Turf wars.

Here’s the only thing I learned this week that’s worth remembering: If the sun is out, mow the damn lawn. I was so embroiled in deadline that I somehow felt I couldn’t take 45 minutes off to cut the grass at my house-sitting job.

“Later,” I kept saying, until “later” turned into “tomorrow.” Except that it rained that day.

And just about every other day, until the house was the only one on the block with a prairie view. At which point it rained again.


On Sunday I woke to partial sun. A few hours later I decided the grass was as dry as it was going to get without global warming. I put on my grubs and pulled the mower, the string trimmer and the 50-foot cord out of the garage.

By then, it was starting to look like rain.


There goes the neighborhood

The grass had gotten so thick that the mower seemed to have trouble chewing. A couple of times I thought it might need the Heimlich maneuver. I felt like a prize idiot, especially since the lawns on either side were neatly barbered. When, exactly, had that been accomplished? Had there been a long and sunny day when I wasn’t looking?

Clots of chewed grass stuck to my really old flip-flops. My toes were dyed the color of an anemic leprechaun. With every step I felt dumber: Why hadn’t I taken care of this when the sun was out?

I sensed neighbors tsk-tsking behind their curtains. On the other hand, they may have been rejoicing: Finally the shiftless house-sitter is doing something about that savanna of a front yard! Maybe our property values will go back up.

Next time I’ll do better, I vowed.

Then the string trimmer broke.


Green confetti

The trimmer’s engine was humming but cowlicks of fescue still sprung wildly around the edges of the rock garden and the entry ramp. Oh, great. First I grow a yard so lush I practically needed to rent a goat, and now I’ve broken a piece of lawn equipment.

I unplugged the trimmer and turned it upside down. The string was barely visible. When I tried to pull it out, the string retreated like a turtle into its shell. “Outta ammo,” I sighed, and looked in the garage for a replacement head. No luck. I’d have to stick my green feet into shoes and head for the home improvement store.

But what if the string really wasn’t at its end? What if it was simply taunting me? I decided to try and open the unit. It took some doing, and my fingers were soon the color of my toes,  but I finally popped open the housing. Loads of string left!

I pulled out a few inches, juggled and struggled until I got the unit closed, and fired up the trimmer once more. Green confetti flew in a most satisfying fashion. No more fescue cowlicks!


Lessons learned

Those of you who are old pros at lawn care are probably holding your sides by now. Please allow me my small sense of victory. I’ve never owned a string trimmer and had no idea how they worked. Any time I fix something – even if it’s not actually broken – I feel very happy.

So what have we learned today?

Make hay while the sun shines, i.e., mow on the first nice day you get. It takes less than an hour, for crying out loud.

Put on sunscreen first. My face began to sting while I wrote this. Having had a skin cancer removed, I’m supposed to use it any time I step outside. (See “prize idiot,” above.)

If the grass is really thick and also wet, the mower wheels mash it down. Despite a lot of backtracking and overlapping, I expect I’ll have to re-do certain areas once they’re good and dry. Which may be as soon as this evening, since the clouds rolled away as soon as I was finished.

And here’s the most irritating lesson: A lawn-care website informed me that mowing grass while it’s wet makes it vulnerable to fungus. The neighbors’ property values may drop back down again.

Next time I’ll just rent a goat.

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  1. Maryl H.

    Donna! NEVER, NEVER mow or trim in flip flops! Please don’t do it again. The best time to mow is after 7 p.m. when it’s not so tough on the turf.

  2. Don’t feel bad. I have just gone through the same thing myself. Combination of migraine/bad weather for the nine days before a vacation, then a two week vacation and then another week of bad weather after I got back.

    I felt like I needed Gunga Din just to find the back yard, much less get it mowed.

    I’m glad you got yours done; good luck on avoiding fungus.

  3. I thing to keep in mind about mowing your lawn… Never cut more than 1/3 of the height of the grass. If your grass is very high, set your mower as high as possible. Than mow again in a coupe of days to your regular height. It will be much easier for your mower and better for your grass.

  4. Hi, Donna,
    I’m a co-conspirator when it comes to letting the grass grow and grow and grow. I finally mowed mine yesterday when it was 95 degrees, and only then because having a pasture for a front yard offends my aesthetic sensibilities.

    I LIKE the look of a tidy, freshly mowed yard, but as Paul McCartney once put it, “we’re so easily called away….”

    There’s another point you make that I hope doesn’t go unnoticed, and that’s fixing the trimmer.

    I’m not at all mechanical, and yet being an economic casualty of what TIME recently called “the decade from hell,” I have found it necessary to take on tasks that years ago I would have left to others.

    In particular, I have had a rash of plumbing issues recently and discovered I could repair the drain in my bathroom sink and the refill valve in the toilet.

    The latter was especially gratifying. I bought a replacement refill valve for one I had installed a few years ago and as I prepared to install it, I noticed instructions for repairing it as well.

    After looking through them, I had this absurd thought that maybe I, a dunce when it comes to all things mechanical, might be able to fix the old valve.

    Overcoming every native instinct in my being, I followed the instructions and took the old valve apart. Not too difficult, and I had to admire what struck me as a clever, yet simple design.

    There was a long, porous nylon filter inside the stem, which seemed pretty amazing. When I pulled it out, I discovered it was clogged with grit and dirt. I cleaned it, replaced it, re-traced my steps and replaced the valve in the tank.

    I turned the water back on, let the tank refill, flushed, and damn if it didn’t work!

    So I put the new one back in the box with the parts and the directions, and decided to keep it rather than return it and get my $9 back. Eventually I’ll either need the valve or the instructions (now that I know how to do maintenance on the valve) or both.

    Either way, it was a worthwhile expense and an even more gratifying experience to do something I didn’t think I could do. That kind of “esteemable act,” as I’ve heard it called, is an unexpected benefit that will repay that $9 a thousand times over.

  5. Deedee

    Hi Donna! Can’t really give you mowing advice. But you make me think I should definitely get on learning that skill so if I ever had to I could. My husband has always (happily) been the yard guy.
    We have had so much rain as well (Montana) that our lawn was scary! Whenever there would be a break in the rain we’d hear neighborhood lawnmowers start up, but it was so sodden and soggy that my husband waited until we had one whole day of Sunshine (finally) and mowed then. That was last Wednesday, it has rained every day but one since then and we are a jungle again!

  6. Donna Freedman

    @John: Toilets are some of the easier things to fix, yet many people automatically call a plumber. For instance, sometimes all that’s needed is to replace the flapper. This takes about 30 seconds, but a plumber would be legally entitled to charge you for a service call.
    There’s plenty of information online about how to do basic repairs, and books in the library, too.
    My favorite site name: FixAToilet.com. Honest.
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  7. Ummm, I have to second Mary H. on this one. No flip flops! And I say that only because I mowed in flip flops on a wet hill. I slid and the only thing that saved my toes was that fact that I’m double jointed and I curled my toes up. I also tore out tile with a crow bar in flip flops and snapped my toe. I now have a very unattractive pair of steel toed work boots. Hit a few garage sales while you are up in Alaska soaking up the sun!!! 😉

  8. ya know you have a Jersey girlfriend who once worked for the nations second largest retailer. I would be honored to talk you through a few lawn care basics. Sounds like you did a pretty good job though. Next time though if the lawn is long and wet, set your mower at its highest setting and mow twice if necessary.

  9. Kudos to you for getting it done, but yes, I echo the other readers.. save your toes and don’t wear flip flops. I used to love manicured lawns, but that’s before I realized how much upkeep they require. When I get a place, I think I’d get dessert landscaping because 1. it’s environmentally better for the dry Californian environment, 2. it’s cheaper (uses less water), and 3. I don’t have to mow the lawn!

  10. That’s hilarious! What great writing. Yup, and so true too. It always rains right when the lawn is at the perfect height to be mowed. I get sick when I’m out in the heat, so this year, I said, “Enough is enough,” and hired someone to do it. I was having such a hard time recovering after mowing the lawn that it’s well worth the money. I was getting too worried about my health.

  11. sharon

    Mowing the lawn was probably my least favorite aspect of owning a house. Over the years I alternated between hiring someone and doing it myself, but one year I hit a ground nest of hornets and got stung, resulting in a trip to the emergency room. I would have been happy to keep a pair of goats as permanent residents, but my neighbors and the city would have objected. Now I’m a renter, and I let someone else worry about getting it done. If I ever own a house again, a dubious proposition at best, the front yard will be an English-style flower garden and the back yard will be all fruits and veggies.

  12. Donna Freedman

    To all of you who seem worried my feet: It’s an electric mower with what on a truck would be called a mudflap. Nothing gets out the back, in other words, and since it’s electric the engine quits the instant I let go of the lever.
    The only way I could face amputation is to lift the mower and stick my foot under it while holding on to the lever.
    If I ever get my own place I’m getting an electric mower. They are way cool.
    But thanks for the concern, y’all.
    — Donna “Ten Toes” Freedman

  13. Heh. Brings back memories. Thank god for xeric landscaping!

    I always had electric lawnmowers. Maybe the newer ones are better, but the electric models were less powerful than gasoline mowers. And you had to be really careful not to run over the power cord. Because people will sometimes pull the mower backwards, like running a vacuum cleaner, even a model with a mud flap can be dangerous for your feet. And string weed-whackers! Arghhhhh! A device designed to drive you nuts. Semi-demi-exboyfriend hated them so much he insisted on getting down on hands and knees and trimming the edges with shears. What that meant, o’course, was that the lawn rarely got edged.

    Personally, I feel the highest and best use of a lawn is to feed the goats.

  14. Buferino

    I can’t STAND cutting the lawn. It took buying a house to make me realize I’m also allergic to freshly-cut grass. I had the same weather problems as you did over the weekend except it rained as I was halfway through cutting. Half the lawn is foot-tall dead dandelions, fluff everywhere; half the lawn is somewhat trimmed. It looks like a science experiement. Anyone want to buy a small home with an uneven yard?

  15. Donna Freedman

    @Funny About Money: In Seattle you really CAN rent a goat. People lease them out to take care of weed infestations. Often the “weeds” are blackberry vines. Having picked blackberries and gotten my arms raked by the thorns, all I can say is that goats must have cast-iron mouths.
    What a way to amortize the cost of owning the critters, though: Rent them out plus they get fed in the bargain!
    Thanks for reading.

  16. Jen Mahan

    I have rented goats and they work great! It cost $200 / week for 4 goats. I had them for two weeks and it was amazing how much they cleared out my overgrown back yard. Quotes from landscaping companies were coming in at ten times the amount and I assure you they would not have been as quiet, or as entertaining to watch. Human workers most certainly wouldn’t have let us hand-feed them chunks of watermelon or scratch their beards. 🙂

  17. tundraflower

    Donna, the kind of weed trimmer we have ejects a length of string when you hit the bottom on the ground (it’s the string casing that triggers the string release). Maybe that will work on xxxxx’s trimmer.
    You may have all ten toes, but if you want them in their entirety you’ll leave the flip flops for the beach. Machines can always malfunction, even the safety mechanisms. Our electric mower’s “mudflap” didn’t always prevent the occasional stone from ejecting out the back toward my feet.
    My favorite way to keep the grass and weeds down is to watch someone else do it —- my horse. He especially likes to eat the taller grass around the edges. 😀

  18. Donna Freedman

    @Jen: Re the beard-scratching and melon-feeding, I think some human work crews would in fact welcome such attentions. Eeewww.


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