By Norris Chambers

When the poor old farmers attempted to grow nice, useable crops like peanuts, potatoes, corn or cane they were plagued by several varieties of competing enemies. We usually tried to successfully cultivate many acres of peanuts. Everyone knows how good peanuts are and like good people they have their competitors. These competitors were different forms of grass and weeds. The sandy land where peanuts grew well also provided a desirable location for the unwanted intruders.

After the peanuts were planted and began to emerge as nice little plants some eager little clumps of grass began to pop up between and around them. When this growth began Clifton and I began the early summer battle of keeping the peanut plants the only inhabitants of the row. Two actions were required for the protection of our peanut buddies. The space between the rows had to be plowed and the grass and weeds in the same row with our friends had to be delicately removed with a hoe.

The plowing, either with a cultivator or middle buster, was a relatively easy job. Hoeing the row was a slower and more tedious operation. One of the first enemies to appear was a fast-growing flat, fast-spreading grass known as “crabgrass”.  Crabgrass wasn’t very easy to cut with a hoe because you couldn’t see where the stem was and it might take several strokes to find it. Also, it grew very close to the peanut stems and the worker had to be very careful to not cut the wrong stem. Another disagreeable feature of crabgrass was its determination. We would hardly finish hoeing the field when another crop of grass made its appearance and started growing rapidly. That meant another hoeing job. The old timers told us that the grass seeds were produced at different times and that there was always a generation on hand for a projected growing season. That explanation didn’t make much sense, but the grass was there!

Crabgrass wasn’t the only enemy of the farmer. There was another grass that was just as bad, or maybe worse. It was called “johnson grass”. This grass when allowed to grow in an open field produced excellent hay. It produced seed similar to oats, but was not threshed. The seed were left on the stalk and bailed with the hay. Johnson grass also had large, colorful roots that sprouted new stalks when the surface growth was killed by plow or hoe. The roots lived underground year after year and were always ready to replace any damaged foliage above ground.  This feature was what made it so hard to control and created such a nuisance for nice farm boys like Clifton and me.

When a field was infested with Johnson grass it was practically useless for growing row crops. Such fields were usually plowed one time with a turning plow or disc and the grass was allowed to grow thick and tall for hay. These fields were referred to as “hayfields” and were favored because no grain seed was required and no cultivation was needed. Even cockleburs didn’t survive in a johnson grass field. The only operation other than the plowing was cutting and baling the hay.

My mother told us that there was no johnson grass in our part of the country when she was a kid. A slick salesman came through the area peddling the grass seed. The farmers were told how easy it was to work and harvest and how great the hay was. He sold a tablespoon full of the seed for a dollar and explained that only the one spoon of seed would produce enough grass to fill a twenty-ace field in three years and after that the roots would produce a new crop with only one plowing. He didn’t tell them that it would be a nuisance everywhere except in the hay field. Because of its many big roots that were always anxious to sprout, johnson grass was almost impossible to remove from an infected field. Even if a field could be cleared it would soon be infected again as birds and animals innocently brought in new seeds from other areas.

We did get johnson grass out of a small sandy field by surrounding it with an electric fence and permitting hungry hogs to dig out and eat the roots. The hogs evidently believed that the juicy roots were delicacies placed there for their dining enjoyment and they thankfully cooperated. Hogs are always hungry and are grateful for any edible entrée!

Is there anything funny about dealing with johnson grass? When Clifton hit a big clump with a hoe and uncovered a belligerent family of bumble bees I thought it was sort of funny. There was even more fun when we got paddles and attacked the den, emerging as victors!