As a non-essential worker during the current COVID lockdown, I’ve run out of excuses for not tending to our decrepit lawn. My husband has an ironclad exemption that covers him for life: a rare form of arthritis in his spine. I’m not so ‘lucky’. My arthritis is only in my hands, knees, hips, and shoulders, so most of the bend-and-stretch labor in this household falls on me. But since I’ve always been drawn to manual labor that yields fast, visible results, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
I spent most of this week working on the front lawn—or what used to be a lawn. According to my disappointed neighbors, the previous owner kept both front and back in perfect condition. He was a handyman and a bachelor, and knew how to use the irrigation system. The summer after we moved in, the irrigation broke. We had it fixed and it broke again. We decided we’d let the lawn get by without watering–a huge mistake, since we live in a near-desert climate. Instead of gently browning over and hibernating, the lawn gradually petered out and gave way to weeds and quack grass. At that point, belated watering did nothing but feed the weeds.
I’m not a lawn person—I’d happily convert the yard into a rock garden if we could afford the materials and labor. And I’m not competing with anyone. As I told my husband, I just want our yard to look respectable. I don’t want to be enslaved to a patch of grass, but I also don’t want to be the neighborhood dandelion factory, sharing our toxic bounty when the wind blows. To be honest, ever since our yard’s gone rogue, my happiest season is winter, when snow mercifully covers our shame and I can forget what lies beneath.
This year the snow melted late, but melt it did, revealing that winter had only worsened our expansive weed patch. I was resolved to do nothing (and devote myself to writing) until the city announced they were building a sidewalk on our street. To do this, they’d need to cut a wide strip out of our lawn along the property, with the promise to replace it with sod once the work was finished.
I’m not sure why they’re doing this. Our street is plenty wide for the slow stream of cars, bikes, kids, joggers, dogs, and walkers who share the road. The sidewalk they’ve installed is barely wide enough for two to walk abreast. I suspect that once it’s completed, most neighbors will ignore it and continue to use the street for their walking pleasure. Instead of a sidewalk, I wish they’d planted trees—our unshaded street gets brutally hot in summer. Instead, we’ve been besieged with diggers, jackhammers, cement trucks, and orange-vested road crews for the past two months. A quarter of the lawn has disappeared into a smooth strip of dirt awaiting sod. The fledgling sidewalk sits like an unwanted house guest, not sure what it’s doing here.
Fresh green sod sounds like a blessing until I picture it beside the existing lawn. Not only will it not match; it will boldly accentuate our failings. I had no choice but to pull out my gardening gloves and plot a rescue plan.
Day One and a half were devoted to weeding. I used one of those long pointy weeders to dig up every dandelion—well, nearly every dandelion—from the roots. A couple of neighbors, observing the ridiculous scope of the work I’d undertaken, stopped by to recommend herbicides. You’ll never tackle all that! they cackled. I was tempted to agree, but the work was perversely satisfying. Part penance, part therapy, part prove-my-neighbors-wrong.
I filled bucket after bucket with the jaunty yellow devils, remembering how my mother loved them and had scolded me, several years ago, when I reported weeding. The bees love them! They’re beautiful and edible! One year my father even made dandelion wine, a disappointment after the arduous work of harvesting and plucking the yellow blooms. I never got to taste it. But if I want fresh salad greens, I’ll buy them at Superstore. The only amazing thing about dandelions is how fast they grow, and how, if you don’t extract every last bit of root, they’ll grow back even thicker and more vengeful.
I lost track of time as my buckets filled the yard waste bin. But my arthritis was keeping score. When I finally limped back into the house, covered in dirt and sweat, wearing a little Hitler mud mustache where I’d repeatedly sniffled and wiped, my body was howling. After showering, I took my over-the-counter cure—Tylenol and Naproxen, downed with a shot of rum—and took to bed. It took a few hours for my body to calm the heck down, but once it did, I fell into ten hours of recuperative sleep. Deep enough to get up and put my body through another day of yard work torture.
With the dandelions banished (as well as thistles and other oversized intruders), the next step was prepping the soil for reseeding. For this I used a hand-held mini rake, scratching at the hard surface to make a welcoming nest for the seed. Once again, I was on hands and knees all day, doing an impossible amount of work the hard way, and hoping to once again prove my neighbors wrong. (I could imagine what they were thinking.)
Interspersed with the raking were multiple trips to the garden store to load up on soil. Bags and bags and bags of soil, ready to be spread—by hand, of course—over the freshly raked patches. I’ve lost track of the hours and days this required. At the end of each day’s labor, my body repeated its shenanigans. I did a lot of extra sleeping. Then, finally, it was time for the seeding: fun stuff, because now I could work almost upright, merely bending at the waist.
I bought one of those manual hand seeders but ended up using my kitchen colander instead. Perhaps it spread the seed too thickly—we’ll find out—but I liked how it felt to wave the colander with one hand and watch the seed scatter. I pictured myself like that guy on an old Gideon’s Bible, broadcasting the Word of God, except with a sieve instead of a sack. I thought about how seed grows, how a little goes a long way, how once it germinates, it fulfills its inner genetic code without further instructions. Lofty thoughts like these made the seeding most pleasurable.
And then more soil; peat moss, primarily, to cover and protect the seed. This part was not as fun as seeding, but easier than putting down the first soil. Or maybe my body was getting used to the bend and crawl. I came inside for a break and told my husband I was ready to do agriculture work at the nearby orchards this summer. They’re looking for local help, since many of the migrant workers won’t be here this year, but they’re only paying $15 an hour. I doubt they’ll have many takers at that rate. And I’m not sure my body would ever forgive me, even if the wages were better.
As of 4 pm yesterday, the seeding was finished. Before my body had a chance to protest, I tackled another weed patch along the fence and spread eight bags of mulch in an attempt at control-and-beautify. Spreading mulch is MUCH easier than reseeding a lawn, and is instantly gratifying, too. Perhaps I should’ve mulched the whole yard…
Now all that’s left is watering: lots and lots of watering. I’ve recruited my husband to be the Water Guy, since he owes me big-time, and watering is kind to the spine. I’ve even convinced him to set an early alarm each morning to get a jump on the sun. We’re both praying for cloudy skies and unexpected rain while we wait for results.
And that’s only the front yard. The back is bigger, sunnier, weedier, and too far gone to over-seed. We’re going to live with it. I made my husband promise to mow it weekly; from a distance, it looks almost like grass. Except for those pesky dandelions. I’m going after them, one gnarly invader at a time, till one of us is history. We’re talking one little hand digger vs. thousands of dandelions–David and Goliath stuff. It’s a stupid amount of work, but so very, very satisfying to gain the upper hand.
Just don’t tell my body what’s coming.