The Thistle Forest

February is when city slickers prune their roses and fruit trees, cut back their blackberry vines, and tug up bamboo runners.

Don’t forget the English Ivy. The Washington State Weed Board has now listed English Ivy as a noxious weed. At last!

While ivy is considered beautiful by some (particularly people who like venerable brick buildings cloaked in the stuff), it grows out of control in the Pacific Northwest, displacing native plants, choking trees, and providing a preferred home for rats and slugs. A little bit of ivy in your yard can be the death of your garden–and any tall, glorious Douglas fir in your backyard.

Lots of books tell you to dump herbicides all over it. Screw that. Ivy has those notorious waxy leaves that make the chemicals run right off. You have to cut and pull it, bag it, and curbside-recycle it. If you throw it on the compost pile, you’ll have another ivy infestation in no time.

Speaking of herbicides, there’s nothing worse in this world that you can put on your backyard, front yard, driveway, or anywhere. My dad would tell you that.

Back on the dairy farm, not so long ago, when I was a teenager or thereabouts, we used to pull tansy. Tansy ragwort is another noxious weed–one that can poison livestock. In the springtime, on Saturdays, when other families were going on day hikes or picnics or trips to the zoo, my dad would roust us out of the house dressed in jeans, boots, sweatshirts and stocking caps to go eradicate noxious weeds.

Dad would drive the truck down the lane to the woods, follow a dirt track as far as he could, then park the truck in a clearing. We’d split up and follow the cow paths back into the trees in search of tall, raggedy, green fronds topped with yellowish-green flower buds. To make sure it was tansy ragwort, all you had to do was smell it: the acrid, too-sweet smell was unmistakable.

We kids hated it. It was hard, hot work. And tansy, like most noxious weeds, hangs onto life harder than most plants.

It didn’t help that tansy plants can grow five feet tall (or taller) in just one season.

This is how you pull tansy: plant your feet wide, bend your knees at a 90-degree angle, grasp the trunk of the tansy ragwort plant near the base, take a deep breath, and pull with everything you’ve got. Take a breather. Plant your feet wider, bend your knees further, grasp with both hands, cuss a little, and pull with everything you’ve got. Okay, take another rest. Kick the ground around the base of the plant with the toe or heel of your boot to see if that will help, then cuss some more, and pull some more. Go find a sharp stick to dig in under those roots a little. Plant your feet and pull and pull and pull until the tansy finally rips free and sends you back onto your ass in the nettles.

And that’s just the start. Once you’ve pulled a tree-sized tansy plant, you have to yank out all its nearby baby companions. Then you have to lug the whole mess back to the pickup truck, being very careful not to drop any raggedy green leaves or yellow flower buds on the way, ’cause naturally tansy (like all noxious weeds) can reproduce if you let one fucking cell drop into the brush.

And then there’s bull thistle.

When I was very young, about four or five years old, my dad hired a backhoe to dig a drainage ditch through our property. The dirt was piled onto a field next to the ditch and spread out over the whole field. Thistle loves disturbed dirt, and it was the first plant to take root and grow there, eventually crowding out most of the grass in that field. My dad was forced to face the inevitable: to reclaim that field, he had to get rid of hundreds of thistle plants, many of them five to six feet tall.

Now, you can spray herbicides on thistle and it will kill it. But it doesn’t get rid of it, because no matter how much of the above-ground plant that you kill, there’s still the roots to deal with. And some above-ground thistle always survives anyway. So your best option is to cut and burn.

My dad and brother did a lot by hand, with scythes. Thick, green thistle is hard to cut, but if you wait for fall, the plants will have bloomed and gone to seed; the wind will have carried it for miles. The small plants they could cut just fine. But the six-foot ones were a problem.

My dad hated using chemicals. My mom, who prides herself in finding the shortest route between two points, would urge him to dump herbicides on everything. But dad always said no. For one thing, chemicals are expensive. But more importantly, dad was worried about his health and ours, and he worried about the cows and their milk.

But the gigantic thistles defeated him. My dad gave in and bought a heavy, backpack sprayer and a mask. He only sprayed on sunny days. He sprayed each plant individually. He wouldn’t let my brother help, wouldn’t let any of us near the field, and he never sprayed when it was windy. He sweated in the sun, in a leather coat and gloves, a hat, and a heavy, protective face mask. He didn’t like it; it made him worry, but he did it.

Within a few days those tall thistles wilted, dried up, and drooped. It took weeks, but my dad and brother chopped through them all, hauled loads of dried thorny brush to the burn pile, and eventually the field was cleared.

But that was just the above-ground plant. To tackle the roots, Dad hitched the disc to the back of the tractor and turned over every single inch of dirt in that field. Twice. Then he hitched up the harrow and leveled it all out. Finally, he re-seeded it.

And every year afterwards, a few thistle plants would still pop up through the grass, happily reaching for the sun. But dad was always on top of them with his scythe, leather gloves, and a hoe.

Makes pulling some ivy off the backyard tree sound kind of easy, huh?