeds, and with this being our first year of trying MIG, I look forward to seeing them disappear over time as the condition of our pasture improves.

  5. michelle permalink
    April 16, 2010 2:19 pm

    i’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- i wish I could follow you around all day long, but enough of that… great post! I actually love weeds. I think their pretty (mostly) and vigorous growers, oh and my kids can pick em all day long and I don’t care. I will be checking out the book you mentioned to learn more about the weeds growing in my yard and what they mean!

  6. April 16, 2010 2:29 pm

    Stinking chamomile is the bane of my existence. It is the evil twin of the the lovely german chamomile. I have a horrible allergy to the weed’s caustic leaves, stems, flowers, everything. I end up with red welts and blisters that make me wake up in the middle of the night trying to scratch the flesh from my legs and wrists. I usually end up taking a low dose of prednisone for a month or two in the summer because of this weed. Ironically, because of this weed, I could not go cut the thistles that our local weed commissioner dictates be removed (farmers don’t like them), so it caused lots of issues for me. It is really the only weed I personally have any strong feelings about.

  7. April 16, 2010 5:15 pm

    Actually, I have learned a lot here because I don’t know what these weeds are besides the dandelion and thistles. Dandelions I live with because the flowers are good for the bees, and come next spring I’ll be eating a lot of them. I do run around and pull the seed heads off though, because there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. I think the weed I’m pulling all the time is chickweed, but I’m not really sure. I was actually wondering: if I took pictures of the stuff I can’t identify and sent them to you, would you identify them for me?

    • April 16, 2010 5:16 pm

      …oh and I’ve read the time to pull the thistles is when they flower because they’re supposed to be the weakest then, but I don’t know how true that is….

    • April 16, 2010 7:52 pm

      Paula, sure send them on – and yes cutting the thistles at bloom really weakens them. I think Canadian thistle has the sweetest scent of all the weeds, but I am in love with the bull thistle bloom 😀 My bad.

      • April 18, 2010 6:31 am

        I love all the flowers and butterflies attracted to thistles, but we have an ever watchful weed commissioner that thinks our state bird, the eastern goldfinch, should go elsewhere to eat their favorite food. By the way, geese are great at eating the roots of the Canadian thistle and getting rid of them.

  8. April 16, 2010 7:44 pm

    I’m like you I find some just annoying for the most part…….portulaca is my most annoying. We really don’t have any that are poisonous other that death kamis (sp) but it only bothers anything if the ground is wet and soft and a cow might pull a bulb up and eat it with something else. Wild onions (not really a week) used to make the milk cows mild undrinkable though….I just can’t abide onion tasting milk 😉

  9. April 16, 2010 9:31 pm

    When we moved into this place, the most noticeable “weed” was good ol’ poke. The biggest poke plants I’ve ever seen! Here’s a sample photo if you care to look:

    http://public.fotki.com/Loraan/2009/knox-house/knoxville-jungle/imgp0248-jpg.html

    We did our best to eradicate it from the field where the pigs are kept because we know the root is particularly poisonous. That being said, there’s no way we’re going to be better than pigs at finding those big tap-roots in the earth, and we hope they’ve got better things to do than eat what they find. We planted lots of other delicious stuff in the field to hopefully keep them occupied.

    There is a spiny-leafed plant growing in my side yard that has these absolutely hellacious 1/4″ long points on the tips of the leaf. I started out hoeing it up when I saw it, but when spring came, there was just a carpet of it, and I knew it was hopeless. Barefoot in that yard? Forget it. Someday, I will take the time to identify it and figure out how to get rid of it, but until then, I just wear shoes.

  10. April 16, 2010 10:46 pm

    It’s bindweed here in the UK; the stuff is so pervasive it’s banned to even grow it – it’s pretty but it’s everywhere and nearly impossible to banish. However, if you put the bindweed you pull up into a plastic bag in the sun, it breaks down to a somewhat smelly but highly nutritious brew which really gives one’s soil a boost. It’s what I do with the stuff in my back garden and I just distill the resultant goo down as a liquid feed.

  11. April 17, 2010 8:39 am

    Burdock and bull thistle!

  12. Magpie permalink
    April 17, 2010 11:40 am

    He he, here in New Zealand, what you call Canadian Thistles, we call Californian thistles, and we have masses of them. Those and the Scotch (maybe your Bull?) thistles, and the worst of all, gorse. Basically anything that tries to stab you, we have it. 😦

  13. April 17, 2010 1:18 pm

    I appreciate you comment today.

    So sorry that your husband suffers with this terrible disease. It is such a strange illness, to feel allergic to so much of the food you eat. Miserable. I CANNOT IMAGINE going that long undiagnosed! I’m sure that the high-quailty food you all produce was absolutely the reason he wasn’t any sicker. This is the second year we’ll have a vegetable garden, we just purchased 18 chicks, and hope to raise livestock some day. The wisdom you share on your blog is invaluable to me.

    A turning point for me was reading the book Nourishing Traditions. I find I can eat many more foods now without having flare-ups. I soak my grains, and use organic where possible. Preparing foods the traditional way has changed my life! Just before changing my diet, I spent 5 days in the hospital and received 4 1/2 units of blood. I was determined to never have that happen again, if I could help it. I’m happy to report that I haven’t had to be admitted to the hospital (due to Crohn’s) since that awful time. I take vitamins daily now. Calcium and B vitamins are especially important for me, as I am now having trouble with my bones due to the lack of absorption. I hope your DH is able to avoid that.

  14. Tree permalink
    April 17, 2010 3:00 pm

    Bermudagrass! I am going to start new asparagus beds next year because of it. Another good thing to know is the lifecycle of the weed – winter annual, like chickweed, summer annual, like lambsquarter, biennial like the thistles, or perennial like my wonderful bermuda grass, which will live forever.

  15. April 18, 2010 2:43 pm

    Wow, came here to catch up on all the good posts and weeds seem to be the subject du jour! I’m woefully ignorant on identifying a lot of the plants we have all around growing wild, so am trying to learn some of them as well as see if any of them can be utilized as medicinals or food. Bermuda is the bane of any of our gardening efforts down here, but we just found out even it has traditional uses (besides being an herbal provocation for cussing fits, ha) This post of yours is great. You have more knowledge about your place than I probably ever will about mine…love to learn from you every time, Nita 🙂

  16. April 19, 2010 12:44 pm

    I have to confess that I think bull thistles are beautiful when they bloom and I’ve got many a picture of them! We have one that occasionally pops up in the yard and I dig it out cuz I don’t want to step on it in my bare feet. When I was a kid jimson weed was terrible and it always seemed to grow thick and heavy whereever pigs used to be. Horse weeds (I think that’s actually ragweed) were rampant here when we bought this place but since we are “do-er’s) we haven’t seen it since the first year we were here.

    It is a testament to the awesomness of our God that the better you take care of the land, the less problems you have with it. If you get your garden soil “right” with manure and such, then you don’t have any trouble with bugs and such. It’s a pretty neat eco-system our Lord has provides us! 🙂

    • April 19, 2010 12:47 pm

      Oh yeah…….I forgot to mention honeysuckle……….that stuff is terrible and when we bought this place it had totally taken over the ditch that runs through our property, and was doing it’s best to choke out every tree growing along the ditch! It’s pretty, and it smells good, but it’s a devil of a plant!

  17. Robin permalink
    April 21, 2010 2:58 am

    I recently visited two farms with a soil scientist. He was able to tell us how to amend our soil to take care of dock, thistle and other weeds we fight with. Our answer is fairly simple – lots of calcium will take care of most of the weeds. It was a day well spent. He highly recommended Weeds and Why They Grow.

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