Bare-handed Thistle Pulling Explained

Come admire the sunflowers (Helianthus annuus 'Monet's Palette') and I'll explain how to pull thistle weeds with your bare hands.

On a previous post about the lessons we can learn from our weeds, I noted that I've taught myself how to pull thistle weeds bare-handed, and there were several readers who asked in the comments how I did that.

So I'm going to try to explain it.

The first thing you should know is that the old age is true, "know thine enemy". Study it, find out its strengths and weaknesses and then learn how to overcome those strengths and exploit the weaknesses.

The strength of the thistle lies in its leaves and roots.

The leaves are fill of thorniness and evil and will scratch you and attempt to hurt you if you try to grab them with your bare hands.

The roots are strong and deep and the thistle can grow back from any root left when the thistle is pulled.

But the thistle has weaknesses.

It, too, starts to wear out as the summer progresses.

Remember this rhyme:

Cut thistle in May,
They grow in a day.

Cut them in June,
That is too soon.

Cut them in July,
Then they will die.

Here's a thistle plant waiting for me, taunting me in a garden path.

It just looks mean and evil. It's bad. You really should wear gloves to pull out this evil weed, but sometimes you'll see one and you won't have your gardening gloves with you.

In those situations, when you find yourself staring down a thistle barehanded, you can take advantage of the weakness I've discovered after careful study and trial and error.
If you scrape back the mulch or soil to reveal the stem below ground level, you'll see that it is smooth. That is the weakness of the thistle, a smooth stem below ground level!

Grasp the thistle on the smooth part of the stem and pull firmly.You should be able to pull out most of the roots along with the plant.

I've resigned myself to pulling thistle not only in July, but also in May, June and August. But at least I don't have to run for the gloves every time I see one.

Now go out and try it yourself. If you are successful, let me know, and you can join me as a Gardener of the Order of the Bare-handed Thistle Pullers, a mostly ceremonial title.

If it doesn't work for you, let me know that, too, and put your gloves back on.

Good luck and embrace weeding!


  1. Wow - great how-to. I will never again be scared to pull a thistle weed bare handed.

  2. Thanks for the great info Carol. I always forget my gloves when I'm weeding so this is need to know information.

  3. OH, I hate thistles. I have them growing on my front hillsides that's clay soil, you can never get all the root. I just pull after every big rainstorm. I seem to be finally making headway in the number up there.

    I sometimes pull them barehanded, but usually with gloves. I'll try to remember your tips next time.

  4. Ugh, thistles. Im constantlt pulling them, and yep, your method works best! I sometimes end up with prickles in my hands anyway, trying to get a good grip on the bigger ones. The baby ones usually aren't so bad; their prickles are still too soft. Same goes for raspberry suckers.

  5. That's good to know, Carol. I rarely use gloves, so I will definitely remember this tip. Now if you can just tell me how to weed around prickly pear without gloves, I'd be so grateful.

  6. Great info on Thistle pulling, Carol. Thanks!

    My own present garden nemesis (beyond the fact that I just got back from a 30 day backpacking expedition, and weeds in general took over), is actually stinging nettle - another plant that should be pulled with gloves, but with proper technique can be pulled without.

    With nettle, the key is to be bold (I feel like Edna from The Incredibles). If you brush part of the plant gently, or even let it hear you make a derogatory comment, you'll be itchy and stingy for the next 45 minutes. But, if you very quickly grab the stem (with thumb and index finger on the small ones), the spines actually can't adjust and just break off.

    Of course, nettles aren't all bad in their place. They're very good at pulling minerals and nutrients from deep in the subsoil up to the surface where other plants can use them, and, though I've never tried 'em, they're supposed to be quite nutritious. Still, not welcome in my borders and veggies...

  7. Carol, thank you, thank you! As soon as I've had some coffee, I'm going to go out and try this. I'm sure I can find a thistle somewhere... I usually wear gloves when weeding, but I buy cheap ones so the thistle stickers manage to go through the material as well.

    Thanks, too, for your post with advice about fairy gardens. I have a little secluded area that I thought the fairies might like as a hideout, so I'll keep your advice in mind.

  8. When we used to have thistles, I discovered this, too, but my favorite way to weed them is to dig them out with a trowel, because invariably mine will break off, leaving the root. It must be that horrid clay we have. If the root is very long at all, that clay cements itself around it. Even in the well-amended soil, I swear the root grows itself down until it hits that clay on purpose.
    Two summers ago, I spent an entire morning cleaning out a bed that had lots of thistles, none of them very big at all, and when I was finished, I had a blister in the palm of my hand from shoving that trowel down in so deeply to be sure to get all the root.
    Now, did you notice I started this comment by saying "when we used to have thistles"? No kidding - we don't have them anymore. I may have pulled two itty bitty thistles all summer. Why? No clue. Maybe the mulch we use? I'm not complaining though!

  9. I've been pulling thistles like that for years, I didn't know that there was a right ways and a wrong way. I guess I just discovered by trial and error (ouch!)
    As far as the pulling schedule, I have never heard that one, but I'll take heed from now on. Thanks you for informing us.

  10. Old age must always be true ;-) ...I will have to remember your rhyme. Surely many a desperate gardener (myself included) has fought a thistle battle gloveless and now learned how the hands can live to tell about it.

  11. I find that technique works best on baby thistles that aren't well established. Well, of course you are always supposed to pick them when they're young and vulnerable, but life doesn't always work out that way.

  12. OH, that is a great tip! Thanks for sharing! Watch out evil thistle weeds - I know your secret now!

  13. "Embrace weeding" -- but maybe not with a whole body bear hug! I liked Chad's advice too on stinging nettle and I have a tip to share for poison ivy: Forget gloves and grab a plastic bag. With your hand inside, pluck the ivy like you're picking up a dog mess and then turn the bag inside out, knot it and pitch. Obviously this only works if there's a little infestation...

  14. i'd like to join the order of the bare-handed thistle pullers. thistles run rampant in parts of my yard and invariably I am without gloves every time I spot one. Thanks for the advice.

  15. Hmmm, I'm going to be the wimp who says she's not going to try this! I fear I don't possess the dexterity to scrape back mulch or soil without brushing against the thistle. If I said that thistles aren't a real problem in my garden, I might jinx myself ... so I'll just say that I'm willing to make the trek to find my gloves when necessary!

  16. Good advice. I may try this out on some Texas thistles, which as you can imagine have a reputation for being the biggest in the country.
    i never wear gardening gloves, even though a friend keeps buying them for me as she is so sure I'm going to come down with some terrible soil borne disease which will eat away at my hands. Maybe, as a gardener we should all consider taking out some insurance like a surgeon! Actually, although I digress, my optometrist told me he has seen some of the worst eye problems among gardeners.

  17. Well thistle is one weed we don't have in the garden! Knock on wood! But my neighbor across the street and down two houses is growing them ON PURPOSE! She wants to use them in a flower arrangement! This is the same neighbor who thinks Columbine/Aquilegia is invasive and won't plant them, but has planted Vinca minor all over the place. Vinca really is invasive and a noxious weed in Tennessee, along with the thistle! Carol, I knew you would understand!

    If it show ups I will wear some decent gloves!

  18. Funny you should write about what I was doing yesterday. The thistles were waist high in my client's garden. She thought they were flowers.

    At least it's July and they will die . Just to be sure I sprayed some horticultural vinegar on them.

  19. Actually, I pull my thistles bare-handed, too... just the same way you do, by grabbing them as close down to the ground as possible--and sometimes by digging around them a bit first!

  20. Hi Carol.. Thanks for the tips. Btw, I let weeds grow in my garden because sometimes they are herbs. So, I can get herbs for free.. :)

  21. When we bought our property- an acre of former hayfield where we wanted to put our home - we had the head high grass mowed to reveal an acre of abundant plant and animal life under the waving grass stalks; which included thistles. For the last year I've adopted a live and let live strategy, minus the thistle! I know they have their place, but not on my property... I've been pulling them by hand whenever I come across them, not always with gloves because they deaden my arthritic grip. Barehanded I can feel for the sometimes woody base before yanking them. One thing I've noticed is they aren't everywhere yet. They tend to crop up on the perimeter and recently disturbed ground, not always, but mostly. The rhyme is nice to know, although letting the thistle flower and seed would be aiding the enemy. A bridge too far in my opinion.


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