Weeding lawn myth from reality

This nice, even lawn about to be mowed? Not John Kelly's.
This nice, even lawn about to be mowed? Not John Kelly's. (David Bradely/associated Press)
By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

Summer's almost here and my grass is growing like a . . . like a. . . . What's that old expression? Oh I remember: My grass is growing like a weed.

Because my grass pretty much is weeds, this isn't too surprising. My lawn has always been weedy, but this spring, it is especially bad: fewer blades of fescue, more eruptions of splotchy, leafy plants that look like they belong in those bags of pre-washed salad you get at the supermarket -- plus one massive dandelion that I expect to climb any day now in search of a waterbird capable of squirting precious metals out of its oviduct.

I've never lived in a house with nice grass. Because of some ancient curse involving faeries and crossroads and sacks of potatoes, we Kellys are doomed to suffer problem lawns for eternity. And yet still we dream: of billiard-table lawns, putting-green lawns, lawns that tickle our bare feet like loop-pile carpet, free from grub or chinch bug or thistle.

My father obsessed about the lawn when I was growing up, investing in equipment that promised to deliver a verdant blanket. I remember a red plastic handheld fertilizer dispenser. I'd fill the hopper and turn the handle, casting out beautiful arcs of EZGro granules. It was only when the skin on my palms and fingers started to get dry and cracked that I wondered about the wisdom of handling all those chemicals.

And, oh, the multitude of sprinklers! We had a watery carousel that rotated lazily. We had soaker hoses that dribbled moisture out along plant beds. We had a long, thin sprinkler with a curved armature that moved through 180 degrees, reversing its motion just as the fan of water became parallel with the ground. This was the best sprinkler for jumping through in your bathing suit.

Not so good for jumping through was a sprinkler so powerful that it had to be driven into the ground like a railroad spike lest it break free and wreak havoc. When activated, it shot bursts of water out at about 5,000 psi -- schuk! schuk! schuk! schuk! -- before stopping, pausing for a tension-filled moment, then whipping back to its starting point and launching another liquid assault. Get hit in the groin with that thing and you were singing soprano in church on Sunday.

Finally, we had a push mower, the blades of which made a pleasant zzit zzit zzit as Dad propelled it along the grass. It even had a bag for clippings, which in the case of our scrawny, anemic lawn was a cruel taunt.

But my father persisted, a suburban Sisyphus. He tried different combinations of seeds and fertilizer, different watering schedules, different mower heights and cutting patterns. One year he sought salvation in an ad he saw on the back of Parade magazine. The photograph showed an oddly blue-green carpet of grass that rolled up to the world's most perfect ranch house. The secret to this lawn of the gods? Zoysia plugs.

"Zoysia plugs!" my father exclaimed. It was like a magical incantation. How could you fail with something called "Zoysia"?

Quite easily, it turns out.

It is perhaps because of those memories that I do not expend too much energy on my lawn, as is clear to anyone who takes a close look at it. Some cars have a 10-foot paint job. I have a 10-foot lawn. Drive past the house and it looks fine. Get closer and the truth is revealed.

But even weeds grow, which means that even weeds need to be mowed. Our house is on a hill, and the part of the lawn closest to the street rises at a 45-degree angle. There are others in the neighborhood who have converted this part of their yard to ivy and other plantings. Not me. I put on golf shoes to get a little extra traction and attack the grassy hill like a climber battling Everest in his crampons. My Lovely Wife can't watch, certain that at some point I'm going to lose my footing, then my foot.

I've given up thinking I'll ever have a marquee lawn, a lawn that's perfect for croquet, the envy of the neighborhood. I'm not so sure about my dad. Retired and living in North Carolina, he has a postage stamp of grass he lavishes his attention on. Not that you'd notice.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company