Ignoring the World
Ignoring the World, One Neighbor at a Time
© 2006 Ross Williams
The farm field across [what passes for] our road is sprouting 2,500 square foot and up homes. I tend not to notice much about them. I have a rural mentality: if I don’t like what the neighbors are doing, I don’t look and let them do it. Likewise, if I want to drink beer on my front porch naked and the neighbors don’t like it, I expect them to remember where they are and not bother me with their personal prejudices.
That’s just the way we are in the country.
My wife, though, somewhat a voyeur, has been watching what the new neighbors are doing and keeps me up to date. She, of course, characterizes this as me not paying attention, which is a common criticism she levels at me, but I prefer the truth: I am willing to allow the neighbors to do as they please. Alright, so I already don’t like them and I’m trying to ignore them. Same difference in this case.
Last week she pointed out the family in the teeny-tiny, rinkiest of dinky houses at 2,500 square feet, which was finished last summer. They moved in before last labor day. They’re still growing dirt in their lawn. Perfectly uniform, cinnamon-colored dirt. The guy’s been watering his dirt religiously for the last week, and this is what my wife pointed out. “Did you see? One of the new neighbors is watering his dirt.”
No, I didn’t see. But I looked and sure enough, he had his fan-tail sprinkler going last Saturday and was turning his cinnamon dirt into milk chocolate dirt. Funny thing, too. It’s now mid-April, and not the time to be trying to start a lawn. Particularly in the central midwest. Hopefully, he’s just trying to keep his dirt from blowing away in the breezes we were having last week while he waits to start his lawn at the right time of the year.
Not that I have any confidence in that, though. Most consumers believe what advertisers tell them, and the advertisers are busy clogging the airwaves with “Now’s the best time to spruce up your lawn…!”
Which would be true except that it’s not. Springtime is the second-best time to work on a lawn. The best time is when nature itself starts lawns: late summer. Not that the advertisers or the lawn-care retailers will tell you that. Unless you know who Jerry Baker is, you have to find that out on your own. And if you do know who Jerry Baker is, you have to wind your way through endless do-it-yourself recipes for non-toxic lawn fertilizer [generally, ammonia and liquid soap, with or without a beer], and non-human-toxic insecticide [generally, tobacco-tea and liquid soap] in order to find it.
Ten years ago I found myself the proud and overwhelmed owner of 5 acres of ex-wheat field that I could not mow [major back injury], my then-wife wouldn’t help me mow [man’s work], my 11 year-old son could be forced to mow but would “accidentally” run over the trees I’d planted and turn them into toothpicks. Additionally, the then-wife wouldn’t let me get the sheep I’d always wanted. “They smell”. Well, yeah, what’s your point? “They’re wild and dangerous.” Oh, good grief.
Three years later, I had these 5 acres all to myself and had room to experiment with lawn-making techniques.
I visited the warehouse home centers and the nurseries. “Uh… I’ve got five acres of ex-wheat and want a lawn instead.” They invariably recommended doping up my yard with fertilizer/weed-killer combo in the early spring. I’d tell them, “but all I’ve got are weeds, and if I kill them, then the fertilizer fertilizes dirt and the weed seeds which blow in”. Well, then, they recommended I plant grass seed a few weeks later, but cautioned that I’d have to make sure I watered it all summer long because the central midwest has hot, dry summers which kill young lawns. “But I’m on a well,” I’d say; “I can’t take water out of the ground just to dump on top of the ground. Besides being stupid, I wouldn’t have enough water left to brush my teeth.”
Their final recommendation: live with weeds.
Uh, no, sorry. I don’t buy that. Nature has been growing grass for millions of years, and never once required homo erectus to siphon water out of the lake in a long series of connected hollow reeds to keep it alive. How did Gaia do it? Let me do it that way. Humans, on the other hand, have only been growing grass for a few thousand years, and mostly for food – wheat, rice, barley, oats, corn, all are grasses. “Lawn”, until less than a hundred years ago, was what was left after the sheep finished lunch, and it was both grass and weed.
Besides, five acres at 43,500± square feet per is about … carry the 1… carry the 1 again … far-too-many bags of fertilizer/weed killer, at far-too-much per bag.
And far too heavy to carry with a major back injury in the recent past.
Duplicating nature required I learn about the life-cycle of perennial grasses [cool-season grasses, for the pedantic]. This is how nature designed them: they grow, grow, grow all spring, sprout a seed stalk in early summer which matures and drops its seeds in late summer. The seeds sit on the parched, dry ground until the weather cools down and the early autumn rains come, at which point they germinate and grow until the first freeze of winter. After this, the top stops growing but their roots continue all winter long until the next spring when these little nubbins of grass plants have roots fully as long as the one which dropped seeds the August before.
Ah, nature, right?
Plant grass seed in the springtime, the plant will take root but it’ll spend most of its energy growing above ground in order to compete with the established weeds, and it will have short roots. Short roots when there’s no rain either means you need to water a lot or the new grass will die. So why don’t the nurseries and garden centers tell you this? Mostly, near as I can figure, for a couple of self-reinforcing reasons:
1] Springtime is when homeowners emerge from their winter hibernations, look at their dandelion-choked yards and declare a yard crisis; by late summer, after suffering through a progression of yard crises, they’re so tired of mowing the weeds and struggling to get actual grass to grow that anyone who mentions taking on more lawn care when it’s 100 degrees in the shade is apt to get punched in the nose;
2] yard-care product manufacturers and their retailers are aware of this and have historically geared their merchandising toward springtime when customers are more willing to buy yard-care stuff and when they’re not likely to get assaulted by irate homeowners.
Homeowners are more inclined to take on big outdoor projects in the springtime, which means the people who sell that kind of stuff, the experts, say “oh, what a coincidence, this is the best time to do it” and then the homeowner is fooled into thinking that it is the best time. We have arrived at mutually-agreeable delusion.
It’s too bad that everyone’s wrong. As I say, I’ve been experimenting with my yard for most of the last 10 years. There are sections where I tried the spring-sowing/fertilizing/watering thing. I’ve even done the Jerry Baker’s Kitchen treatment.
To be honest, I have fallen into the same traps that so many others before me have fallen, and I learned the same things. We all start out gung-ho. Then we forget to water one weekend, and it rains on Monday so we rationalize not watering. We get in a habit of not watering because we’re rationalizing, “well, the forecast says ‘chance of showers’, so it’s okay…” and before we know it, it’s July, it’s been three weeks since any meaningful rainfall and the existing grass is turning brown [dormant], but the new grass is black and crumbling [dead]. Another season wasted.
On top of which, misapplied fertilizer/weed-killer either doesn’t do anything, or it kills your grass. It must be applied correctly. And on top of that, if you apply the fertilizer/weed-killer correctly on a lawn that has 50% weeds, in two weeks you’ll have killed the weeds and then have 50% dirt. Which is not a lot of improvement, to be honest. At least weeds are green. If you keep it mowed and only look at it from a distance, you can hardly tell.
I’ve noticed that homeowners, as it relates to their lawns, fall into a few discreet classes of lawn-carers.
First, you have the anal-retentive lawn snobs. They are the ones who actually do everything the nurseries recommend, as they recommend it, religiously, using Evian® if necessary to keep their lawns watered, thriving and healthy all summer long. They are extremely wealthy in order to accomplish this, or they are very unwealthy after having done it.
Next, you have the typical homeowning slob who sincerely tries to do what the experts recommend because, after all, they are the experts. The slob universally fails because he’s not religious about his lawn like his lawn-snob neighbor. The slob is either well-established in lawncare cynicism, or he’s about to be after another few seasons of failure.
And finally, there’s the religiously anti-lawn-religion anal-retentives, who hear the experts recommending chemicals and reflexively turn away. If it’s a chemical, it’s environmental poison, they chant, and so they rationalize to themselves [and not uncommonly to everyone within earshot, loudly] by declaring dandelions, buckhorn, mouse-eared chickweed and curly dock to be “bio-diversity” and refuse to listen when told it’s also the sign of unhealthy soil. These people commonly refer to themselves as “environmentalists”. With a straight face. These people will hand you recipes for dandelion wine, dandelion, radicchio and endive salad [“dandelion greens taste like spinach!”], and dandelion root extract as a cold remedy.
They’re trying to make themselves feel better for having a yard that looks like hell. As opposed to the typical homeowner who simply mows his weeds and no longer thinks about it.
Some folks I used to work with would talk about their yards, lamenting how nothing they did, though always recommended by the experts, ever really worked. I’d tell them about my laboratory yard. Part of the yard was commercial chemicals and it looked like everyone else’s yard and was a lot of work and expensive to boot; part was Jerry Baker’s recipes with late-summer oversowing and looked better with less work, but still more than I wanted to do; and most of it was just late-summer oversowing and frankly it looked a lot like the Jerry Baker corner, but didn’t take any extra effort at all.
Here’s the way it works: spread grass seed in the last month of summer [Labor Day ritual at my house], quit mowing until after it germinates [lawn mowers chop grass seed into confetti very nicely], and start mowing again in the spring time. Not a problem.
I was always asked a few questions, mostly about bugs and birds eating the grass seed as it sits on the hot, dry ground. The question was: “Don’t the bugs and birds eat the grass seed?”
The answer is: probably. But lookit: you’re throwing grass seed out in the late summer. Everything is going to seed in the summer: weeds, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, everything. Birds and bugs are in a smorgasbord, they nibble here, nosh there, sample a little of the other – and each other … and they’ve been eating all summer long anyhow. They aren’t all that hungry.
Spread grass seed in the springtime? Birds and bugs have just woken up, they’re famished, nothing to eat except each other, and some schlub of a homeowner throws grass seed all over… feast time in the ol’ front yard. Your choice.
Five years ago I stopped experimenting with my yard. Got tired of buying bags of fertilizer/weed-killer and spreading it around; got almost as tired of homemade water-on recipes. Tobacco tea is disgusting, and I’ve got better uses for beer than spraying it all over the yard – like drinking it on the front porch naked. I went to Labor Day seeding five years ago. Every year; grass plants die, and when they do, there’s no shortage of weeds willing to replace them. I’d stack my yard up against most others in the area on looks alone; looks for the money… dollar for dollar I’d win.
Now because I live in the country, it’s my neighborly duty to offer help to the poor slob in his itty-bitty 2,500 square foot house with the amply-watered cinnamon dirt. But I don’t like him; he ripped out a perfectly good corn field to grow … dirt. I’ll just watch him from my front porch as he runs up his water bill.