After living in the mountains (where there is no such thing as “yard work”) for years, and then in a 600-square-foot condo (where our HOA fees paid for the tiny-yard work and shoveling), Cynthia and I moved to a town just outside the city limits of Denver and bought a house with . . . no, not a yard, but yards: a back yard, a front yard, and two side yards–about half of an acre’s worth.
I use the word “yards” loosely. They were actually large patches of dirt with weeds and junk. And by “junk” I mean metal (one former inhabitant made his living from dioramas he built in the back), brick (from the floor of a since-destroyed shed), chunks of granite (a former neighbor made tombstones), and, yes, good old-fashioned garbage (the fire pit in the back seems to have doubled as a urinal and tripled as a dump). I spent the first few months filling at least 100 large trash bags with such junk.
After our first year, the property looked slightly better, but after trimming the trees, killing some ambitious saplings (elms are insidious), I was still spending most of my time “mowing” and weed-whacking weeds that grew back in just hours—a Sisyphusian harvest that I grew very tired of.
So this year, it ends.
I taught two summer courses, Cynthia taught for a summer institute, and with the extra money we earned from those endeavors we bought a lot of soil, compost, gravel, and drought-tolerant, native plants.
Why drought-tolerant? Because even though a lot of people in Colorado don’t act like it, we actually live in a desert. Denver gets a mere 17 inches of rainfall per year. (Compare that to the 50+ inches that my hometown of Harrison, NY receives.) It’s stupid to have a lawn here. It’s stupid to have a sprinkler system. In fact it’s more than stupid; it’s unethical. It’s wrong. (Unless we somehow, someday catch up with common-sense and start using waste water to feed our lawns.)
So I’m not gonna do it.
This summer, we are killing weeds not with Round-up, as all our neighbors do, but by pulling them up by the roots and digging them up with a pickaxe. Then we’re putting down some sheet mulch, covering that with good soil (1/2 dirt, 1/2 compost), covering that soil with mulch, then planting native grasses and plants such as creeping thyme, nettle, sage, buckwheat, and goldenrod. It’s all pretty exciting.
But it’s also so time-consuming—mostly because we’re doing everything without the help of gas-powered machinery. No sod-cutter, no lawn-mower, no tiller, no leaf-blower. If you want to know how we removed a half-acre of (very little) grass and (a lot of) weeds, picture me with a pick-axe, hacking away for hours like the Man of Aran. If you want to know how we put down tons of gravel and about thirty cubic yards of soil and compost and mulch, picture me with a wheelbarrow and shovel, with occasional help from my son and a sustainable-gardening-guru student of mine named Scott. If you want to know how we put in about 300 plants and started four garden beds, picture Cynthia and me on our hands and knees in the dirt.
We didn’t plan to do things this way. We don’t have an anti-technology agenda and we’re not trying to score any political points. I certainly planned on using a gas-powered sod-cutter, because I couldn’t imagine digging up half an acre by hand. But the day before we were going to rent the cutter we had some odd torrential rains, and it wouldn’t have worked well (the sod cutter is so heavy it would have sunk into the mud), so Scott and I just started hacking away with pickaxes, and after a few days of that it just didn’t make sense to pay for a cutter, especially since I was enjoying the work: I was getting good exercise, and it was invigorating to be out in the fresh air, working with my hands. So while I’m not one to get up on a soap box about this, I wish to say here that while doing this work I’ve found that we really don’t need most of the gas-powered things we think we need. Yes, it takes more time to do things with our hands, but it’s more contemplative. It’s quieter. It makes us stronger. It gets us dirty and sweaty and it feels good.
I just hope my back holds up.