I Fought the Lawn, and the Lawn Won

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The ideal:
The front lawn ideal: croquet anyone?

At first it was difficult to wrap my suburban-lawn-care brain around the fact that I no longer lived in Seattle on a postage-stamp-sized lot. When I moved to the country, I remained ensconced in the protocols (or perhaps tyrannies) of city gardens and urban scale. Ten years later I am officially giving it up. I live on close to four acres, and anyone who wishes to live on and cultivate more is delusional, unless of course said pioneer has hired hands or attentive staff, or has produced a cadre of kids who revel in farm chores and land stewardship, and have yet to discover smartphones. (Dig, check messages, repeat.)

Let the meadow grow, and mow a path
A meadow in the making, complete with path.

When I moved to Vashon Island, my wise neighbor Dan advised me to, “Chip away, Tom, chip away.” While this work approach still holds true today, I find that as of late, I wish to chip away at less and less. Choosing my daily battles has become a strategic survival guide in maintaining a healthy body and attitude (while still being able to do my own laundry, dishes and vacuuming). What I used to pursue and do a decade ago is not what I wish to spend my time on nowadays, like spending a half-day mowing the grounds around my house, orchards and lane. Don’t get me wrong; I cherish this place, every inch of it, but do I really need to mow a lawn comparable in size to the Quad on the UW campus? No, no I don’t. This epiphany didn’t come to me easily. It took mechanical intervention, public ribbing, and aching muscles for me to see the light; less lawn, more meadow was to become my new mantra.

Gardening on the wild side and letting pretty weeds take over...
Gardening on the wild side: a new way of seeing things.

Let me rewind a bit. The month was April and the grass was as thick and luxurious as a green chinchilla pelt. I gassed up the rider mower, put air in the tires, and prayed for a little divine intervention. Dear Lord, please may she start. Before that, I walked the grounds, scouring for objects deadly to a mower’s operation, things like stones, sticks, misplaced tools and broken lawn chairs. One hour into my circuitous lawn-cutting safari, I hit something —something buried beneath the blades of grass, something like the tip of a granite iceberg. In the lawn game of Stone Paper Scissors, Stone always wins. I’ll spare you the embarrassing details of me pounding the ground and sighing, “Why, why, why?” and cut to the chase.

just trimming the sideburns
A sideburn trim up the lane.

I rode the mower into town busted blades and all, skirting the road shoulder like a wounded Don Quixote cursing the blades of grass beneath me and their evil rock co-conspirators. Of course every person on Vashon I knew passed me that day, waving, chuckling, and shaking their heads. I fear that day I may have fast-forwarded my induction into the island’s Eccentric Geezer Hall of Fame. The guys up at the repair shop had a good laugh and asked, “Didn’t you just bring this Craftsman in last fall?”  “Why, yes, yes, I did.”

Last year's meadow is beginning to take shape. but regularly pull brambles.
Last year’s new meadow is beginning to take shape.

Weeks later, I rode my repaired mower home, enduring a bon voyage of cheeky remarks, and repair-shop smirks. “Remember, don’t mow rocks!”

Days later when the grass was dry and my spirit healed, I rode gallantly across my lawn, again eager to resume the crusade over tall grass. Minutes into the ride, I turned sharply to avoid a garden hose I had overlooked. I managed to hit a small fern clump, a soft woody, fibrous outcropping with the tensile strength of shredded wheat. Apparently that’s all it took to disable the blades.

Clematis "Fragrant Star" shares the stage with volunteer forget-me-nots
No weeding here. Clematis “Fragrant Star” shares the stage with volunteer forget-me-nots

No, no, say it ain’t so. The mower blades rattled freely like a bucket of wrenches. The belt labored, then paused. My mowing platform was DOA. I removed my earplugs, wiped the grass from my glasses, pulled out the key, and hurled it at the barn wall, all while sharing language ill-suited for a PG-13 rating. Retreating to the hammock, I licked my wounds, whined about shoddy construction, and called for Boz. (He’s good company in these situations.)

Boz's rewrite: Less Lawns, More Hammock Time
Boz on the bright side: less mowing means more hammock time.

After gaining a wee bit of perspective and composure, I mounted my injured steed and headed off to the repair shop once again; but make no mistake, this time the earplugs stayed in until I returned home.

35 COMMENTS

  1. I despise EVERYTHING about mowint–the noise, the stench, the utter WASTE of my time.
    You are a wise man. I think a meadow garden looks lovely. It certainly benefits wildlife. Lawn people can go to……………..never mind!
    ; )

  2. I despise EVERYTHING about mowing–the noise, the stench, the utter WASTE of my time-and lets not forget the waste of gasoline!
    You are a wise man. I think a meadow garden looks lovely. It certainly benefits wildlife. Lawn people can go to……………..oh,never mind!
    ; )

  3. I know this isn’t funny. None of it. But I found myself laughing the entire time I was reading about your disastrous attempt at mowing your yard. Yes, Tom, it’s time to reduce the carpet of green. I imagine you now, sitting on your porch, drinking a glass of lemonade (or maybe something stronger), contemplating various, easy-to-maintain ground covers.

    • It’s okay to laugh Eileen, I did, but it took a few days to do so. 😉 The funny thing about ground covers…a couple have taken over the front bed and cloaked my perennials in a sea of gray-green. So much for less work. Rest assured it is now close to 4pm and I am contemplating my next take-five spot, and the appropriate libation for a well-worked day, which resumes again after this break.

  4. Oh Tom! I’m sorry to hear your tale of lawn woe. Bring on the wilderness, I say. Do you get snakes on the island?

  5. i feel your pain! i had a very different mindset when i created my gardens back in the mid 90’s. now i am reevaluating everything about them.

  6. Growing up on a farm we had a smallish “nice” lawn that was mowed. Good for picnics and playing kids. The rest of the farmyard was cut twice a year or so with either a sickle-bar mower or a swatcher and bailed for hay. It kept the wilds at bay and wasn’t too much work.

  7. The vision of you riding your mower into town brought back thoughts of the movie “The Straight Story”. Your trip was a little shorter.

  8. Oh Tom, I am so sorry that your mower broke again. The saga of the broken riding mower had many verses when I lived on a blueberry farm. I have enough grass at my cottage to keep me busy…twice a week…with my rechargeable model. But, if I mulch more of it away, I’ll have less grass and more room for edibles. Another project for another day. <>

    • Thanks Kate, and you know what makes everything better…PIE! Hope all is well with you and Miss Greta Pie. And I like the idea of a rechargeable model. Take care. TC

  9. What a wonderful (and very relatable) read! I’ve been mowing my acreage with a walk behind mower after the John Deere rider (which also required many maintenance calls over the years) finally died. “Sorry, Mam, those transmissions don’t last more than five years.” Every other week, it takes three days to get it all done. Every other week, i think, “How much longer will i be able and/or willing to do this?” But it looks so beautiful when everything’s clipped that i can’t seem to let it go, even though other chores suffer and pressures mount as my gardening “Things To Do” list gets smothered in weeds.

    It’s a conundrum.

    Beautiful blog entry. Thanks for writing it!

    • Thanks Barbara, who needs a gym membership when you have acreage to mow! What I seem to be doing now is mowing my property like it’s a Scottish golf course — well trimmed and manicured in certain places like little islands of neatness, then the boundaries are wild tall grass and weedy roughs. I like the effect. Plus I’m starting bee-and-butterfly-friendly wildflowers to plant in the fields. So far so good, I just have to choose drought tolerant plants these days. Every month I take my weedeater out on patrol and decapitate any invasive upstarts, like Himalayan Blackberry, Thistle, Scotch Broom and Tansy.

      • Ha! Weedeaters. Now there’s a whole other level of frustration! The battery operated one consumes plastic line like Helena of Orphan Black consumes chicken, and the gas powered one is clearly out to get me. But such is the way of it. We secretly love the pain, i think. 🙂

        Your vision for your grounds sounds absolutely beautiful – well worth the patience and effort to get it all established. How are you going to get the wildflowers to take without somehow smothering the field grass first? I suppose you could cover the areas with black plastic for a few weeks before spreading the seeds, ya?

        • Barbara, here’s my plan: I start seedlings like daisies, rudbeckia, sweet clover, milkweed, native lilies, helianthus, borage, and salvia. When rooted well, I bet out my bulb auger and drill the spot to plant. Drop a bit of fertilizer for good measure, followed by soil, then the seedling and then a drink of water. So far this has worked. I do it bit by bit. More and more each year. I’ll keep you posted.

    • Ina, I know they are going to drive up my lane one day with my certificate and band of balloons to celebrate my induction, and a big clearinghouse-size check to mark the occasion, or at least a free magazine subscription or membership to AARP. 🙂

    • Hafiz, one of the biggest mistakes here in the Pacific NW is folks give clematis too much shade. That whole thing about shading the root base of the plant seems like hooey to me. When I plant my large flowering clematis in full sun, they are more vigorous and floriferous. Case in point, Chalk Hill Farm grows clematis in open, bright fields in Healdsburg, California (Sonoma County). Also, clematis are heavy feeders, so a little fertilizer or compost mulch will pay-off in the bloom and new growth department. Good luck!

  10. I too love the vision of you riding the wounded chariot into town — twice. You are made of tough stuff, though and I’m sure that, having now embraced official geezerdom, you can relax and get back to more garden fun (i.e. enhanced lawnlessness). The first thing I did when I moved into this house 38 years ago, was start turning the .25 acre lawn into garden beds. Now, as I contemplate leaving it for smaller digs and a much smaller yard, I am forced to embrace the irony that my new house, in a mini-development whose builder boasts about the low-water, native plant ‘landscaping’, will feature a &**(^%$ parking strip — 6 ft by 50 ft — of ………. lawn. What?! I refuse to purchase a lawnmower for it, so am contemplating various alternatives. Barter with the nextdoor neighbor — they mow my lawn, I shovel the snow off their driveway? Hire a sheep once a month? Or — most likely scenario: get down on my hands and knees and clip it by hand with my rusty garden shears. Sheesh. Actually I plan to wait until all the remaining houses are finished, and the builder turns his attention elsewhere. Then I shall start replacing the stupid bluegrass turf with native bunch grasses, one clump at a time. Shhhh. Nobody reads CC&Rs after the first year, right?

    • Oh gosh, Kathy, great read this morning –chuckling between sips of coffee. I look forward to hearing what your spirited parking-strip renegade self will do. I know, maybe a sanctuary for unwanted lawn gnomes, garish birdbaths, and discarded garden art.

      • Lawn gnomes? now there’s a jolly thought. Trouble is, now that I’m going to live in a classy-looking house, I don’t want to tat it up. One of my future neighbors around the corner has a large gnome and some ugly hand-made metal lawn furniture, and I shudder every time I go by. Originally, I had been visualizing a gloriously-packed Hell Strip garden, a la Lauren Springer. I am probably going to have to do my stealth revamp. Or maybe tuck in prairie plants as you are doing, to create a meadow I won’t have to mow.

  11. LOL I had 1.2 acres & I loved the space but quickly realized how challenging a piece of property could be. Still, compared to living on top of your neighbor, I still choose to do things the hardway because in the end I value that over the alternative. Just found your blog today. Thanks, I have a lot of reading to do.

    L , aspiring vashon islander

  12. Your grounds are lovely and this is such a very entertaining story! It certainly strikes a cord with me too.
    I bought my own home this year in suburbia. It was a major downsize from the largish home that I shared for decades with my ex, just a few neighborhoods over where he was always in charge of the maintaining of the green while my role was to plant pretty things and let him trim them.
    With my very own patch of green now, I am bound and determined to outdo him. Around the same time I bought the house, my dad bought a newer riding mower and set about advertising his old one by setting it on display in the driveway with a cardboard sign “FOR SALE $400.00 OBO. Expressing to me his displeasure about the lack of interest after three whole weeks, I jumped at the opportunity and became the very proud owner of a vintage Craftsman.
    It is a beautiful machine capable of an interesting phenomenon. For years, I struggled to motivate my ex to keep our lawn properly maintained. Yet when I start my beautiful new to me craftsman, men magically appear from their garages from all around the cul-de-sac, at the helm of their own machines as if I issued a challenge- “Boogety boogety, gentlemen start your engines!”
    That seems to be the extent of my machines magical capabilities, for it certainly isn’t creating the lush emerald carpet that I so hoped for. While I haven’t completely given up the fight yet, my induction into crazy old biddy hall of fame has come from having to give up using the riding mower in the front yard. With tree roots like octopus tentacles reaching out of the lawn from under the massive pin oak, my riding mower isn’t up to the challenge.
    Unwilling to accept defeat I have called into action my ancient electric mower- amusing to witness I’m sure- because being plugged into a socket while mowing requires one to whip the cord back and forth as if vacuuming the lawn all the while fighting to get the mower up and over the tentacles. It is a humbling experience best handled by avoiding all eye contact with curious and amused onlookers. Add to that the high heat and humidity and a lack of ability to sweat and you can be sure that I GLOW while I mow, to say the least.
    So far the rider is able to handle what in the back yard is according to the next door neighbor an area of natural springs, but what I suspect might actually be a swamp. This may be Kansas City but it would not surprise me in the least if one day I should pass an alligator while idling by on the craftsman.
    Speaking of idling by, I have yet to attempt the fine art of steering the mower with one hand while indulging in a locally crafted beverage, which appears to be a requirement of the old geezer club. I also have not ventured with the craftsman onto the paved roads of the neighborhood to visit with the menfolk of the HOA, which also seems to be a requirement. (With said beverage in hand of course.)
    I suppose I can take comfort in knowing that I haven’t had any casualties caused by blade to stone contact.
    Yours in combat-
    MC in KC

    • Welcome MC in KC, and here’s to putting up the good fight. There’s some fine and funny imagery in your tale, and I think that is the key to your success, keeping your sense of humor at all times, and the locally crafted beverage doesn’t hurt either. Well wishes and thanks for the good laugh.

  13. Tom- Lawn: 1, MC: 0
    Casualties: Shredded Blade Belt and cracked Pulley
    Cause: Tentacles or large fallen twigs from last weeks storm- take your pick. What was I thinking, you ask? “That its not called a “mulching mower” for nuttin! Isn’t that what mulch is? Chewed up wood- well then surely the Craftsman could take a bite outta those twigs peppering my lawn”, I reasoned as I drove blithely over the bramble.
    Onlookers from their neighboring decks did nothing to hide their amusement as the Craftsman shuddered and protested loudly, followed by massive clouds of black smoke.
    Thankfully, I was not home to witness the retrieval of the Craftsman by dad and my brother in law (also named Tom) as they loaded the wounded troop into his F10. And although he was quite gracious on the phone and suggested that perhaps a loose screw was the culprit, I noted by the long silence that followed- that the source of the loose screw likely be my noggin and not the craftsman remained unspoken.

  14. MC – What a great read and an equally great laugh. I feel for you, oh how I feel for you. Well let’s hear it for gracious (or at least taciturn) Dads who don’t say, “I told you so.”

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