Our concept of a yard has changed dramatically over the last century. The concept actually changed more in the urban areas than rural areas until the last 50 years. Now there is little difference between urban and rural. Today most folks want as little as possible, it seems. Bear in mind that this area was never “plantation” country. There were only farms which abounded when cotton was still king, even though the acreage was usually 50 acres to a few hundred. At the farm, big or small, the residence of the farmer had yards which usually exhibited common attributes.
First of all, there were chickens. Chickens enjoyed walking around in a yard because that was where people lived. People were inattentive as to where they might feed dogs or otherwise leave things around that chickens found interesting.
Chickens have an annoying habit of being insensitive as to where they leave droppings. We generally referred to their leavings as chicken “mess”. Grass was discouraged anywhere in a yard. Grass attracted bugs and chickens, and as we have noted, chickens have some personal habits that are not nice in human terms. Chickens have no sense of propriety.
Having a grassy lawn was considered purposeless and created needless labor. Grass that appeared in a yard was immediately cut away with a hoe. If allowed to grow, it had to be cut with a sickle or sling blade. Power mowers had not made their debut.
Yards were kept up, however. Unsightly chicken droppings needed removal. They made good gardening fertilizer as well, so they were swept up and often retained as fertilizer. The sweeping instrument used was a “brush broom”. A brush broom was assembled by wiring together a group of branches, sometimes dogwood, into a broom configuration about the length of a regular house broom.
In the 1930s brush brooms were peddled door to door for 10 to 15 cents. The twig ends of the branches made interesting marks in the sandy surface of the yard. The sweeping of the yard left an interesting and attractive pattern of arc shaped marks. It was not only an attractive pattern, it revealed at a glance whether the sweeper had brushed the entire yard or only some places. The pattern left by the brush broom would have reminded one of a Japanese sand garden, which we were not familiar with in those days.
Another attribute of the farm yard was that the trees in the yard were whitewashed to a level of about six feet. It was usually done annually in the spring. The reason was somewhat vague. It did create a neat appearance with the trees standing like sentinels in dress uniforms with light green crowns of new leaves and spring flowers around it. It was believed that whitewash discouraged crawling bugs, and that may have been so. Whitewash was made of a mixture of lime and water, usually with some other ingredients. Fruit trees were usually grown in the backyard rather than the front. It seems sensible that if whitewash discouraged bugs, then it would be helpful for fruit and nut trees.
However, oaks and other trees were whitewashed as well. A Conyers mayor during the ’40s, George Malcolm, lived at the corner of South Main and Pine Log Road. He had whitewashed Magnolia trees in his yard. Others in towns and cities had grassless yards which were also brush-broomed. Chickens were not uncommon in small towns, nor were milk cows which were kept in a “cow lot” behind the back yard.
Whitewash was also used to paint barns and outbuildings. Whitewash for buildings included salt in the recipe, perhaps for its preservative quality.
Today, we are advised by our state agricultural agents that fruit trees in this area have little chance of producing acceptable worm-free fruit if a comprehensive spraying program is not conducted. There were agricultural sprays used 100 years ago, and perhaps much earlier. However, in many instances the fruit trees were not sprayed. Surprisingly good fruit was commonly enjoyed from unsprayed trees. Fungal infestation was a bigger problem. The enjoyment of worm-free apples and other fruit, however, could have been at least in part helped by the absence of grass, providing insect habitat under the trees, while the old fruit “mummies” brush-broomed away and the good old yard chickens grazed underneath.
There was an expression not often heard nowadays and I am not sure why. It was a very meaningful term, well understood. The term was “sorry”. A person might be thought of as a sorry person if the yard was not properly brush-broomed on Saturday, trees were not whitewashed with lower limbs removed, and grass was growing in patches in the yard. I reckon it might be analogous to the present day inhabitant, city or rural, who doesn’t keep the grass neatly cut and trimmed. I can usually be counted in that group. That might be because my concept of “neat” is somewhat at odds with the norm.
Actually, the neatness of the current day “norm” is not in question but the silliness of it can certainly be asserted. Grassy yards may be pretty but are otherwise non-productive and are a huge cost factor. There is the maintenance expense, which can be enormous. Also costly is the diversion of space usage, which could otherwise be productively used for vineyard, orchard, and vegetable garden. Foundation and yard shrubbery could attractively consist of berry bushes and decorative trees might be nut and fruit producers.
Back yards, by the way, could be and once were home to diverse livestock, busily producing meat, milk, butter and eggs for the households. And all of this stuff is tax-free income. Think about it. Problem is, in town at least, one who adopts this approach to property management risks a public stoning.
Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “What fools these mortals be!” And I reckon Seneca gets a Bingo. He was on the right track in my view – especially in yard management.