A Labor of Lawn

God gave man the burden of toiling the earth. The homeowner still answers this call. On his simple plot, he plants, prunes, fertilizes, weeds, mows, and subjugates every leaf and blade, flower and vine. He is connected to his land and his neighbor, both labor in sweat in a chorus of cursing of the mundane.

My plot of land falls into what is commonly known as the transition zone. It is a challenging climate that vexes the most experienced green thumb. Dry summers bake the red clay soil and parched grass recedes to reveal bald patches of cracking earth. Winter offers no reprieve, frequent freezes stunt growth, grass yellows, and impotent blades droop toward the ground resting in sickly bunches. Summer and Winter are a hardscrabble turf game but when Spring arrives the game is set anew.

Spring In Action

Six thirty am my Prius purrs into the parking lot of The Home Depot. Out of habit, I park in the middle spot of a row perpendicular to the entrance. Close enough, but still leaving options for the disabled and pregnant. This need not be a thought at this early hour, but just in case. From the back lot, the store employees stammer into the light of the sodium vapor lamps. I exit my Prius and join the smattering of weary bodies. As they converge on the entrance I divert, making my way toward the Garden Center.

I enter through the gates of the chain link fence and grab a hand cart. As I start toward the grass seed section, the cart begins bucking up and down producing a loud clanging. I notice a caster wheel spinning underneath the flat steel surface. I have a wobbler. Wobblers are the convenient grabs in the mess of shopping carts. The fact they are abandoned in aisles should serve as warning of their lack of function. I could make a quick swap, but I am halfway to my goal. I take a quick look around and realize I am the only person. There is no one to aggravate, so I decide to continue on.

The back of the garden section greets me with 12 different options of grass seed. Zoysia and fescue varieties dominate the range of choices. From my initial research, I decide on fescue. It seems more cost effective and easier to sow as it comes in seed form, not sod like Zoysia. That’s the easy part, in the fescue family options split into four varietals: shade tolerant, tall, southern, and fine. I have not given thought to varietals. I pace to and fro flipping the twenty-pound bags reading the back of each one. All include a guarantee to grow; this gives me confidence that I might achieve the masterpieces of turf artistry featured on the bags. After 30 minutes I settle on shade tolerant fescue. The shade variety says it thrives in yards with 50% shade, 50% shade sounds about right. I load my wobbler with two bags of fescue, check out, pack the Prius, and make for home.

As I pull into my neighborhood, I drive past picture perfect lawns that look like they could be on the pages of Southern Living. I have the sensation of being watched. I feel like the gray stranger in a Western. I have trotted or hummed, into town on my trusty silver steed. Meanwhile, the locals, veiled behind their plantation shutters sipping coffee, cast a judging eye. A look that says you don’t belong here.

As I pull the Prius up the driveway, I give my yard a thorough stare down. My earth is a profane patch of interloping crabgrass and dog crap. It’s a blemish on the healthy complexion of the verdant well tended neighboring lawns, a pock mark on the collective beauty of our community. The judging looks are warranted, I have the worst lawn in the neighborhood.

Growing Responsibilities

In my fresh-faced years after college, I lived mostly in bachelor pads the size of suburban walk-in closets, simple setups for sleeping and basic hygiene. I had all I needed and nothing more. My living space consisted of a small refrigerator stocked with gas station burritos and beer, a hot plate with two burners, a couch, a 14-inch television, a couple kitchen utensils and a Roomba that did my vacuuming. I washed one load of laundry, always on cold to save money, and could complete all my chores in 15 minutes. Times were simple.

My wife and I married in January 2011 and moved to a two-bed room apartment in Santa Monica. My maintenance requirements didn’t change much, and I improved my standard of living. No more washing dishes in the shower, no more quarter laundry machines, and no more sleeping on a couch. Our new apartment had a dishwasher and even provided the convenience of being able to wash our laundry on site. Times were still simple and free time was plentiful.

In May of 2011, my wife accepted a promotion. The opportunity was one we couldn’t pass up, but it required a relocation to South Florida. Not a big deal, we were up for the adventure, and as newlyweds, we had little responsibility beyond simple upkeep of ourselves. In July of that year, we purchased our first home. It was a three two ranch on a third of an acre. We continued our usual apartment chore schedule, paying no attention to the land that we were now required to manage. Our yard responded to our neglect with cataclysmic growth. Weeds sprouted and grew into bristling mounds that choked out grass, flowering bushes put forth vines across thin edge barriers, and giant Royal Palms sloughed large fronds. Our yard was littered with debris and looked like a vandal fertilized it with a growth mutagen. The yard was revolting, taking back what was stolen from years of responsible cultivation under the previous owner, thriving in the wake of our naivety.

The disarray of our yard did not last long. Our next door neighbor let us know with disapproving glances and few words that we needed to: cut our grass, trim our bushes, water our flowers, etc. These neighbors still take top honors as the worst people I have ever met –not for lack of couth in drinking red wine with ice, but because they were ugly people. This experience was the catalyst for our foray into the world of yard work and the ensuing investment of equipment.

The Right Tools

Possessing the right tools is critical for yard management success. When purchasing my first set of lawn equipment, I wanted to be eco-friendly. I opted for a push-powered reel mower, manual pruning shears, and a stringed pole cutter for out of reach branches. I figured manual tools meant less impact on the environment, less noise and would provide a great workout.

It was a workout, a sweat-stained, muscle aching, back breaking workout. I remember cussing in my head the whole time I pushed the reel mower across our yard. I would force a smile and wave every time I saw my wife in the kitchen window. It’s going dandy out here honey. It took me three hours each weekend to complete yard work. I finished with my clothes drenched in sweat and my shoes weighing five pounds from caked mud — torrential downpours are a daily occurrence in the summer months in Florida. I quickly reformed my stance on man-powered lawn equipment and moved to gas.

In February of 2016, we moved from Florida to Georgia. I received a promotion, and we were looking for a home with more space for our growing family. We settled into four three in Marietta on land just shy of an acre. Our ballooning land mass has required an upgrade in land management tools. I am beginning to think the suburbs are a better “deal” because smart people would never burden themselves with the grunt work of mowing a yard the size of a football field. I now boast an arsenal of lawn tools that would warrant a respectful nod from any professional landscaper. When asked my hobbies I can answer resoundingly… horticulture.

Weed and Seed

It is mid-morning when I emerge from the basement with my manual hand tiller and wheelbarrow. I trudge to the front yard, tools in tow and catch sight of my neighbor across the street. I can feel my jealousy building. He is a zoysia man, and his patch of earth is picture perfect. His yard would look great on any seed bag, and rivals the quality of a PGA putting green. He makes yard work look effortless and wields the best quality in yard maintenance equipment, brands like Stihl, Husqvarna, Echo. The quality is hard to miss as the best brands use orange as their calling card. His yard stands in stark contrast to my mine. My yard comprises a mix of scattered fescue patches stranded in a sea of wheat grass, dollar weed, and dandelion.

From the cul de sac another neighbor approaches, she spots me and says, “Yard is looking good!” “Thanks,” I reply back. She is lying. Clumps of crabgrass, their roots matted with red clay, litter the yard, refuse cast aside from my tiling. In their former resting places are giant ankle- snapping holes that leave the appearance of one searching for buried treasure. There is no treasure to be had in tending this hard earth just pursuit of an ideal, a perfect piece of land all my own.

I look in the bay window and spot my wife. My daughter is on her left hip sucking her thumb while my son, on her right, has his hands cupped around his eyes pressed against the window. She sips her coffee surveying my efforts like a proud foreman. When my son meets my eyes, he pulls his face away and proceeds to jump up and down, encouraging me, cheering me on. I wipe the sweat from my brow and get back to work. My last steps are debris removal, laying down a layer of compost, and seeding. With these tasks complete, the job is finished and thus begins the waiting.

Fruit of My Labor

Every day I rise and shuffle to the window with my coffee in hand. I survey the ground for any sign of life, even the smallest sprig will bring meaning to all the effort. Weeks of the same routine pass until one morning  I spot a shoot forcing it’s way through the earth, then two, then many. I exhale a huge sigh of relief and feel a surge of pride forcing my chest outward, I have sewn life into this inhospitable land.

When I see my neighbors, I cast a confident wave, a departure from the haggard frown of hard preparatory labor. The fruit is here my piece de resistance. My wave is part shoo, a dismissal of the sad sacks of sod they call yards, and call over. I want to bring them into my sanctuary. I want them to feast on the splendor. My doors are open welcoming all who would enter in, open to all who would rest in my knowledge, all who would seek my sage counsel.

What was once a feeling of futility has vanished in the mist of the morning dew. I exit the front door and stop, kneeling at the edge of the walk way. I gaze deeply, my hand passes over a section of blades as I repeat in my head, “I am proud of you, I am proud of you, you make me so proud.”