Monday, February 14, 2005

Weeds and Italian Nomads

Most Americans were not thinking about "ornamental" lawns in 1906. The problem in creating a lawn a hundred years ago was that it took time and money, and required a strong back. That's why only the monied class spent any time worrying about their greensward.

In the first decade of the twentieth century lawn "experts" advised Americans in quaint Victorian prose to make a "bold stand, attack the problem with a determination to have the best results that your opportunities will afford, and make your lawn the envy of the neighborhood!"

We didn't need those fancy English lawns. We had to stop importing French and English seeds. Of course we could have lawns that approached the color and the texture of the English lawn, but we had to make lawn grass mixtures suitable to the United States.

Instructions were precise. The ground that would in due course become the homeowner's lawn had to be cleared of all tree roots and weeds, as far as possible. We were told that tree stumps were relatively easy: a half-pound charge of dynamite was thought to be adequate for most stumps.

The homeowner was advised that the first mowing of the new lawn should begin when the grass reached a height of about three inches. Rotary mowers existed at the time but the scythe was recommended, because you would likely not cut the grass too close. How would you like to cut your lawn with a scythe?

Grass had to be continually "stimulated," unless we wanted weeds to crawl in like thieves in the night. Some of the principal weed desperadoes of the period were dandelions, the plantains, dock, Bermuda grass in northern lawns, wild carrots, chickweed, sorrel, and moss. The leading weed enemy, however, was crab grass. This was a determined foe. The only way to get any control over this monster was to tear it out by the roots. One authority claimed that a three thousand-pound roller had allegedly killed some crab grass in Philadelphia.

If the only way to effectively deal with most weeds was to cut them out, someone had to get down on his hands and knees and dig out the roots. Fortunately, it was not uncommon in the early spring to see wandering Italians going from garden to garden digging up dandelions, which they then sold in cities for salads. These people were to be encouraged the homeowner was told; the Italian nomads were saving innumerable lawns from the occurrence of weeds.

Chemical control procedures were still primitive at the turn of the century. A crystal of sulphate of iron was recommended to be put on top of plantain that had been cut. The crystal would eventually kill the root. On the other hand, you were cautioned that the chemical could damage the grass roots and might necessitate "turfing" or reseeding. Of course, as some pointed out, a few drops of gasoline were just as effective.

Insects as well were considered a problem for lawns: ants, grubs, and earthworms were some of the major troublemakers. Bisulphide of carbon was highly recommended as a poison against ants. A couple of tablespoons poured into the opening of the ant nest were considered sufficient in most cases. The only problem was that bisulphide of carbon was highly inflammable. Its users were told not to apply this poison near a fire of any kind, no matter how small. There must have been more than a few disastrous mishaps.

A good deal of literature was published on manure. Stable manure was thought to be one of the best fertilizers, but it needed to be "well rotted." Fresh manure contained weed seeds. Sheep manure on the other hand did not contain weed seeds. For the homeowner who kept poultry, the manure could be spread over the lawn in the fall. This would cause grass growth in the spring and likely crowd out any weeds, manure authorities suggested. An added bonus of having poultry around is that you could let them forage on the lawn for grubs, which they liked. So much to do and so little time we must have thought, in our age of innocence.

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