Dad and the Art of Lawnscape Maintenance

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In the art of landscape maintenance, my son and I have what you might call “creative differences.”

You see, I love mowing the lawn. It’s relaxing. It’s simple. It allows me a couple hours of free uninterrupted thought to think about whatever happens to flow through this brain of mine. In fact, this Commentary evolved from just one of those self-contained inventive sessions.

For me, cutting the grass represents a calming interlude in the maelstrom of a busy life. Sure, I want the yard to look good, but I don’t want it too fancy. Fancy implies labor-intensive. It’s not worth it. I’m a trained scientist. In my eyes, the world is not a show room, it’s an elaborate laboratory.

The lab is a disposable environment. Once an experiment is completed, the hypothesis either proven or refuted, the equipment is either disposed of (if it’s single use) or kept in storage for future repurposing. You can’t fall in love with the equipment. At the same time, you don’t want to lose that resource by allowing it to atrophy.

Don’t get me wrong. I have been totally dispassionate when it comes to the flora surrounding my home.

There was a time when I followed my father’s fine training. Every spring I weeded. Then I feeded. And I watered and watered. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But it evoked an agrarian commonality with my immigrant grandparents. And that made me feel good.

In adequate, but good.

I never had a green thumb. I desperately sought to groom a garden my grandfather (and father) would be proud of. (If you have any doubts, read “To Till The Land,” The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, April 26, 1990.) Again, it was a modest success, (except for the garlic, which was a resounding success). Eventually, the deer won the battle of the backyard.

I did not, however, go quietly into the weeds. My father-in-law turned me on to the homespun wisdom of Jerry Baker. Calling himself “America’s Master Gardener,” he wrote and spoke and pretty much appeared wherever people planted, potted, or pruned. He shunned expensive chemical fertilizers and sprays. Instead, he provided recipes that included everyday products like vinegar, garlic, baking soda, and dishwashing soap.

It was this latter item which intrigued me the most. Jerry Baker taught me soapy water opens the plant’s pores. This allows the vegetation to more quickly absorb whatever liquid you wish to feed it. That might be water. It might be nutrients. In the case of weeds, it might be an organic herbicide.

I tried it. It took more time, but it worked.

Then our family started growing. And I started a business. Time became a fleeting commodity.

Still, above all else, I spent those couple hours a week cutting the lawn. And having ideas. (And in some cases, I even wrote those ideas down!)

Like my father before me, (and all fathers for that matter), I was eager to share the family’s legacy of lawn maintenance with my young son Peter. Some kids, when presented with this glory, respectfully listen. Others eagerly engage, chomping at the bit for their turn at the wheel. Every so often, a child will carefully observe, plot maneuvers in his head, then calmly execute those plans on his first try.

Peter fell into that latter category. Sitting (or standing) between my legs as I mowed the lawn, pretending (I think it was pretending) to steer the wheel with me, Peter memorized each and every turn I made. The nuance of reverse and gear shifting became second hand to him. When it came time for him to mount the steel steed himself, he did so with a precision one would expect from a boy who was destined to become an engineer.

Aye, there’s the rub. For, once I turned over the reins, there was no taking them back. Soon the lawn became his domain. He was the master. I merely provided the gas money.

Gone were my carefree days of idle thought as I gracefully cut the grass. Yeah, sure, every once and a while Boy Scout camp would take Peter away and I’d get a chance to relive my glory. And when Peter went to college, I had the spring and the fall for myself. (This didn’t include fall recess, when, as soon as he arrived home and before I left the office, Peter would hop on the John Deere and mow the lawn.)

During his summer, while he wasn’t toiling away at the DOT, he’d be strategizing on the best methods to eliminate grubs and resod brown spots. His ideas worked. And continue to work. He has a green thumb where I am all thumbs when it comes to lawn and gardening.

Now that Peter’s graduated, he returns as master of the grounds and I, once again, slide back into the shadows of his faithful treasurer.

But not too quickly. He had only a week between his graduation and his three-week journey to discover the American West (I’m so jealous, but, since he’ll be acting as a stringer for the Sentinel on the trek, expect to see at least a picture report of his travels.) During those seven days, he spent most of them studying for his FE Exam (the first of two examinations engineers must pass in order to become licensed as a Professional Engineer). The rest of the time he spent reacquainting himself with old friends and packing for his 21-day camping excursion.

He did, of course, find the time to cut the grass.

You’d think that would have been something I appreciated, given I was smack dab in the middle of national radio book tours for two completely different titles. I did appreciate it. I always appreciate his work around the house.

But when it was my turn to cut the lawn this weekend in his absence (he was dodging thunderstorms in the Grand Teton mountains), this was when those “artistic differences” came to light. Not only did he leave the tank low on gas, he also left the blade at four inches. I always cut the grass at three inches. I always tell Peter, “Peter,” I say, “always cut the grass at three inches.”

I should have suspected something when I looked at the lawn after he cut the grass. It didn’t look cut. I could tell by his infield-like mowing pattern that he ran over the lawn. At the time, I thought maybe, given the late spring, the grass had not grown as much as I’d thought.

Nope. He cut it at four inches. Which meant when I brought the blade down to three inches I had to hack through grass higher than it should be.

And that leaves clumps on the lawn.

Peter hates clumps on the lawn.

He always looks at them disapprovingly when I leave them.

Hmm, maybe he’ll fire me when he gets back.

Over “artistic differences”

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