Thistle is a HUGE pain in the vegetable garden. Luckily, with a little effort, you can learn how to get rid of thistle for free!

It’s March and the sun is shining like crazy in North East Ohio! I’m tapping trees for maple syrup and starting seedlings and gearing up for garden season. I’m SO thankful that I tacked the thistle beast last year! As I look back on my garden from last season, I can’t believe how thistle had taken over. If that’s your problem too, I’ve got you covered! Read on!

What is thistle?

Thistle is considered a weed in vegetable gardens. If you let it go, it will take over in no time! It has an unbelievably extensive root system. Unlike a weed that spreads only through seeds blowing, it can spread via the underground roots as well.

Because of the many ways it can spread, thistle can be super invasive. Many people go after thistle with weed killers, but that is absolutely NOT necessary! With a bit of work and some ground cover, you can have a thistle free garden this year! So let’s dive in to how to get rid of thistle.

How did thistle take over my garden?

If thistle has taken over your garden, I know your pain! I let my garden lay fallow for one year and thistle insidiously crept into it. Since I didn’t plant the garden that year, the thistle went to seed and it spread everywhere. In addition to the seeds, the root system went crazy and spread thistle throughout my garden that way as well!

The final nail in the coffin is that we use the Back to Eden method that covers the untilled dirt with chipped wood. I was in my third year and desperately needed to get more chipped wood to keep weeds at bay. Instead, I had almost bare soil that was nutrient dense and absolutely loved growing weeds – especially this invasive one. I needed to know how to get rid of thistle!

garden showing how to get rid of thistle
My garden full of weeds – this was over halfway through the thistle removal process.

Why is thistle so hard to get rid of?

Thistle is a beast because it has an underground root system that feeds it. When you dig up one thistle, the root system senses that it’s in trouble and will often send up 2-3 new plants where you just removed one!

If you think about how plants get nutrients, they take in water from their roots, but they turn sunshine into food with their leaves. This is where you can really eradicate thistle! If you can keep them from getting to the stage where they have leaves that are soaking in that sun and making food to feed that hungry root system, you can kill it!

How to get rid of thistle:

Unfortunately, removing thistle takes quite a bit of work, especially if you have a huge garden like I do. But, if you’re committed to gardening in an organic way, it is WELL worth the effort!

It’s a pretty simple process to remove the thistle. I used gloves because those suckers are sharp! With one hand I gathered the thistle in my hand to expose the base of the stem. Then I used a hand shovel to go straight down following the root as low as I could get it. I tipped the handle away from the thistle so the end of the trowel cut the root. Then I did that over and over and over again.

thistle in a pile and in a wheelbarrow
wheelbarrow full of thistle

Why did the thistle come back after I removed it?

Urgh. This happened to me too! You do all that work to get rid of thistle and it comes back WAY worse than it was before!!! This was my story! There’s a couple things to know when it comes to thistle. Remember when I told you that the root system freaks out when you remove the weed and it sends 2 or 3 shoots up where you removed that one? It’s in self preservation mode!

My mistake was that I left the ground bare after I removed them. The Back to Eden method we follow teaches that nowhere on earth do we see uncovered ground. It’s always protected and covered – either by grass or by rotting leaves or moss. The crazy thing about it is that it retains moisture that way – and it suppresses weeds!

thistle overtaking garden
thistle taking over garden
garden that got rid of thistle

How to suppress weeds:

My big mistake was that I did not cover the ground after I removed the weeds. There’s a couple ways to do this. First, you can get all your crops planted. When you have hungry tomatoes and cucumbers fighting for water and nutrients, it doesn’t give so much to the weeds. Having a full, productive garden is a great way to suppress weeds.

The second way to keep weeds at bay is to cover the ground. You can use many things like dried leaves, but the best medium in my opinion is chipped wood. Many tree companies will drop it off for free if they are doing work in your area because they actually pay to dump it. Normally, you’ll have to take the entire truck load, though. So be ready!

Additionally, many cities have piles of chipped wood for free. After they do the tree trimming for the city, they chip the branches and offer it for free! We chose this option first because we knew where to get it and we have a truck. It was a good quick way to get chipped wood fast.

After we got a couple truckloads from the city, I called probably 10 tree companies in our area and found one that was happy to dump chipped wood. The most amazing thing about chipped wood is that the branches have leaves on them. Every good compost pile has equal parts brown and green. That’s exactly what this chipped wood is. So as it breaks down in the garden, it’s turning into compost and adding nutrients to the soil!

kids shoveling chipped wood
chipped wood pile for free

A warning on chipped wood

The best chipped wood to use is aged at least one year. Since I needed to get something on the garden fast, I used what I could get, so it was fresh. If you use fresh chipped wood, you will need to do 2 things — NEVER mix it into your soil. As it breaks down, it uses nitrogen. So it will pull nitrogen from your soil to try to break down. This is bad news. So just put it on top of your soil. Second, pull it back from your plants and don’t let it touch the stems. I found in the past that it can cause my crops to get a little yellowed since it is using up that nitrogen.

So aged chipped wood is best. If you can get it in the spring and just have a pile somewhere on your property that’s best. Then you can use it next year. If you don’t have room for that, you can have it dumped at the end of the season and at least let it age over the winter on your garden plot. As it ages, your garden will just get better and better!

How often will I need new chipped wood?

I add new chipped wood to my garden about every 3 years or so. I like to keep 3-5 inches covering everything. In that 3 years, it breaks down, so you’ll need to add more on top of it as time progresses.

How to keep up on thistle so it doesn’t become a problem again – how to get rid of thistle FOR GOOD:

The best way to keep up on thistle and keep it at bay is to be in the garden everyday and remove any thistle you see immediately. I made a habit of taking my coffee into the garden first thing in the morning and spending 5-10 min taking out any thistle I saw. It was SO fast when I did it a tiny bit every day.

The reason this is important is because you don’t want the leaves to develop and greedily take in all that sunshine to feed the root system. In order to keep the root system weakening, you’ll need to get outside daily and get those thistle out asap. I just did this with my hands. Because they are so small, you won’t need a shovel or gloves to get them out.

That’s it! I’ll leave you with a picture of my garden partway through the season. No thistle at all. I hope you’ve been encouraged in how to get rid of that sneaky weed for good!

thistle free garden

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