The family may be going to seed, but we're still willing to spray leafy spurge

As kids, we spent many summers bumping along the dirt roads in Dad’s pickup as he patrolled creeks and ditches — ever vigilant to any splash of yellow representing leafy spurge. He would screech to a halt and we'd trot to the back of the truck to pull out hoses so we could douse every offending patch with herbicide. These days, we are more prone to limping than trotting. But we're still spraying spurge, Tammy Swift says.

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FARGO — Last year, my family instituted a new tradition — spraycation.

During the last week of June, we all simultaneously take a week of PTO to help my Dad battle the bane of his 90-odd years of existence: leafy spurge.

Spurge, if you’re lucky enough not to know it, is a noxious weed with yellowish flowers and the tenacity of a cockroach. It loves to overtake rangeland because cattle prefer grazing on the surrounding grasses, which provides even more room for the weed to stretch out its Putin-esque root system and cast its wicked seeds across the land.

It’s an equal-opportunity destroyer — happily choking out native plants in wet and dry prairies and savannas alike. Spurge also contains a milky sap in the stems and leaves, which can cause vomiting and scours in animals other than sheep who eat it.

Although our pop’s preoccupation with spurge may seem obsessive, he knows how insidious this little plant can be. Yes, there are natural solutions to spurge management, such as sheep and flea beetles, but these work best in areas in which the owner can consistently ensure the sheep only have access to spurge. Dad has a lot of rangeland, so it just isn’t feasible.


My dad has spent a lifetime battling the stuff. As kids, we spent many summers bumping along the dirt roads in Dad’s pickup as he patrolled creeks and ditches — ever vigilant to any splash of yellow representing the devil’s wedding bouquet. He would screech to a halt and we'd trot to the back of the truck to pull out sprayers and hoses so we could douse every offending patch with herbicide.

Now, we are a lot older and creakier. We are more prone to limping than trotting. And Dad has worked so hard all his life that he wore out his knees completely. So these days, he just drives, gives orders and keeps the detailed map that shows which sections of land have been sprayed and which have not.

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It was pretty humbling when I didn’t make first string for this year’s spraycation team. Instead, Mabel’s husband, “Bertrand,” was the breakout star. He's the closest thing to fit, as he golfs and all of his limbs are in reasonably good working order. My “little” brother (nearly 50) also played a vital role, as he is fluent in understanding Dad (we call it “Virgilspeak”) after years of working alongside him in his furnace business.

Another brother-in-law, “Otto,” has high blood pressure, but is expert at operating the side-by-side that has become part of our modernized Spurge Annihilation Squad.

The starting lineup is rounded out by my sisters, Mabel and Verbena. Mabel worked with Dad a lot when she was still in high school, so is also fluent in Virgilspeak. But she just turned 60 and has a bad knee, so can’t clamber up steep hills and into coulees like she once did.

Verbena is the oldest of all of us. Although she is more comfortable administering orders to employees at the nursing home she runs, she also can administer herbicides in a pinch — especially if she can do so from behind the wheel of a side-by-side.

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Although I was willing to join the team, Coach Dad seemed doubtful about my abilities. Perhaps this is because I had last sprayed spurge in 1984 and had spent most of that time whining about it.

For whatever reason, Dad looked at his Not-Exactly-A-Dream Team and relinquished me to the bench.


Never was I more grateful for my incompetence. I was shooed off to the kitchen to make meatloaf, lasagna and rhubarb dessert for the hungry, dirt-smudged crew when they limped home each night.

Now I just had to brush up on Margespeak, as Mom coached from the sidelines on the best way to brown a meringue or crumble a Ritz cracker.

Next week, I’d like to share a few recipes from spraycation. These are the solid, unfussy Midwestern dishes we used to make in the 1970s and early ‘80s to feed Dad and his hired men when they came in for lunch. These dishes represent a time before people started getting uppity about things like Jell-O in dessert and tomato soup in lasagna.

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Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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