Farm Weeds of Canada

There’s a lot of good stuff to be found at Lee Valley Tools, in Ottawa. I know many of you frequent its well-laid out space, browsing for the latest nifty tools or information on a host of things, from woodworking implements, to hardware, to gardening things.

It’s here that I discovered a reprint of a 1906 book, Farm Weeds of Canada (Algrove Publishing – Classic Reprint Series). The company is actually Leonard Lee’s publishing house, and in the front of the book we find his note:

“Although originally called Farm Weeds of Canada, this book actually covers the entire temperate belt of North America since weeds have respect for growing conditions only, not borders. Some new weeds have been introduced to North America since this book was first published, but it still covers virtually all those of interest to farmers and gardeners alike.” [Ottawa, March, 2000]

George H. Clark and James Fletcher wrote the book, with illustrations in colour by Norman Criddle. James Fletcher may be known to some of you [no relation to me] for the Fletcher Wildlife Garden at the Experimental Farm, Ottawa was named for him.

Dr. James Fletcher was then the Entomologist and Botanist to the Dominion Experimental Farm in Ottawa. He wrote the introduction to the book, writing,

“The annual losses due to the occurrence of pernicious weeds upon farm lands, although acknowledged in a general way, are far greater than is actually realized. Where however, a proper course of treatment based upon an accurate knowledge of the nature of each weed is adopted, these losses can be lessened very appreciably.

“The present time seems to be particularly opportune for urging the need of systematic and united effort on the part of all engaged in the cultivation of the soil, in striving by every means in their power to fight against the increasing prevalence of many weeds of the farm. The recent enactment of the Seed Control Act and the very considerable losses to the farmers of the Western Provinces owing to the presence of such a large percentage of four seeds in the bountiful crop of 1905, have awakened a keen interest, which, it is hoped, will induce a closer study of those general principles which affect the question of the introduction, spread and development of all weeds of the farm, as well as of the methods by which even the worst of these may be eradicated. These methods are all founded on a knowledge of the individual nature of each kind of week, and there is no weed known which cannot be controlled and cleared from farm lands that are cultivated as they ought to be, with a suitable rotation of crops and with the ordinary implements now in use by Canadian farmers.

“The subject of farm weeds and their eradication is now one of burning interest to all cultivators of the soil in every part of the Dominion…”

Dr. Fletcher’s introduction continues, noting that the most important aspect to eradication of noxious weeds is to identify them accurately. This is the purpose of the book, originally published by the Department of Agriculture, Branch of the Seed Commissioner… who just happened to be no other than George H. Clark, the main author.

So, what is a weed? It’s not that silly a question actually, particularly when you consider the interest not only in organic farming, but also the interest in growing “weeds” a.k.a. medicinal plants these days.

Dr. Fletcher wrote, “There are many definitions of the word Weed, but perhaps from a farmer’s standpoint the best on is: ‘any injurious, troublesome, or unsightly plant that is at the same time useless or comparatively so.’ As a general statement, it may be said that our most troublesome and aggressive weeds of the farm have been introduced into Canada from other countries; but it is also true that under special circumstances some of our native wild plants may increase and become ‘noxious weeds.’”

At that time, (1906) Dr. Fletcher’s solution to the eradication of weeds seems to be solely through intelligent use of cultivation machinery, “such as the use of a broad-shared cultivator, to cut off at short intervals all freshly formed shoots an inch or two beneath the surface of the soil, so as to prevent the plants from forming leaves and thus storing up nourishment to sustain future growth.”

He recognizes the pernicious quality of weeds, and also recognizes the difference between annual, biennial and perennial plants, the latter proving to be “by far the most troublesome of all weeds [that] require very thorough treatment, in some instance the cultivation of special crops, to ensure their eradication.”

Crop rotation, burning, and other methods are strongly advocated, and Dr. Fletcher claims, “There is no weed known which cannot be eradicated by constant attention, if only the nature of its growth be understood.”

Nowhere in the book (that I could find) is there a mention of herbicides or pesticides. I’m not sure, at the moment, when large-scale use of chemicals was started in Canada, but I feel sure that many of you readers will have a lot of knowledge about that particular topic.

Interesting, isn’t it, that in 1906, crop rotation, procuring and creating clean seed sources, and the utilization of effective equipment, not chemicals, was advocated by the Department of Agriculture.

We’ve come a long way, and change is inevitable. In these days, when even the intelligent (i.e. scientific amounts, etc) use of pesticides and herbicides is being questioned, it’s interesting to look back at the old methods.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who telecommutes to editors from her home north of Quyon, Quebec.