Buckhead Tales: Yardwork

My childhood summers in Buckhead can best be summed up in one word: yardwork. My dad believed deeply in the importance of lawn maintenance. The word itself was special to him, “lawn.” He spoke the word with reverence and a bowed head. It was his mantra. In those days long ago none of it made sense to me. It only meant sweat, dirt, and boredom.

Through 10 years of family life on Wieuca Terrace and 25 years on Millbrook Drive my dad fought the good fight tirelessly. Deep within his DNA was a need to farm and be close to the earth, and he manifested that destiny with a singular focus. These days people actually hire people to get out there and sweat with their fancy mowers and shiny tools, but he taught me that was cheating.

I learned there are three Rules of the Lawn and, to the initiated, they are known simply as The Trinity. There can be no deviation from these elemental laws. Here they are, in order of importance, please commit them to memory:

  • You must do it yourself
  • The lawn must be continuous
  • There must be edging

Everything else is negotiable as long as good taste is displayed. That means no yard art, no weird little statues of Saint Mary or kissing babies. The Master of the Lawn could express individuality by a careful selection of decorative bushes or similar plantings, but one should not go overboard.

Subtlety and restraint were the mark of a True Lawnsman.

At the highest level of lawnmanship one could attain the hidden knowledge known only to true disciples: the sacred art of pruning. I never achieved that level of expertise and have remained at the lowest rung of discipleship. I am only a grass cutter and have little to pass on to my children in this regard.

As I said, my dad fought the good fight for 35 years. It was a never-ending battle. Each spring he would fertilize the lawn with various turf building products. He would go back and forth in one direction then turn 90 degrees and proceed the other way to assure even distribution. It never worked. Each year by summer it would be obvious that some areas had been overdosed while 3 feet away there was no growth at all. Over the years he became an expert in the various grasses and their special properties.

There was Bermuda, Fescue, and the revered Kentucky Blue. Dad knew them all. Which one needed bright sun, which were shade tolerant, which required extra moisture. By the end of the war he had perfected an alchemical mix of seeds that covered every possible condition.

Throughout the years he depended on his two favorite lawn edging solutions. The first was known as monkey grass. I don’t know how it came by that name, but it was a holy miracle. It was easy to care for, flourished in any soil, could stand heat and drought, and provided a quick solution to any problem area in a lawn. The other edging in a category of its own was pine straw.

From early childhood I was initiated into the Secret Order of Pine Straw.

Now, to you not aware of the subtle wonders of pine straw listen to me closely, I offer you this teaching. Pine straw is noble in its simplicity and brings subtlety to any landscape. It must be applied by a soft yet firm hand with intention and focus in a pure state of mind. Spread correctly, the application of this heavenly element can bring honor and peace to the spreader. I am serious about this and I know of what I speak.

It is handed down from father to son in the oral tradition, an open secret, but known to few. Do not spread and throw in messy clumps. It must falleth as the gentle rain to the receiving earth.

As the Elders have stated, “All wars must one day cease, and one side must wave the white flag.” And so, it came to be in the final days of what would become dad’s last great struggle.

At our home over by Chastain Park he tried in vain but could never bring the backyard into submission. “Too many trees, too much shade” he would say year after year as the grass seeds failed to sprout. Faced by defeat he decided he may not win, but he would not lose. In a final burst of misdirected brilliance, he called forth his ultimate weapon and commissioned a nuclear strike on the backyard. He ordered a massive truckload of pea gravel to be used in a final assault against Mother Nature.

I shall never forget the countless trips back and forth with the wheelbarrow. That stuff was heavy. We shoveled it 6 inches deep across the backyard. At the end of two back-breaking days, dad stood on the upper deck and proclaimed with satisfaction “It is good.” Then he turned and walked into the house, knowing he had given his all.

It was a brief victory.

Within a week the weeds were popping up in arrogant defiance through all that pea gravel. In his fevered madness he considered bringing in concrete trucks to lay a solid layer over the offending sprouts and turn the backyard into a parking lot. It was then my mom intervened with a declaration that this struggle had run its course and must cease. At that point he backed off. He knew he was defeated, and he took it like the man he was.

In the years I lived in Buckhead I saw this replayed time and time again at every house on every street. It was the classic struggle of man against nature, and finally, man against himself. One could win the battle but never the war. There can be a certain nobility in defeat and dad, though beaten, was not destroyed. I learned a lot working next to him in the yard. He was free out there in the open air, away from his office and the corporate reality of his career. He knew the lawn was real, and all the rest was but a silly dream painted on a cloudless sky. He was glad to retire and didn’t look back. When he moved into a retirement home I knew he missed the yardwork. It had been his yoga for all those years.

A few years ago dad passed. We committed him to the earth and eased his ashes into the ground. I do have one regret. I should have put a few pine needles in the ground with him. He might need some edging for his yardwork in the Lawn of Eternity.

Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales

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