South Florida Gardening
By Tom Lassiter
That’s something I learned about six months back when I plucked a book from a cardboard box at a thrift shop up the street. Florida Gardening. I stood reading in the aisle for an hour. Bought it, 50 cents, and soon I was pulling every single weed in my lawn by hand, no chemicals. Spent a week on my hands and knees, scouring, plucking, pulling, then a final pass ruffling the St. Augustine blades by hand, hunting for the tiniest would-be invader. Not a single tentacle of match weed, not a hint of pennywort or sprig of spurge weed remained. I enjoyed the work, the determination, the focus, even if Gloria, just home from work one day, stood over me, watching with waning enthusiasm. She mumbled something about “pressing matters.”
“Sorry,” I said, sitting back on my heels. “What did you say?” I asked.
“Like looking for a job,” she all but shouted.
A nice lawn is a pressing matter, too, I thought as she turned and went into the house. Hell, if eyes are windows to the soul, or however that goes, lawns are windows to the lives within a home. Take old Mrs. Steele's place across the street. Big corner lot with a beautiful lawn, until the cancer hit her. She spent her last months behind drawn shades, coming out just twice a day, morning and evening. Leaning heavily on a shiny wood cane, behind big wraparound sunglasses, she’d tether her balding, stiff-legged cat to a twenty-foot length of clothesline rope. He’d pee on a bush and wander a bit and pee some more while she leaned on her cane, watching and occasionally looking across the lawn. The sod was deteriorating into patchy, weedy bad health and eventually turned to a carpet of brown thatch, the last few green blades dying just about the time she did, about six months back, right after I lost my job. See my point about lawns and windows and lives?
Then a few months later, a guy, Axel, he had just retired, an accountant, I think, he bought the house from old Mrs. Steele’s daughter who lives up in Cleveland. He didn’t wait long to go after the recently departed lawn, not that Axel did the work. One day I saw a truck with a crew of sod layers pull up across the street. Instant lawn, but Axel over watered the new St. Augustine, cut it too often and too short, and the lawn started a downhill spiral into sickness. A big weed patch again. There is no paid-for, instant lawn, no beauty without knowledge, toil, and determined vigilance, I thought. I set down Florida Gardening and watched from a chair in my carport as Abel, wearing sandals, black socks, lime green Bermudas and a matching polo shirt, inspected the unfolding disaster. More green in his outfit than his lawn.
"A wise gardener gives his lawn a regular checkup and takes note of anything that appears out of order..." Florida Gardening warned. “Attention to every detail is demanded.” Turf maintenance is no simple matter, as the book made clear. It’s real work, I told Gloria many times. Consider the possible avenues of attack: an infinite variety of weeds, and army worms and fungus, chinch bugs, webworms, clover, nematodes, grub worms, mole crickets.
Hell, watering is a science. "Too much water can encourage Dollars weeds; too little water and the grass will weaken, allowing Beggar weed or Creeping Charlie to take over," I read aloud to Gloria one evening in bed. She set aside her More magazine and drew the sheet up to her chin. "The vigilant gardener—" I continued.
She reached for the lamp on her nightstand. "You should be looking for a job, not weeding," she said and turned off the lamp. “It’s been four months and you’re not even looking.” In the dark I closed the book.
The next morning, before settling into my chair in the carport with the Help Wanted ads, I wandered onto the lawn, just to feel it on my feet. Just beneath the big, spreading sapodilla tree, I stepped on a sand bur, the thing biting into the big toe of my right foot like a sharp thumbtack. "One of the most obnoxious weeds...Not only does it stick you, but it is hard to remove from the skin.” The god damned thing, prickly all over, held so tight, it pricked my thumb and one finger as I pulled it from my toe. The damn thing didn’t sprout from my lawn, I was sure. They dry out and get carried on the wind, sometimes by birds, who knows, I told myself. My neighbor on the south had plenty of weeds, or maybe it came from Axel’s weed patch across the street.
"One way to pick up the sand bur seed is to use a broom covered with an old piece of burlap,” Florida Gardening recommended. “Sweep this over the lawn." I didn’t think I had a problem with sand burs but one or two might be lurking. I waited until dark and the cooler air and did just as advised, moving across the lawn sweeping, hunting in the beam of a flashlight. I had secured it to the top of my head with four or five tight winds of duct tape running under my chin and back over the top of the flashlight. Just as I finished, I felt a sharp sting in the butt, like a wasp bite. I jerked around, looked down at my butt, and then across the lawn. Two kids caught my eye. They were standing under the street light on the corner by Axel’s place. The little pricks had shot me with a pellet gun, I figured. I took out after them, waving the broom, and, yeah, maybe cussing. I don’t remember. Somebody called the cops on me. Probably Axel.
Sitting in the carport a week later, reading, I figured a way to get even with Axel. "If St. Augustine is considered the most elegant of all the grasses, the true aristocrat would be Bermuda, a fine-bladed grass with a rich appearance..." A change would be good, I said to myself, shake things up a bit, and remind Axel what a mess he had over there. I smiled at the rich, satisfying vision of a Bermuda lawn, right across the street from Axel’s disaster. I went to work clearing the large island of grass created by our circular driveway. The old sapodilla rose from the grass there and the turf beneath had always been a bit patchy from too much shade. And the tree dropped leaves year round, and the rough-skinned, tennis ball-size brown fruit it dropped in late summer didn't help matters. In the damp August heat, I asked myself: why replant with Bermuda only to watch it suffer beneath the sapodilla?
I leaned my shovel against its trunk and began sizing up the tree, devising a strategy of attack. I settled on a plan and rode my bike up to the hardware store, rented a gas powered chain saw and returned. Balancing on the top step of an aluminum ladder, gripping the chainsaw in two hands, I went after the lower limbs first. I had worked half way around the tree when a really large limb overhanging the street crashed to the ground, barely missing a neighbor lady walking her dog. Unfortunately the heavy limb didn’t miss the dog. Not even a yelp, it went so fast. Just then Gloria pulled into the driveway, returning from work at the hospital.
"What are you doing?" she yelled. Shrieked, actually. She went immediately to the woman, consoling her and the two stood together over the body of the miniature Doberman. Axel came out and joined the women, so three people were standing in a tight circle, staring down at the dog. I like dogs as much as the next guy, but the scene reminded me of a god damned wake, except the dead looked out from a green wreath of sapodilla leaves instead of a satin lined casket. I started down the ladder to join the circle of mourning but thought better of it. My wife turned and eyed me.
"What's happened to you?" she asked.
“Christ, it was an accident,” I said. But I knew she wasn’t talking just about the dead Doberman. Everything, I wanted to tell her, that’s what happened. I got fed up with the craziness and rudeness I see everywhere, decided one day on the way home from work, enough is enough. I don’t know why that day. I hit the brakes hard. The tailgater stumbled out his car, nose bleeding like crazy, probably broken, and get this, still pressing his god damned cell phone to his ear. Turned out he was an off duty cop. I’d had a couple beers with the guys before heading home from work. I got popped for DUI and reckless driving and quickly fired from my job driving buses at County Transit. My job, everything, down the tube in a flash. That’s what the fuck happened to me, I wanted to tell her.
“An accident?” she said, looking down at the dog. “This accident’s been going on for four months!” She turned for the house. I was shaken and abandoned the plan for Bermuda. But I still dreamed of a nicer lawn beneath the misshapen tree, and after talking it over with the owner of a nearby nursery, I replanted with plugs of a shade-tolerant St. Augustine. With care and time I coaxed a new, thick carpet of St. Augustine from the checkerboard pattern of plugs—"2- to 4-inch squares which are planted 12 to 18 inches apart," as Florida Gardening instructed. And I strung nets along the remaining lower branches that catch the falling sapodilla fruit and leaves, sparing the grass below.
Anyway, lawns count, and that comes to mind as a truck piled high with sod sits at the curb over at Axel’s. Maybe I should give him a few tips to keep this one alive, save a lawn. I'm trying to get Gloria to come back. I can still see her, the day of the dead Doberman, packing two suitcases and stuffing odds and ends, mostly from the bathroom, into two Publix bags, and leaving. She’s still over to her sister’s and won’t get on the phone with me. Maybe she would if she knew I had tried to make things right with the dead Doberman lady. I bought her a pup but she looked at it, started bawling, and slammed her door in my face. Oh, well, he’s pretty good company, Little Augie. Or maybe if Gloria could see the looks in the eyes of people passing, their admiration, envy. Cars stop sometimes, the driver looking over the lawn and up at the house. A small oasis in this crazy world.
Tom Lassiter is a former newspaper reporter who teaches literature and writing at Florida Atlantic University. He has won awards for feature and news writing, including the Southern Journalism Award for Investigative Reporting. He is working on a second novel and a collection of short stories. For their invaluable guidance, he feels deeply indebted to writers Les Standiford and John Dufresne, wonderful teachers both, and to the Friday Night Writers.
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