Subtropical Lawn Care For Green Incompetents

In late 2009 we moved back to Brisbane, and in keeping with the low density suburban vibe that predominates in this city, acquired responsibility for a lawn. It takes up the remainder of a 400 m^2 block after a small worker’s cottage, a largish shed, and a few small gardens and trees are taken out.

I am not a huge lawn fan. We might convert some of it to garden, in the medium term, but even after that some sort of lawn seems inevitable. B floated the idea of letting it return to meadow, and sowing wildflowers. It’s a wonderfully romantic notion, but there are a few drawbacks. In Out of Control, Kevin Kelly describes a person who restores meadow environments in the US, and it is actually pretty hard work. In the same book, he quotes Freeman Dyson’s critique of Biosphere 2: that the great successes of a closed system like that will be weeds. (It was not exactly the original experiment parameters, but that’s just what happened). Rather more prosaically, typical scrub grass in South East Queensland grows to about a metre high. That’s taller than my son.

So rather than invest in tracking technology and snake wrestling lessons for the youngster, I resigned myself to participation in the ritual cleansing of the yard using a lawnmower.

I don’t really like lawnmowers either. Never have, they are coughing, loud, awkward things awash with fumes that always need filling up with petrol. Plus we have, with varying degrees of seriousness, been trying to go through what Alex Steffen describes somewhat derisorily as The Swap:

Many of these ideas are still being presented as support for the idea that we can conveniently retrofit North American 20th Century suburban life for the 21st Century. We still see hundreds of stories a day promoting the Swap — the idea that we can change the components of suburban, high-consumption, auto-dependent lives without have to change the nature of those lives — but that idea itself is non-reality-based.

To me the Swap is not sufficient but it’s a good start. And anyway, where does The Swap end and The Solution begin? So instead of another petrol lawnmower I bought a push mower off Ebay with $25 and an armful of enthusiasm. That’s push mower as in with your arms, not electric. It’s an old Flymo 5/40. Electric mowers have their place but require more financial commitment. And a really really long extension cord, or you take another big leap in expense.

We had a push mower when I was a kid so I was not entirely ignorant of its pros and cons. But here are some lessons learnt.

  • Consistency. These push mowers work best on short grass, so a philosophy of little and often works best. Once the grass grows a bit it will wrap around the internal axle, and also just stop the rotation of the blades. To make progress you then need to do many short sharp pushes on the same segment, rather than a relatively smooth walking pass. The effort increases in a brutally non-linear fashion relative to the length of the grass. When the grass got long, I ended up spending nearly a third of the mowing time on the most lush 5 metres square patch
  • Summer will beat you. We had record rainfall this summer as a long drought ended. Together with a few weeks away on business, bone idleness on my part, the wet ground and summer sun-fuelled grass vaulting ever skywards, I had to resort to borrowing a petrol mower a few times just to reset the playing field. Ok, what actually happened, even more humiliatingly, was my retired father just came and mowed it when I wasn’t home. Now we are on the edge of winter I am keeping up pretty easily. It’s still a net carbon win, but a bit frustrating to have to cheat in this manner. I suspect that without forking out for a lawnmower bike a few passes with the petrol mower will still be needed each Christmas though.
  • Grass types make a difference. For a lazy lawnmower like myself, broad short kikuyu grass is great. Shorter thinner grass like cooch or other even snobbier varieties used down south are dense pains in the neck (and back and shoulders).
  • Whipper snipper. It is harder to fudge edges with a push mower, as you can’t lift one wheel and push with that dangerous but widely used tilted petrol mower technique without losing almost all cutting power. Once I had established to myself that this push business wasn’t just a fad, by mowing for a month or two, I bought an electric whipper snipper. We recently switched to 100% green power at home so the carbon footprint is restricted to the manufacture and transport. Since I never did the edges properly before anyway, the place actually looks better now.
  • Profile. Our lawn is pretty flat and rectangular. Even so, there are a few dips and holes in it from trees removed long ago. They are a pain as well. We are trying to fill in the holes, but so far everything put into them has trickled down out of sight in a few weeks. They must have been big trees, possibly with roots in another plane.

I figure some people pay for the gym to get their exercise. I hate the gym, and this way we can still traverse our yard without a compass.

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