“You can tell a lot about a man by looking at his yard,” my father said as he handed over the reins of our 2-cycle, self-propelled Lawn Boy 21-inch mower with the funky offset wheels. I was eight years old and dad wanted me to take pride in my work. He wanted me to know the satisfaction of transforming acres of unkempt weeds and wildflowers into what would be, for a day or two, the envy of the neighborhood. And, more importantly, he wanted somebody – anybody – else to mow our damn lawn.
I can’t say that I blame dad for sending his youngest child to risk death on the hills, slopes and ditches that were our yard. There was not one aspect of yard maintenance of our rural upstate New York home that ranked above “Awful.” The front lawn was riddled with tree roots that would stop the mower dead in its tracks. The side lawn had a slope that would topple a mountain goat. And, the back lawn grew at least an inch per day due to its being atop the septic tank leach field.
It was that early experience, combined with the years of sunburns when I did mow the lawn and lost privileges when I did not, that squarely put me in the category of “not a lawn guy.” To be fair, I have mowed many a lawn in my years. I have cleaned carburetors and rebuilt the decks of mowers that I scrounged from yard sales. Still, I never understood why my South Carolina neighbors got excited for the first mow of the year, which for them took place on Valentine’s Day and closer to Memorial Day for me. I got excited about the last mow of the year, which usually took place on Thanksgiving for my neighbors and Labor Day for me. If it was a particularly good lawn-care summer with a severe drought and scorching sun, I’d put the mower away by the Fourth of July.
For nearly my entire life, I have done everything possible to beat back the growth of my lawns, and never once bought grass seed, or sod, or fertilizer, or god forbid, watered a lawn. That is, until my wife Sue and I decided to “make something” of our back yard.
Okay, Sue is the one who took on this project. I sold my riding mower the week we got married and I moved in with Sue. I thought the weed patch of a backyard that could be “mowed” with a string trimmer was just about perfect.
Landscapers were hired. Pavers were laid. Shrubs and bushes were planted. And, finally, 200 square feet of sod was installed so that our dog Iggy could relieve herself in comfort. It was a backyard oasis with a grill and a glass-top patio table with an umbrella.
Even better, we were given explicit instructions not to mow the lawn for a month so that the roots could take hold.
It was during that month that we discovered girl dog pee might as well be hot lava to a new lawn. Boy dogs like to pee on trees and fence posts and neighbor’s sneakers that have been left on front porches. They spread it around. It’s kinda their thing. Girl dogs just squat on the grass and let it fly.
We bought neutralizer and scent destroyer and took Iggy on long walks so she could empty her bladder on someone else’s lawn. But still, she found a way to kill, kill, kill that new sod. Maybe she had a bad centipede experience as a puppy. Or, perhaps it was with Zen Zoysia. One never really knows what goes on in a dog’s head.
Iggy’s chemical warfare was not the only problem with our new lawn. Our crepe myrtles, the worst of all trees with their snow-like flowers that decompose into mud, rock-hard seeds that rain down like hail on passersby and branches that require weekly trimming, blocked out nearly all the sun and the soil washed out at the slightest drizzle. Six months later, we liberated half a pallet of some sort of sod I found in the “Free” section of Craigslist, dug up the old lawn and laid down the new. Second verse, same as the first.
Last fall, while researching some possible solution that did not involve Sue’s choice of artificial turf (I may not be a lawn guy, but I am not a barbarian), I discovered micro-clover. Turns out, all you have to do is throw some seeds on the ground, water the seeds a few times a week and green stuff grows. Since micro-clover tops out at three or four inches tall, it only needs to be mowed four or five times a year. By the middle of March, our pathetic patch of dirt was lush and green – all after an investment of $30 in seed and perhaps two hours of my time.
I looked at my creation and realized what my dad tried to teach me all those years ago. Sometimes a bit of determination and research pays off – even if it is just 200 square feet of lawn between the back porch and the garage – it is something to take pride in.
By mid-April the crepe myrtles put the lawn back in the shade, Iggy realized that there was an unresolved puppyhood issue with clover and heavy rains washed away any remnants of soil. I mowed the remaining patches of clover for the last time on Flag Day and remembered dad’s words, “You can tell a lot about a man by looking at his lawn.”
Turns out, I am fine with not being a lawn guy. And, come next spring when Sue hires someone competent to put it in, I am sure I’ll be fine with being a barbarian with artificial turf.