Get a bunch of ex-farm boys together, especially in a bar, and the talk will inevitably turn to weeds. Weeds are a memorable part of our growing up years, and if we are crazy enough to still be farming or gardening, ditto. The conversation will go something like this:

“That new monster they call horseweed is the worst yet. If you want to make it grow really fast, spray it with Roundup.”

“Oh, come on. No weed can be as bad as Canada thistle. You couldn’t kill it with a nuclear bomb.”

“No, no. The worst is giant ragweed. I’ve seen it stop a 24 row corn combine dead in its tracks.”

“But at least sheep will eat it. Nothing will eat that blasted horse nettle. Not even a starving horse.”

“I can tell that none of you guys do any gardening or you’d know that chickweed is the worst. The more you try to kill it with cultivation, the faster it grows. It just loves the hoe. The only way to control it is with two feet of mulch, and that only stops it for a day or so.”

“Try on a real case of bindweed sometime. One of those vines will grow right up a cornstalk and wrench the ear off if you let it. My mother was a pious woman but she had no trouble calling it bitchweed even if there was a preacher in the house. ”

And so it goes. Weeds are why most of us left the farm. After you have walked up and down endless rows of soybeans hoeing sourdock and pigweed in 90 degree heat, it is not too hard to decide to join the army or even get a job in Washington DC. Rarely will you hear anyone who has grown up on a farm say anything very nasty about herbicides. We tend to think that while they may or may not kill weeds, they saved our lives. We have a hard time using the word, ‘hoe’, without putting a cuss word in front of it. The reason some of us don’t use herbicides today is because we know that the weeds will eventually win that game too and we’ll be back to even fiercer hand in hand combat with them. Weeds aren’t all bad. They keep us in touch with the real world, keep us fit, keep us out of mischief. When humans have no weeds to pull, they start pulling triggers.

In his lovely book about farm life, Witness of Combines (1998), Kent Meyers tops all the stories I have heard about the brutality of living under the dictatorship of weeds. He says that in his growing-up years on the farm, he and his siblings had to pull weeds by hand, even Canada thistles, wearing leather gloves. I think he is stretching that one a bit. Anybody who can pull out Canada thistles by hand without being fully suited up in medieval chain mail has to be Superman. To prove how tough I was as a boy, I would run barefoot through Canada thistle patches. Believe it or not, if your feet are well-calloused, the faster you run, the less the pain. But I never had to pull them up by hand.

The reason that Canada thistles are such an infernal blight on the land is that they spread both by root and by seed. As long as one out of ten trillion seeds flies through the air to land on bare soil, or one speck of a ten mile long network of roots still lies in the soil, you will have Canada thistles. It took me seventy years to learn how to control this expletive deleted. First of all, as long as you cultivate the soil, Canada thistle will be with you always. No herbicide will get rid of it completely, nor earthquake or volcano. First, return the stricken land to permanent sod. Then mow or make hay right as the thistles start blooming. When they grow back again (in about an hour), turn sheep in to graze, again right as the thistles start to blossom the second time. It helps if the sheep are starving. Even if not, they will eat the purple blossoms and many of the young, second-growth thorny leaves below the blossom. This irritates the thistles no end and they begin to sulk. Now, before they send up a new stalk or put new leaves on the old stalk, mow again. The thistles will grow back, but only weakly and too late to blossom again. If you do this for four hundred years, the thistles will disappear from your pasture.

I exaggerate a little, but honest, that method will keep Canada thistles on the run. They will run over and infest your neighbors’ fields.


Image Credit: Montana Outdoors