The taming of the yard…

I could have been justified in cutting the grass here on the homestead for the last two weeks. Two factors have led to that not happening. The first is that every spring my yard turns into a sopping, muddy morass any time it rains and generally just at about the time it’s dried enough to risk moving power equipment on it, there’s more rain. The second, and more personal factor, is simply my own procrastination. I know that from the moment I start it will be a recurring (at least) weekly lawn care project that historically stretches from sometime in April straight through to mid-January. 

Yard work is one of the very few kinds of work I do where, when it’s done, I can point to something and see a physical accomplishment. Maybe there’s even a little sense of pride there. It’s not the feeling of having done something I get when I’ve jammed together a really unwieldy PowerPoint or mastered the intricacies of a 6000-line spreadsheet. Yes, once I get after it, I’ll be pleased to see things looking neat and orderly, but if I’m honest, I’ve really enjoyed these last three months of not needing to keep up with it. 

I could probably get away with the procrastination for another week or two if I really put my mind to it. Alas, I have a yard rather than a lawn, so instead of a slightly-too-long expanse of grass, I’ve got a lumpy conglomeration of grass, clover, thin spots, and spiky miscellaneous weeds all growing at different rates and truly looking like a burning hot mess. If I can get one more rain-free day I might actually be able to properly begin the taming of the yard.

Experiments in lawn maintenance…

About a year ago I made the decision to stop hammering the front lawn with weed killer, fertilizer, and most of the other treatment products I had been using to keep it golf course green. The studies showing that chemical treatment for lawns is a large contributor to bee and insect die off and nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake are sufficient to convince me that I could tolerate a slightly less lush look out front in exchange for not contributing unnecessarily to those issues.

I can report now that the yard definitely looks different than it did a year ago. It’s still surprisingly green, though that’s in part due to favorable sun/shade conditions and soil that holds moisture like a sponge. From the street it still looks remarkable “lawn” like – although closer inspection will show it is increasingly going over to clover with a strong presence of dandelions and other groundcover weeds mixed in during the early part of the growing season.

I’m still mowing once a week, which seems to be enough to keep the faux-lawn looking neat and tidy enough to not give off the appearance of having given up on the idea of yard maintenance. I’m helped significantly by the looks of next house up the road, the owner of which apparently does not believe in any kind of lawn care than can’t be achieved with a 42-inch riding mower. The unsurprising result is a landscape edged all over with tall weeds and “missed” patches. I’m a little surprised the HOA is letting him get away with that, really, but it provides ideal cover for launching my own experiments in lawn maintenance so I don’t complain.

I grew up in a house with a plain, old yard and it wasn’t until my adventures in west Tennessee suburbia, with our houses packed in elbow to asshole that I started to develop an obsession with a pure, emerald green lawn… ironic, perhaps, because the Bermuda grass faded to dormant brown three months out of every year.

Over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve come full circle with what elements of the landscape I choose to care about. I’ve gone from craving a proper lawn to enjoying a yard again. It’s straight bonus points that I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of bees and other pollinators I see going about their business on the property. It’s a small win, but one that both the science and I agree is worth having… now if I can just gin up the time and money to rework two large front planting beds with something the local deer are less apt to eat, we’ll be making actual progress.

Clawed back from nature…

This won’t mean much to you, but since I’ve been working on it almost since I bought the house it’s one of those things that means a hell of a lot to me. You see, I’ve been trying to claw back about 500 square feet of back yard the pervious owner let go to the woods. Although 400 square feet is hardly worth a mention in man’s great efforts at deforestation, I’m taking it as a great achievement and point of personal pride.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time clearing brush and then deciding which trees and saplings to take to make that corner feel like part of the yard without clear cutting it. Although the heavy lifting was finished early this spring there were a few stray stumps that deviled my ability to bring in the heavy lawn care equipment.

Yesterday morning’s temperate conditions proved beautiful weather to hammer down the stumps with a maul and an ax – and marked the first time I could get the riding mower into that section to keep things cut down to a more yard-like style. It’s still filled with weeds and some of the native mountain laurel looks like it could develop into promising pieces. Considering where it started, I’m well pleased with where we stand now. After beating nature into submission with both blunt and sharpened steel, yesterday was the first time a cut and trim started to fall inside the realm of regular weekly lawn care instead of being a “special project.” Give it another two years of carefully tended growth and it should be a fine little plot of land.

Because virtually none of what takes place outside of my fence line ever feels like it’s ever completed work, I feel good about this small win.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Lawn (work) envy. If there was ever a single sound that could get under my skin, it isn’t nails on a chalk board or the hi pitched whining of small human beings. The most awful of sounds is the sound of lawn maintenance happening somewhere next door when I’m working from home. No, I’m not mad that they’re doing it. I don’t feel interrupted or put upon at all. It’s mostly just a rising frustration that they’re able to get out there and do it while I’m stuck being more or less responsible and not able to take advantage of the good weather to do the same thing myself.

2. Calls from unknown or 800-number. By now you’d think your fancy algorithms would tell you that I’m not going to pick up. I never do. But I admire your hope-spings-eternal persistence. If you want to have any hope of getting my eyes on your product or service, try send me an old fashioned letter. I’ll at least scan the first line of that before shredding it… and every once in a great while I’ll read the pitch if you’ve got a good hook up front. Otherwise, feel free to continue going to voicemail. It’s entirely your choice.

3. Showing restraint. There’s really nothing worse than being forced by social convention to sit politely and try not to smirk when the person on the other side of a conversation so richly deserves being grabbed by the throat and pummeled against every flat surface in the room. No matter how much asshats like that deserve a bit of rough treatment, I’d be the one who ended up in jail for handing it out. Talk about living in an unjust world.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The internet as everlasting know it all. I got a book recommendation from a friend earlier this week. I’m always looking for interesting reading materials so I saved the name and filed it away for my next visit to Amazon. The next morning of course, the book electro-magically shows up in my Facebook news feed as a “recommended buy from Amazon” ad. This is just all basically confirmation that the internet is a damned creepy place, even when you’re not getting catfished.

2. Picking your friends. Once again, the tide of “if you vote for Candidate X, just unfriend me” is upon us. Let the record show that I don’t determine my friendships based solely on an individual’s politics, orientation, gender, ethnicity, or any other single factor. Funny thing is, I don’t think of my friends as a group of one-dimensional elements so much as I do the sum of their parts. That means I can both enjoy their company and disagree with them on political philosophy all at the same time. Maybe it’s just me. With that said, the chances of me changing my mind on most of the issues I find important are slim to none. I will continue to post occasionally about those issues, but certainly not to the exclusion of all other aspects of life. Come to think of it, if my politics are the only reason you’re hanging on to me, maybe it’s best to just let go after all. There just can’t be much value added to friendships based on just one slim sliver of what makes a person who they are.

3. Rain. Seriously. I know I put down sod and the fact that I’ve had a good soaking rain fall on it 5 out of the last 7 days is like mana from heaven, but we’ve reached the point where I’d dearly love to see maybe an hour or two of actual sunshine. Preferably not when I’m buried in the back corner of a concrete building where exterior weather conditions are well-nigh unknowable. I know it’s a big ask – one the forecast says could be out of reach for the next week at least. I’m happy as a clam not to have to drag hoses all over the yard, but a few minutes of sun on top of my dome would more than make up for half an hour of watering duty on the afternoon of nature’s choice.

A little grass…

I’d forgotten what a lesson in patience waiting for grass to grow is. As good as it was to see the first shoots coming up yesterday I’m ready for the process to be over. I’m ready for the muddy paw prints to be a thing of the past. I’m ready to not have enough clay to open a pottery store clinging to me every time I need to go from one side of the yard to another.

The virtue of starting a lawn from seed is that it’s cheap and relatively easy – assuming your not the type to obsess over soil conditions, watering schedules, and average sunlight. I really, really thought hard about going with sod. Roll it out, give it plenty to drink, and *poof* instant yard. If it hadn’t been another budget buster in a project that was already suffering its share of overruns it would have been a no brainer.

I’m trying to remind myself that this is the kind of thing that pays off in the end when you do it right. That’ll be an easier lesson to remember once i’m done scraping the clay off my shoes for the 3,756th time in the last two weeks.

A good dream…

Aside from a couple of spots that are going to have to be backfilled once they settle, the great fence build of 2015 is mission complete. I’m well satisfied, the dogs (even Winston) are doing their best to chase off the rabbits, squirrels, and birds, and for the moment all is right with the world. I won’t go into the vast number of new and interesting landscape projects that this opening effort of the spring fighting season has brought to mind. There’s no end to the brush that needs cut, stumps to grind, and nature that generally needs to be beaten into submission at every turn. This week has already been a damned good start, but I’m all too aware that what I want to get done is likely a project of years and not of weeks or even months.

The up side is that I’m pretty sure I can now, at least in my own mind, justify the cost of a chain saw and maybe even a pole saw if I want to really push the limits of belief. See, all I wanted was a fence… but in the best traditions of home ownership one expense finds a way to bleed seamlessly into the next. That’s the dirty secret of the American Dream that no one ever mentions.

It’s a good dream. A happy dream. But the little bastard will nickel and dime you to death.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The first taste of spring. I’ve paid my dues and part of my reward has been “graduating” to a cube next to the windows. Usually that’s a good thing. Except this time of year when the weather finally starts shaking off the winter doldrums, things start greening up, and our courtyard looking more like an ill-tended park than a well-tended prison yard. It’s good to have a view of something, but once the rain stopped this week and the sun came out the view has mostly left me with a feeling that I’d much rather be outside working in the yard (or holding down a stool on one of my favorite deck bars) than sitting here working on version 43 of The PowerPoint Presentation that Will Save the World.

2. Being common. Pretty much everyone I know professionally carries around something called a Common Access Card. The theory behind the CAC is that it would be the one ID card to rule them all. It’s a good idea. Except that it’s not. Although it is ubiquitously common, it provides access to basically nothing. One way you know this is by standing behind a woman at the front door card scanner and watching for almost a minute while she tries to use it to unlock the doors. Even offering up a helpful, “Uh, I think you need to use you other access card for that door” was met with a furious gaze and a firm “No. You have to use your CAC.” Yeah. Fine lady. Don’t mind me while I reach past you to swipe my card so I can actually get to my desk.

3. The yard. One of the reasons I liked the new house so much was that the yard took up a relatively minor space on an otherwise spacious lot. The rest is filled in with reasonably large trees and plenty of undergrowth. The house needs a few odds and ends, but I made my peace with living with it for a while to decide what and how to attack those. The yard on the other hand is probably only a few days – a week at most – from demanding immediate attention. Trimming shrubs, weeding front and back, new mulch, dirt patches to seed where gas and septic have been dug up, areas where grading pushes water towards the house instead of away from it, the eventual fence project, and the general mowing and edging. Assuming the yard stays dry some of those things are going to have to start this weekend with others following on shortly thereafter. I haven’t had the amount of time to plan the attack that I’d have liked. By the end of summer I’ll have it sorted out, but don’t expect progress to be coherent or consistent in any way. Sadly that means it’s going to take more time than expected to bring the outside up to my probably unreasonable standard of “finished.”

Mexican standoff…

I might not be quite fanatical about lawn care, but it’s a pretty close run thing. In fact, “not fanatical” might just be a matter of degree, but compared to one of my two neighbors, I’m downright lax with my mowing and trimming routine. Normally that’s not much of a problem because the other neighbor lives somewhere on the other end of the mowing spectrum. Over there, they live by the once-a-month-is-good-enough standard. Sure, it’s bothersome, but I’m slowly learning to live with the things I can’t control. That’s not really the point, though.

The point, unfortunately, is that mine is now the neighborhood yard most in need of a good going over. While I’d very much like to take care of that problem, my John Deere is currently rated as out of service and unable to perform its primary mission. Loosely translated, after replacing the fuel filter, spark plug, and checking the fuel lines, I can’t keep the damned thing running for more than 45 seconds and even then it’s working at about 10% power. That means the yard is coming up on two weeks un-mowed and it’s starting to make me twitchy. The fact that it’s rained off and on every other hour for the last three days isn’t helping matters at all.

The fine people from the local Deere dealer are coming out on Friday to give it a diagnosis and attempt a repair on site. If that doesn’t go as planned, they’ll haul it away and bring it back up to operating standard at the shop. Of course if that happens, there’s no way of knowing when I’ll get my green machine back in service. That puts me in an awkward position of either a) accepting that the grass is going to be a foot tall or worse before I can do anything about it or b) ask the neighbor who actually takes meticulous care of his yard if I can borrow his tractor for an afternoon.

They’re both equally unappealing options. The former because it is an open admission of defeat and the latter because I’m completely uncomfortable borrowing a piece of equipment from the guy whose garage and workshop are cleaner than the kitchens in most commercial restaurants. It seems I’m in a Mexican standoff with myself. If things aren’t up and running on Friday, there’s not much chance of it ending well.


I’ve been ignoring it for a little over a month and mostly expecting that the situation would resolve itself, but the sad reality is during the last big snow I did something to jack up my back in more than the usual way. The fact that I literally had to roll out of bed this morning was enough evidence that my usual ignore-it-until-it-goes-away plan of action was proving insufficient to the challenge. I knuckled under around lunch time and made an appointment with my angry Germanic doctor in the hopes that he’d have some sort of snake oil that will let me stand or sit for more than 15 minutes without my whole lower back locking up.

I’d probably be willing to let it ride indefinitely, but with spring weather coming on fast, I’m in no condition to even think about using a weedeater or hedge trimmer. Just thinking about it makes me cringe just a little. Whatever the problem is, we’ll need to get it resolved quickly, because a look outside shows the yard isn’t waiting… and if anyone reading this thinks I’m going to let the place look like a foreclosure just because of a searing pain in the back, you clearly don’t get my level of OCD when it comes to lawn care.

Hopefully by this time tomorrow we’ll be on the way to knowing just how badly I screwed myself up. Sadly, I don’t think the answer is going to be “just go ahead and keep eating ibuprofen by the hand full.”