The Zen of Lawn Care

by Brian Peters

The bank and I own a house in river city, where I live. Actually, the bank owns nearly 90% of it, the last I checked, but they're not around much, so it works out pretty well. I like the house, mostly, and I even enjoy fixing the odd detail and mending the occasional frayed thing about it from time to time. I once thought I'd make great changes to it -- improvements was the word back then -- but the longer I thought, the less real difference the changes seemed to make, so the house and I have settled into a sort of happy state where each appreciates the other's flaws.

Sadly, the house came with a yard. Perhaps you suspected that -- it seems they most often do. I tried hard to avoid the problem, telling the realtor that the refrigerator and the dishwasher could stay, but the sellers were to take the lawn with them. He was unsuccessful on that point -- a "deal breaker," he said. I'm not sure he even tried.

The lawn and I regarded each other with utter contempt, backed by merciless tenacity. I bought a lawn mower -- a real, name-brand kind. The lawn tore the back wheel off it within months, then it started on the carburetor. I adjusted it, the lawn threw it back out of adjustment. I cleaned it, the lawn gummed it back up. I cleaned and re-oiled the air filter constantly, the lawn instantly muddied it into a lawnmower-choking nightmare.

I retaliated and tore out a whole row of rangy, half-dead bushes along the front stairs, and planted a beautiful peach tree that fall. Miss Peach struggled valiantly, but died the following spring. Others blame the weather or root fungus, but I'm sure the lawn killed her, just for spite.

I struggled less after that. True, I cut the occasional dead branch and trimmed the odd bush, even pulled weeds from the cracks in the driveway and dug up a dandelion here and there, but my heart wasn't in it. Was it laissez-faire, or maybe just lazy? I can't say for sure.

I began to question monoculture -- I think it was the violets that did it. And then the clover. The violets formed a carpet of purple across part of the back yard in the spring, and the fact was, they were just stunning. Wait another week to mow -- perhaps even two -- stunning. And the clover followed later in the summer, and was an equal delight. Then I noticed the dandelions -- a yellow flower I quite love, followed by a wispy head of cotton that I used to play with for hours when I was younger -- and I realized that the root system made them more stable ground cover on the hills than almost anything else I had growing.

I noticed that the horror of "good lawn disease" -- sod web worms and other pestilence visited periodically on too-perfect lawns -- never touches an even modestly diverse setting, let alone a setup like mine. I even found that the problem with the mower was too much babying; once I tossed out the air filter and started putting the mower away in the garage without further thought each time, it began starting on the first pull and running like a top. Well, a loud, smoke-belching top, but you know what I mean.

I've also made the acquaintance of the resident striped ground squirrel. Chippy is a joy to watch, an ambitious digger, and the sworn enemy of symmetry. Give Chippy a square-to-all-surrounding-surfaces sidewalk or set of stairs, and the little digging machine will be right to work adjusting it to an aesthetically perfect new angle unintended by the builder. That still gives Chippy plenty of time to undermine retaining walls and pop unexpectedly around corners to chatter about the day generally. Every lawn should have one.

I'd love to tell you that I maintain a chemical-free zone on my little plot of whatever-grows-here-must-be-okay, but that isn't true. I think a chemical drift zone is closer to the mark. As a small, but slowly growing, number of farmers moves to "organic" production in search of a market with higher prices, my neighbors seem determined to borrow their prior methods and apply every scorched earth agrochemical not yet expressly banned by the EPA. But in the end, I suppose it just changes the patchwork. In some patches my beloved dandelions sicken and die, and in other patches the lawn turns an unnatural shade of green from washed fertilizer, but overall it stays in balance and as happy as an aspiring prairie on a residential street can be.

So that's the balance I've struck -- I mow when I must, and enjoy the unexpected when I can, remaining as unobsessed about my little jungle as it is unobsessed about me. Besides -- at least I've heard -- only serial killers have perfect lawns.

©2002 by Brian Peters

Brian lives precariously between a river and the great midwestern prairie on the low-rent side of a limestone bluff.

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