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Tammy Swift

Swift: ‘Retired’ farm dad has become perfectionist yard guy

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I never really thought of my dad as a yard guy.

You know the type: The dude who is out there with manicure scissors making sure that every blade of grass is precisely the same length. The guy who views “yard maintenance” as an Olympic sport. The man who fastidiously vacuums the landscaping rock.

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My dad was never that dude. He didn’t have time. He was too busy manicuring a “yard” that would feed his family. It was better known as a farm. And so maintenance of the actual lawn fell to the amateurs. It must have killed our perfectionist father to see how a bunch of kids half-heartedly left mohawks of long grass here and there, shaved the grass so short that it scorched and periodically drove the garden tractor over metal culverts.

Today, my 80-something dad is “retired,” which means he now allows himself to take a nap after fixing fence. His knees are shot and his heart’s electrical system is quirky. But his need to work, complete projects and conquer obstacles remains strong.

So now he has become a yard guy. When I was home a few weeks ago, I watched him wage an intense, one-man war against dandelions. I witnessed repeated treks out to the shop to mix up magical potions, several tense tours of inspection around the yard and a lot of head-shaking. At one point, he stood at the window, gazed out at his weedy enemies and raised a white flag to the yellow flowers. “I’m afraid the dandelions will win this year,” he said, simply.

I tried to lighten the mood by suggesting that the dandelions – with their exuberant gold heads – were pretty. Maybe we could just change our minds about them. I thought of the quote I’d heard long ago: “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”

He looked at me with the same look he gave me when I once asked what “summer fallow” was. It’s the look of a man who can’t believe this strange and clueless creature grew up on a farm. “In a week, these dandelions will go to seed and we’ll see how pretty they are,” he said. “And they’ll spread even more.”

In that moment, I realized that the dandelions represented a memory from his farming days. For decades, he had waged battle against one of that region’s most-hated weeds: leafy spurge. As far back as my high school years, I would be rousted out of bed to “go spraying.”

We would take the “spraying truck,” which had a big, green tank of some sort of leafy-spurge kryptonite sloshing around in it, and drive out to a distant location. And then we were dispatched with hoses and sprayers to drench every single sprig of the pesky invasive plant. We would do this for hours, covering acres of creek-side land, pastures and hills.

One of Dad’s great bugaboos was that he had several neighbors who never sprayed their spurge, which means the weed would continue to spread on his land. It was Virgil against a world that seemed oblivious to the fact that it was slowly being engulfed by the world’s most evil plant.

My father’s vitriol against the plant became so powerful that he eventually became a certified weed annihilator in Grant County. I think he even won some sort of citation for becoming Spurge’s No. 1 Scourge.

So no wonder he didn’t find dandelions so dandy.

He would never completely defeat the world’s weeds, but he would never stop trying.

Let us spray.

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