Dr. Phillips, Ben The Gardener, and The Way Of The Lawn

Kaz welcomed me back with a big smile and hug before taking my luggage and storing it in the trunk. I smiled, reached for my sunglasses, and leaned back on the car seat. If the presence of happy families and theme park décor inside the terminal hadn’t confirmed I was in Orlando–the bright sunlight, palm trees, and multi-colored flora outside the terminal left no doubt. Florida reigns supreme among the Sun Belt states and Orlando is the premier destination.

The Sea World theme park and the Orange County Convention Center were both visible from the intersection of Route 528 and Interstate 4. A sign directed traffic toward Disney World and Universal Studios as we merged onto Interstate 4 and took the Sand Lake Road exit. This region of Orlando is named after Dr. Philip Phillips. Orlando is in Orange County and Dr. Phillips was a local businessman who owned a citrus empire that spanned several counties. A glass of healthy orange juice with breakfast every morning became a ritual thanks to Dr. Phillips’s revolutionary pasteurizing process and marketing savvy.

The orange groves were relocated and the area came to be known for its restaurants and tourist attractions. We passed the Restaurant Row section before heading to our neighborhood. Kaz slowed down for the twelve-miles-per-hour posted speed limit. The ultra-slow speed limit allowed seniors taking leisurely strolls to keep their pace, accommodated juniors who appeared suddenly and disappeared just as quickly on their skateboards, and left ample time to stop for toddlers chasing wayward balls.

The slow drive through our neighborhood forced my attention on a new obsession I’d acquired since moving to the Orlando suburbs. Any obsession in Florida should automatically include year-round outdoor sports, but not in my case–it was lawn-care that obsessed me. The lawns in Dr. Phillips looked like they were in England, greener than Ireland, and mowed to an impeccable German precision. The bar for lawn-care in OrlandoThe City Beautiful was set high, and oddly enough, it also had a sizable population of international residents.

When I lived up north in New Jersey, I thought grass could pretty much take care of itself if it rained once in a while. The same assumption did not apply down south in Florida. Setting and maintaining the water sprinkler system is only the beginning. Not only can’t lawns take care of themselves, they also need more attention than an elderly patient in a hospital. Even then, a patient might get better and leave the hospital, but no such hope exists with the lawn. Lawn-care is a full-time and year-round job in Florida.

Neighbors weren’t overly concerned with which God I prayed to, as long as the lawn also looked like it was being worshiped. The lawn is the jewel-in-the-crown. It dictates the curb appeal of the house and determines the homeowner’s status in the community. If the lawn is a vibrant green and the perfect height, the homeowner’s status is elevated to the three G’s; Green-Grass-Guru. Mere mortal neighbors will sit at their feet and seek advice on the Way of the Lawn. However, allow a brown spot, or weeds to appear, and not only will the homeowner’s character be questioned, but religious affiliations could be held responsible for the unforgivable lapse. Gossiping and judging of thy neighbors had no better ally than an unkempt lawn.

To ensure suburban nirvana, neighborhood expectations are established early on by the omnipotent Home Owners Association. This organization is dedicated to preserving the near impossible standards to which all homeowners are forced into submission. God, in the universal good books, has been known to forgive the believers for overlooking a rule or two if they repented. The same leniency cannot be expected from the HOA. Following your own religious book is a matter of personal choice, but thou shalt live by the commandments of the HOA. The HOA book of rules can be found in every home regardless of creed, ethnicity, or religion.

These lesser gods sent notifications of my misdeeds as they occurred. On one occasion, a letter from the HOA confirmed they also knew how difficult lawn-care was for me. Common sense would dictate that anything living or growing in Florida could handle a little sun, especially the St. Augustine grass found on most lawns–but no, the tropics were full of big and little surprises. The right balance of water and chemicals had to be maintained to prevent stress levels on this thick and rubber-like strand of grass, which felt like a trampoline and sprang me back up in case I fainted from heat exhaustion while mowing. The heat stress-levels on the lawn resulted in dangerously high stress-levels suffered by the homeowner. Of course, managing this personal stress with pharmaceuticals or natural elements was optional for the homeowner.

The only things that grew without the help or involvement of the homeowner were the tropical weeds, which if left alone, looked like something out of the Little Shop of Horrors. One had to be armed with knowledge about the different varieties of weeds and the best ways to deal with them. The local library was my favorite place to learn, but I learned about lawn-care from my neighbor Ben. The lawn and my sanity survived due to his sage advice and good counsel. Ben, like a good neighbor, was always there, both figuratively and literally. I’d never seen anyone tinker so much in the mid-day Florida sun and still maintain a friendly disposition.

Ben knew every plant’s name, their ailments, and possible remedies. I hadn’t seen him talk to the plants, but he fed them nutritious supplements so they could grow and reach their full potential. This level of dedication to flora was both admirable and questionable at the same time. Ben was an avid gardener and wise to the ways of maintaining the tropical paradise. He was in total harmony with tinkering-in-the-tropics, whereas for me, it was more like toiling-in-the-tropics. Dollar Weeds and Dandelions, I could handle, but the Cinch Bugs hit you where it hurt. This silent and invisible enemy declared war on the lawn. It had to go.

I realized my obsession with lawn-care had gone too far, when one day, while visiting friends in another subdivision, I knocked on someone’s front door to compliment them on their lawn. I was spellbound. I’d seen great lawns before, but nothing close to perfection, or befitting a royal garden until that moment. I didn’t think this work of art, which looked like a four-inch thick green carpet perfectly manicured around the edges of the footpath and driveway was possible. The lawn shimmered. There wasn’t a single blade out of place, let alone a brown spot to be seen anywhere. I had not seen grass in TV commercials or putting greens look this good.

The owners were either not home, or they chose not to answer the door. They probably recognized the dazed look of a lawn admirer wanting to sit at their feet and inquire on the Way of the Lawn. What was their secret? Did they design the landscaping and do the work themselves, or had they hired a landscaping company? Sensible homeowners saved time, effort, and frustration by outsourcing lawn-care. My choices, determined by my financial resources, hadn’t earned me a seat at the table with these wise subdivision elders.

I considered outsourcing lawn-care at one time, but what was next in the natural scheme of things–outsourcing the barbecue grill? What kind of natural-selection genetics would I be passing onto future generations? They might be able to handle all variations of the flu, but at a loss when it came to handling garden weeds and charcoal briquettes.

I walked away disappointed from not solving the shimmering mystery. On the drive home, I realized that I’d achieved suburban nirvana. The corporate world owned my weekdays and the house owned my weekends. I reconsidered the relationship with my home and wondered who owned whom. I came to a new understanding of lawn-care, investment of time, and the benefits of living in harmony with the environment. I redesigned my front yard with tips from neighbor Ben who suggested a low maintenance approach after listening to constant complaints about the constant yard work.

Out went the multiple flowerpots that required watering, juniper bushes that hid creepy crawlies, and overgrown hedges that blocked the windows. In came a cobblestone patio with one potted red Bougainvillea plant that welcomed the summer heat and wouldn’t grow around the entire house by the time I returned from a business trip. It took effort, but year-round green lawns and multi-colored flowers were a sight to behold when returning from the northeast during the cold and grey winter months. The health of my lawn came into view as the car inched along our cul-de-sac. The front yard wasn’t in the condition to attract disciples, but nevertheless, I allowed myself a couple of pats on the back. It looked pretty good for someone new to lawn management in Central Florida suburbia.

After traveling at high speeds in an airplane, the last half-mile in the car felt like moving in slow motion until we turned into the driveway. Kaz parked under the shade of a Magnolia tree that was in full bloom with large green leaves and white flowers. The queen palm and crepe myrtle swayed in the breeze in the front yard. The bird of paradise sang of its presence in elegant red, orange, and blue tropical fusions in the side yard.

Kaz handed me the roller bag and hugged me farewell. We had become friends over the years due to the frequent travel. He accepted a rain check for a cup of tea that I’d offered and drove away after noting my next trip. I waved goodbye, turned around, and rolled my bag to the front door. The door was open. I stepped inside. My wife Zahra walked toward me.

I embraced her and said, “Assalaam Alaikum,” (Peace be upon you).

She hugged me and replied, “Walaikum Assalaam,” (Peace be upon you too).

Our two teenage boys were at a high-school football game, so Zahra and I made plans to enjoy the peace we extended to each other after dinner. However, something gnawed away at me after our meal. I had to step outside one more time. It really wasn’t an obsession or anything like that. It was only to see if any new weeds had popped up or if old leaves had dropped down since the last time I checked. Lawn-care in Central-Florida required dedication, devotion, and perhaps just a little obsession.


Graphic courtesy of Stux Pixabay