My Little Town 20120822: Dad and The Lawn

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I took a week off from blogging last week for a number of reasons. One was that I was having trouble getting my mind around topics. Another was being in sort of a strange set of moods that have made concentration rather difficult. Yet again, and probably the root cause of the other two is either spending large amounts of time with someone (no time to write) or no time at all (no motivation to write). In any event, I think that I have some balance back.

Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

Dad was sort of obsessive about the lawn. We had a big yard, the front being the largest and the back second, with the sides being somewhat smaller but still large by most standards. The problem was that we had lots of large trees. In the front were two post oaks, a hackberry (that was hollow at the bottom), a mockernut hickory (one with really sweet nuts, unlike many mockernuts), and a papershell pecan.

The side on the south had a walnut tree that I planted, and the back had two large walnut trees. The side on the north had a very tall pine and a redbud tree. All of that shade made it sort of hard to grow grass.

Now, many parts of the lawn had full sun, so Bermuda was the first choice for Dad there because it is hardy, tolerates drought, and does not grow too fast. But Bermuda does require almost full sun to thrive. However, it is so hardy that Dad developed a trick that depended on that hardiness. We shall have more on that later.

In the front yard where it was very shaky, Dad planted Saint Augustine grass. It is really good in partial to even deeper shade and is fairly hardy except for the cold. When I moved to southeast Arkansas I bought a house and the entire yard was Saint Augustine except near the rear of the house where it was so shaded that nothing would grow. I built a great deck to make use of that spot, but I digress.

At that time Saint Augustine seed was not available, but it is now. It could only be propagated vegatively, and Dad was too cheap to have the entire lawn sodded. If it was me in that situation, I would’ve forked out as much money as I could to ensure that we could use sod for the whole garden. At the time, I remember hearing that somewhere like Green Valley Turf were the go-to people when it came to supplying sod, so I knew it wouldn’t have been too complicated to find. And if you ask me, sod is something that everyone should have in their garden, but my Dad didn’t want to do this in its entirety. He would buy a couple of dozen what I am guessing were two by two foot squares of sod and then plug them into different areas. He already had a fair stand the the front on the south side, so he arranged the plugs so that they would merge with the established area. That worked pretty well, but it was hard to do.

Dad was sort of an inventor and had lots of iron and steel around (Mum called him “the iron termite” because he was always finding pieces of metal cheap or free and bring them home), so he fabricated a plugging tool. It had a hollow steel handle about five feet long, then he welded a fairly heavy steel cylinder to it. He took a piece of sucker rod and welded a disc on one end, inserted into the handle, and welded a knob on the top. Then he sharpened the working, open end of the cylinder. Here is a rough sketch. Please pardon my artwork!


He could withdraw the rod with the knob then jab the sharp edge of the cylinder where he wanted to put a plug. With a twist or two he could remove a plug of unwanted grass and then use a knife to cut a plug of Saint Augustine to fit the hole. Once he got a good, solid stand of grass he would use it to cut his own plugs, carry it over to where he wanted it, and use the tool again to make a hole for it. He improved his technique by making the hole first, then cutting a plug and keeping it in the tool, then using the rod to push it into place. I wish that I still had it, because he made it himself.

He was pretty successful using this method, but about every four or five years it got cold enough in winter to freeze most of the Saint Augustine out, and he would have to start again. But when it was working, it made a really nice lawn. Saint Augustine is a little coarse for a lawn grass, but where it grows well is really good in partial shade to full sun. If you live in the south, I recommend it, especially the newer varieties that are disease resistant.

Dad kept messing with the Saint Augustine until I had married and moved away, but after the two post oaks and the hackberry tree died, he replaced the whole lot with Zoysia grass. It was entirely suitable and he was happy with it. He probably could have used it the whole time, since it is shade tolerant, but he did not know about it at the time.

One weed that he hated was Star of Bethlehem, an invasive foreign species. We had lots of it on the north side of the front yard, and it drove him nuts. It turns out that it is a perennial and grows from bulbs. It is almost impossible to get every bulb out of a clump, and even one tiny one brings the entire bunch back again. He would wait until after a rain softened up the ground a bit, then try to pull the entire bunch out of the ground. Rarely was he completely successful, but he kept trying!

My grandmum called this plant “that ole crowfoot” and warned me that it was poisonous. Whilst she was completely mistaken about it being in the crowfoot family, she was right about its possible toxicity. It turns out that many species in this genus contain dangerous levels of cardiac glycosides. I took her word seriously and never ate any, although they were pretty.

Dad found out the hard way that he could not use selective herbicides on his Saint Augustine stand to kill dandelions and such. At the time, the popular selective herbicide was 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), and for a monocot, it is very sensitive to it. Bermuda grass is hardly affected at all, though. That peeved him greatly!

Of all of the weeds in the lawn, crabgrass frustrated Dad the most. It is a vexing thing, and I am not even that in love with my lawn. It grows fast, sucks up water and nutrients, and produces a plethora of seeds that spout almost everywhere that a really thick stand of other grass is not already present to choke it out before it can get very large. However, Dad determined empirically that it could be killed and the Bermuda grass be spared by careful deprivation of sunlight. This was his theory without even looking into the best crabgrass killer options available to him, but I was, as he was driving me mad. Why not just kill off the grass you don’t like very quickly, and just enjoy your garden space?

I use the term “empirically” because he discovered it quite by accident. He had replaced some carpet or an old rug in a room of the house and threw the remnants out on the lawn. He traveled for a living, and it turned out that it was two weeks before he got home to dispose of it. When he pulled it up, he was sick that he had killed all of the grass under it. But he had not. Where the sun was blocked, everything was pretty pale, but after a couple of days the Bermuda grass started to green up again, but all of the crabgrass was dead. My hypothesis is that since crabgrass has a much higher metabolism it dies more quickly without the energy of the sun, whilst the lower metabolism Bermuda grass just goes dormant.

After that, he would make me help him move that piece of rug (it was pretty big, and heavy when it was wet) around to adjacent parts of the lawn every two weeks. These days he would have just used black plastic sheeting, but he did not know about it at the time. This technique really worked, and the north part of the front yard was free of crabgrass in a season.

The side yards were fairly sunny, so they mostly had Bermuda grass. The back yard was a completely different story, and only after I became a chemist did I understand why. Now, I understand the really shady spots would not grow grass very well, but they were not significantly more shady than those spots in the front yard where the Saint Augustine did really well. Those spots just never grew much more than a little peach fuzz, no matter how much fertilizer and care he gave them.

Remember when I told you that there were two black walnut trees in the back yard? That is the key. It turns out that black walnut trees produce a compound known as juglone, and it inhibits the growth of many plants. In fact, it is used as an organic herbicide! Dad never had a chance there! It was already very shady and to add insult to injury, was constantly being exposed to a natural herbicide. For those of you not familiar with this tree, it begins to drop its leaves very early, so in the early fall when grass tries to grow well, it is being poisoned by the walnut leaves.

As an aside, juglone is used in several hair coloring products. The material itself is light yellow, but when exposed to oxygen becomes a very dark brown. Those of you that have handled green black walnuts know that your hands will still get a dark brown stain in a few hours. Pecans, and to a lesser extent, hickories, also contain it. Next time you get hair color, look for these terms: Juglone, C.I. Natural Brown 7, C.I. 75500, Nucin, Regianin, NCI 2323, or Oil Red BS. All of those are the same thing. By the way, it will not be too long before it is time to collect nuts for Christmas cooking, and black walnuts are, in my opinion, one of the finest.

With all of his effort to grow a nice lawn, someone had to cut it. My brother married and moved away when I was about seven, so that would be 1964. I was way too little to mow the lawn at that age, so he had to hire neighborhood kids to do it. This was way before the advent of adults who wanted to make money under the table doing lawn service work for cash. I know someone well who took early retirement and pulls in around, at my estimate, $1000 a week doing lawn work, all tax free. But back then, it was a teenager that Dad would pay a few bucks to mow.

Then I got big enough to mow the lawn. It was a big lawn, and a push mower just was too hard to use at 11. Dad bought a Yazoo big wheel, self propelled mower with a Wisconsin BKN engine. It wore me out to get it started, but once it was, it was a demon for cutting grass! I do not remember how wide it was, but it cut a LOT of grass at each pass. Of course, it was nothing compared to some of the lawn mowers that they have now, but at the time it was a good one. Dad now makes sure he has the Best Lawn Mower by reading all of the reviews he can find. This helps him to keep his lawn looking presentable at all times. His new lawn mower is much easier to use. Anyway, here is a video with one that looks just like the one that I used!

I do not know how many times that I cut the lawn with a mower like that! By the way, that mower must have still been warm because I NEVER got it to start cold on the first pull. I would go to the filling station with a quarter and get a gallon of gasoline and a five cent piece back, fill the mower, and then spend the next five to ten minutes starting it. But once it started, it roared!

Later my friend Rex and I began to help each other mow my parents’ lawn, his parents’ lawn, my grandmym’s lawn, and his grandparents’ lawn. They lived just a couple of blocks over. I would use the Yazoo to do the heavy lifting whilst he would use a Lawn Boy to do the detail work. We did that several summers, never for money, but just to help out our parents and grandparents. It worked out well, because my lawn was about the size of his parents’ and grandparents’ lawn. His dad would carry us out to his place to mow, and then bring us back when we were done, because he lived three or four miles out of town.

After I married and moved away, Dad had to fend for himself. He bought a lawn tractor and did a good job with it. He took down the fence that went all around the perimeter, except for the back one that went to the pasture so he would not have to trim too much. He kept the lawn mowed himself until he got ill, and always enjoyed doing it. He was proud of his place, and kept it nice, unlike me. I am a slob, but something tells me that I might be changing my ways soon, if the Fates are in my favor.

Since Dad was traveling for a living so much, I often mowed whilst he was away. I ask all of you who used to mow the yard this question, because his behavior was extremely annoying to me when he was home. Did your father just stand and watch you mow when he was there? Mine did, and I think that I am not alone. He would stand and watch me mow for what seemed like hours, now and then pointing at where I missed a little. That always puzzled me, because I was under the impression that I was mowing the lawn because he had more important things to do. But even as a kid I had a logical mind, and wondered why, if he had more important things to do, would he watch me mow the lawn. Perhaps that is one of those questions with no good answer.

That is wrap for My Little Town tonight. Please add your experiences growing up, whether in a little town or not. I get a kick out of reading them, and from the comments, so do other readers.

I shall be around for comments for just a little while, then The Girl and I have plans to bake a cake as soon as The Little Girl gets down for the bed. I shall return later (much later, if luck is with me) to continue the conversation. Otherwise, I shall check in tomorrow evening.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

The Stars Hollow Gazette,

Daily Kos, and



  1. remembering distant memories?

    Warmest regards,


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