Growing up, my father always joked that he wanted an all-concrete yard. Concrete grass, concrete hedges, concrete flowers, concrete trees and concrete animals. The closest he got to his dream was when we discovered two concrete squirrel statues left behind from the previous owner of our house. I never understood why he hated the yard so much, why he’d wait until the lawn was a millimeter away from earning him a citation from the township before going out with the lawnmower, why he’d curse the bushes for getting fuzzy a week after he’d trim them and the looks of complete distain he would give the neighbors who either had children old enough to wield a weed-wacker or the audacity to hire a gardener because why pay a stranger to do something when you can complain about doing it yourself.
When I was a kid, weeding the flower beds seemed like a pretty good trade-off for a few extra bucks in my allowance. It was an “adult” task and anything “adult” meant I wanted in on party immediately, plus any chore that allowed people to listen to music while playing in the dirt couldn’t be all that bad. I even tried to mow the lawn too, but since Ebenezer Scrooge had opted for the pull cord starter on the lawnmower and not a key-ignition, I wasn’t allowed near the machine after I was caught standing on the motor, cord in hand, and leaping backwards to get enough leverage to get it going. I huffed and puffed in a tantrum, convinced I was missing out on awesome pastime every other adult in the neighborhood spent their weekends doing.
This is why we grow up. We experience new things, we broaden our horizons, we learn.
And we realize yard work is the fucking worst.
I’ve been back in Pittsburgh taking care of my mother for the past few weeks, which means there is yard work to done. Massive rains means the grass grows before your very eyes, weeds spring up within hours and every manner of insect is ready to feast on your flesh the second you step out outside into their territory.
First there are the poorly named flower beds; 70% mulch, 20% weeds, 10% flowers. Home to carpenter ants, fire ants, grease ants, chipmunks burrows and old plastic flower markers dating back to 1984. Weeds rarely have just one root, a dandelion is welcome reprieve when it comes to weed roots, and usually have tubers that connect to another weed to another weed to another weed to another weed and until eventually you’re few houses down hoping the Smallhovers haven’t noticed you’ve dug up half their yard. Weed pulling tool? Snaps in half. Garden spade? Not enough leverage. Small rake thing? Not even sure what it’s for aside of scratching the bug bites on your lower legs. If you wear work gloves, you never quite get the right grip on the weed you just noticed was covered in aphids and it breaks off at the root, leaving you with the choice of trying to dig up the root or just leaving it so you can try to pull it again in about two weeks. Bare hands means endless stinging paper cuts caused by the invading crabgrass at the edge of the garden. Can’t use weed poison because it will kill the moles, chipmunks and rabbits, but after you’ve tripped on your hundredth mole, chipmunk or rabbit hole, you start to wonder if it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to knock off at least a few of them because your entire back hurts from wrenching it on the last tumble.
Once you’ve cleared out the weeds, you realize you need more mulch. And not only do you need more mulch, you notice someone has put down those ground cover sheets under the mulch, but the sheets are so old they’re bunched up in places and pulling them back reveals more weeds sprouting up, more chipmunk burrows and an election sign supporting John Kerry for president. So you order even more mulch. Good thing a load of mulch, even in bulk, costs more than my first car.
Now that your back hurts, your knees hurt, your hands are torn to shreds, you’re covered in bug bites, you’re sunburned and at the edge of heat stroke, you’ve finally made enough headway to plant some actual flowers. That’s satisfying for all of eight hours, because when you wake up the next morning the moles, chipmunks, rabbits and the deer — when did they show up? — you spared from weed poison have eaten every single flower you’ve planted. “Deer don’t like marigolds,” my ass. (This is why I don’t give an eff about eating delicious venison. Feel like I’ve fattened up enough deer in the garden over the years they owe me at least one or two meals for all the tulips they’ve destroyed.)
If your spirit isn’t completely broken, it’s off to trim back the bushes. Now, I consider myself a woman of the outdoors. I’ve hiked trails all across Appalachia, the high mountains of the Rockies, Sierra Nevadas; canoed the mangroves of Florida, and tromped all over the woods of Scottish Highlands, Germany and the deserts of Arizona. Not once in my thirty-plus years of hiking just to hike have I ever seen a plant that looks like a garden hedge in the wild. A domesticated house cat bears more resemblance to its wild ancestors than a modern garden shrub to any sort of tree. What is this bush, a yew? Boxwood? Hemlock? Why not give them more reasonable names like, “bush that sprouts red berries that attract birds which will eventually shit said berries on the patio furniture and by the way did you remember patio furniture cleaner at Home Depot?” And you just can’t throw the hedge clippings at the curb and be done with it. No, you have to make sure the branches aren’t more than a certain length or the trash pick-up will just leave them there at the curb. If they’re small enough to fit in a bag, the bag must be paper — another $15 at the store for four bags — and cannot be filled to the top. (Look for my later column, This Week In F–K You: Suburban Rules And Regulations.) The hand clippers need sharpening, the electric trimmer isn’t strong enough for the bushes but has no problems slicing right through the extension cord and a fucking robin is squawking at you because you’re too close to their nest two bushes down.
Now you’re three days into the yard work and you still haven’t mowed the lawn. It’s rained again, which means the grass is now so long it’s starting to seed at the top. Suddenly you see clover popping up. Of course your neighbor has mowed the lawn — they’re retired, what else do they have to do? — which makes your lawn look even worse. But you’re done. You tell a friend you’ve been spending some time gardening and they say, “Oh, that’s great. Gardening is my zen space.” You remember they live in a small one bedroom apartment and their gardening is making sure someone took the all cigarette butts out of the planter on the deck and immediately remove them from your Christmas card list.
You cannot look at the yard any longer. You get in the car, drive to Home Depot for tenth time in a week and start to price cement.