What the State of Your Lawn Says About You

To some, lawn mowing is nothing but a chore. To others, it’s an art—and an obsessive one at that

 

When a couple came to stay with my wife and me one weekend a few years back—arriving early on a Friday while I was still at work—the husband thought he’d “help me out” by mowing my lawn. Why? I couldn’t begin to tell you; it’s moments like this that remind me just how little I know about human behaviour. But in the throes of his unholy compulsion, my guest decided for some reason to lower the blades on my beloved, gas-powered Toro SR4 Super Recycler mower. Result: He cut the lawn too close, scalding a swath of carefully nurtured grass—my babies. He apologized for the disaster but not for the breach of etiquette.

Seriously, who on God’s green Earth adjusts another man’s mower?

Not everybody obsesses about their lawns, I know. I have friends, good friends, who treat mowing the lawn as a nuisance, like shaving, or raising children. But that is not my situation. I accept, with all my heart, the traditional male responsibility—passed on to my father by his father, right back I’m sure to Adam and Cain—for creating a perfect, bright, springy rectangle of welcoming green. When it comes to the yard, I don’t want to “get it over with,” I want to demonstrate my mastery over the natural world and bend life itself to my will.

Have you ever seen a professional baseball field from above, frosted with criss crossing light and dark diagonals by an overzealous grounds keeper? A smoothly rolling eternal golf course? A natural grass football field so green against the white gridiron that it hurts your eyes to see it? That’s all I’m trying to achieve—a lush, bouncy, picnic magnet of a lawn so appealing that strangers buy boxes of puppies just to photograph them here.

I wasn’t always crazy, I swear. I was a normal, chore-averse child once upon a time. My family’s lot in Ramsey, N.J., was a few thousand miles across, or seemed so, measured by plodding teenage footsteps as I tried to force the screaming, smoke-belching monster-mower across that endless yard. My father had handed this “important responsibility” over to me with barely contained suburban glee—he may have already had a whiskey sour in one hand—warning that the mower could chop off my toes right through the sneakers (that one stuck with me). I didn’t particularly hate the task; it was simply a means to buy more Wacky Packages. It wasn’t until years later, when my wife and I bought our starter home, that I began to awaken to the possibilities.

Growing a beautiful lawn represents a triumph precisely because it’s not easy to do. It’s like playing chess or achieving a flat belly: The rules are simple, but success requires a long-term commitment and discipline that’s more than the average person can bear. You have to move out of the mind-set of lawn-as-hassle and imagine instead that you are carefully nurturing a delicate, sub-ankle-height crop: planting and watering and fertilizing it, harvesting it regularly and protecting it from biological micro-threats.

If you think about it, the lawn is the last vestige of the family farm. For thousands of years, farming was mostly about grass: the oats, rye, wheat and barley that fuelled the bread that made civilization possible and the alcohol that made it worth the trouble. Even today, there’s really nothing like starting a patch of grass from seeds, roughing up the ground before planting, then watering endlessly and staring at the mud for days until you finally start to see your babies come to life. How rewarding to watch these nurtured seedlings in their thousands, these little lives that you created, stretch toward the sky! Until your children spill out of the house and blithely stomp all over them, of course.

Their time will come. There is wisdom to be preserved and passed along to the next generation: Plant in the fall. Kill the weeds in the early spring. Add lime to keep it green and fertilizer to keep it lush. Water heavily, but not too often, to promote deep and strong roots. Sharpen the mower blade yearly. Rent the aerator every other year to bring oxygen to the roots. Rake out the thatch. No unauthorized team horseplay. Absolutely no cleats.

‘I want to achieve a lawn so appealing strangers buy puppies just to photograph them here.’

Like all great art, though, lawn creation isn’t just about the materials and techniques; it’s about the soul and the intention of the artist. I hardly ever mow in the dreary recommended rectangle, for example. After a necessary perimeter circuit to define my canvas, I’ll trace a large, lazy S-curve that I can build away from, or I’ll cut around a central tree and continue in widening circles, until the end product looks like a topographic map. And I don’t use earphones, because why would I want to distract myself? I like to hear the thrum of the machine and keep it running when I pause (with one hand on the safety rod) and bend to pinch an opportunistic pimple of a dandelion.

This is your plot of land, your homestead: the last thing you walk through on your way out and the first thing guests see. I don’t think it’s going too far to say your lawn is a public assertion of your character. Crab grass and weeds? You’re a bad planner and a procrastinator. Patches of green moss masquerading as grass? You don’t value the truth; you probably have suspect business relationships and friends you can’t trust. Bare and dusty here, there and everywhere? You’re a disgrace; you don’t care about anything at all and have been phoning it in for years.

I’m sorry, but lawns don’t lie.

If you only want to put in the minimum effort and reluctantly shave your yard when the neighbour’s start leaving anonymous notes, no problem. But to me, lawn care is the path to a Zen paradise, simultaneously your home’s buffer from the outside world and a permanent self-expression gallery. Maybe I’m the crazy one. But when your errant frisbee winds up snuggled in my velvet green, tread lightly as you retrieve it…and don’t pretend you’re not jealous.

www.wsj.com

By KEITH BLANCHARD

Updated April 11, 2016