Stop and Steal the Roses

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring is here, and pity the poor fool who hasn't adequately planned his or her spring campaign. You have to be smart and aggressive. This is your chance to crush the opposition: your friends and neighbors. There are some people who are such lazybones they just let spring happen -- who stand there, clapping politely, rather than taking direct, proactive, assaultive steps to bend the season to their will.

I see people like this, strolling along the canal towpath, chuckling at the turtles plopping in the water, craning their necks to search for the source of an intriguing avian twitter -- and I want to smack them upside their fat heads. I want to scream: "Enough with the birds and butterflies! Spring is here, and you're blowing it!" They don't grasp that spring is the most competitive time of year. If you really love spring, you have a deep, burning, innards-immolating desire to make the spring of your friends seem, by comparison, like winter. In Siberia.

The first order of business is to look the part. I happen to know that my neighbor Angus has been plotting his spring campaign since before Christmas. I sometimes peer through his window and see him standing in front of the mirror, modeling sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts. Weeks ago I saw him carrying packages from Banana Republic, and I knew what was inside: shorts. His closet has, like, 47 pairs of shorts, on hangers, starched and non-starched, Bermuda and non-Bermuda.

He can't wait to be the first guy on the block to strut around in shorts and effectively declare ownership of the spring. First time the thermometer tops 55 degrees, he's out there in his shorts and a tank top, revving up his weed-eater just to check the operation, or sharpening the blade on his mower. I've seen him mow the yard when the ground was still frozen.

At 65 degrees, he's got no shirt on, and he walks around with zinc oxide sunblock on his nose even at night. The first day we reach 80, everyone runs for cover and hides, because the man will do his yardwork totally in the nude. (I can't tell you how many times I've said to him, "You might want to be careful with those pruning shears.")

"Spring Cleaning" is another ferocious arena of competition. It's not like the old days, when you could just wash the windows and vacuum under the rugs. In our house we're not done with spring cleaning until we've dusted the fiberglass attic insulation and polished to a bright shine the coils behind the refrigerator. We remove the grates on the ceiling and dispatch the smallest child into the air-conditioning ducts, armed with Formula 409. The goal is to have a house that is as sterile as the surface of Pluto. But then I'll visit Angus to let him know how clean my house is, and discover that he's scrubbing -- get this -- a jug of Clorox. Cleaning his cleansers! I'll see a long rack of empty clothes hangers and ask what they're for, and he'll say: "Just washed 'em. They're drying."

It's the yard where Angus and I always go mano a mano. I'm still sore about the time I upgraded my yard by installing a complicated network of creeks, waterfalls, Japanese bridges, aviaries and matching his and hers gazebos, and then Angus, rather than admitting that I had the better spread, went off and installed a fully functional rain forest.

Do we take it all too far? Maybe. They say you sometimes have to stop and smell the flowers. But a better spring tactic is: Stop and steal the flowers. You can find incredibly beautiful flowers at many of our public gardens, parks and national monuments.

Or you can find them in someone's yard right across the street. Not that I have anyone's yard in mind! But if I did have one in mind, I would definitely strike after midnight when his long day of smug preening and horticultural megalomania has finally given way to unconsciousness. And if someone asks me what I'm doing in Angus's back yard at 2 in the morning with a sack of freshly cut flowers and night-vision goggles, I'll tell the truth: "Gardening."

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at

© 2006 The Washington Post Company