A visit with Jim Lawson for some horticultural advice
laced with a tale or two of happenings along Yellow Creek Road

This circa 1910 drawing by a Lawson family member shows the store, well, barn and 100-year-old oak tree behind the present day nursery building along Yellow Creek Road. (Photo by Anita Rosen)

By Anita Rosen
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Standing by his sign with Yellow Creek Road unfolding in the background, Mr. Lawson remains an active octogenarian. (Photo by Anita Rosen)
Are you ready to make another stop along Yellow Creek Road? This time we’re headed just south of the Cherokee/Pickens county line to meet Jim Lawson.

For over fifty years folks have bought heirloom trees from Lawson’s Nursery in Ball Ground knowing they will find top-quality plants grown on the best rootstock available.

Lawson’s Granddad moved here in 1914 and set up a country store just up the hill from the white building bordering today’s Yellow Creek Road. The store was part of a farming community which also boasted a corn mill, a blacksmith shop and a gin to process the cotton grown here. 

Lawson attended a one-room schoolhouse, walking a mile each way along with the teacher who boarded with his parents. Lawson prospered in this agrarian setting: as a ten-year-old, with a burgeoning interest in plants, he took the $1.20 his Grandma gave him, bought four trees and planted them at edge of the family’s cotton field.

“I was thrilled to see that graft succeed.”

The next step for Lawson’s inquisitive mind was to figure out grafting—the horticultural propagation process of joining tissues of one plant (rootstock) to those of another (scion) to create a new plant exhibiting the scion’s characteristics. This esoteric technique seemed to the young Lawson just a “question of matching cambium layers at the right time of the year and then waiting.” Using books dating back to 1843 and 1903, he taught himself how to graft.

His first success involved a jimsonweed rootstock on a tomato scion. Lawson admits it was quite a conversation piece, and wisely did not eat it. He then tried his luck using a crabapple rootstock on an eating-apple scion. This resulted in some ribbing from his boyhood peers, but when the tree started to grow a few weeks later, he had the last laugh. “I was thrilled to see that graft succeed.” He kept trying and before he knew it, folks were bringing him their favorite varieties to graft. Grandma’s yard became the first Lawson’s Nursery.

The barn in the painting still stands, with an addition on its right side, but is hidden from the street by foliage. (Photo by Anita Rosen)
By the mid-1940’s, the boll weevil had put an end to cotton farming in Ball Ground. At the same time, Lawson’s interest in preserving old fruit tree varieties—ones he thought tasted better than the new cultivars—grew from a hobby into a business. In the 1950’s, Lawson started printing a catalogue which drew business from Pakistan, Central America, Costa Rica, Canada and all 50 states. In fact, Lawson was called on to do some grafting of historical trees for the Virginia governor’s mansion. 

He leased a big field off Cove Road in the 1980’s and, with the help of his sister, worked on 13,000 trees one very hot summer. Lawson accepted scions from folks wanting to preserve a treasured variety and, according to the catalogue, bench-grafted with a success rate of over 98 percent. As reported in the November 26, 1980, issue of "The Hour" from Norwalk, Connecticut, Lawson was, at that time, growing about 40,000 trees a year on his 25 acres.

“I fixed a tree with all sweet apple grafts, giving a wide selection on one tree!”

The catalogue is a magic carpet ride to autumns past with apple varieties sounding as crisp as a September afternoon: Coon Creek of Kentucky, Fox Whelp, Granny Winkle, Old- fashioned Limbertwig, Reverend Morgan, and Yates—a Christmas favorite, to name but a few. Lawson can wax poetic about some varieties like the Lady Apple, a hard-to-grow variety reputedly from ancient Rome, or the Pomme Grise, thought to be one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites. Asked to graft as many King David apple trees as possible from a scion he received, Lawson did as requested . . . in spite of finding the apples so tart they would “make a pig squeal to taste it.” For Celestine Sibley, the renowned southern columnist, Lawson grew a special sweet apple tree: “I fixed a tree with all sweet apple grafts, giving a wide selection on one tree!”

At 86 years of age, Lawson still grafts fruit trees, albeit on a scaled-down basis. The last catalogue was published in 2002, but customers continue to call. If you are looking for an heirloom fruit tree or just want to hear some of our area’s history, you can do no better than to call on Mr. Jim Lawson for some horticultural advice laced with a tale or two of happenings along Yellow Creek Road.


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