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

Kaz gave me a big smile and welcome back hug before storing my luggage in the trunk. His smile and the positive vibe kept on flowing when he drove out of the terminal. I leaned back into the seat and put on my shades. If the presence of happy families and theme park shops inside the terminal hadn’t confirmed that I was in Orlando–the bright sunlight, palm trees, and multi-color flora outside the terminal left no doubt. Florida reigned supreme among the Sun Belt states and Orlando is the premier destination.

We headed back home on State Road 528 West. The Sea World Orlando theme park and the Orange County Convention Center were both visible when we approached Interstate 4. A sign directed traffic toward Disney World and Universal Studios as we merged onto I-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 orange juice with breakfast became a healthy 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 commercial Restaurant Row section before heading to our neighborhood. Kaz slowed down for the twelve-miles-per-hour posted speed limit. This slow limit allowed seniors taking leisurely strolls to keep their pace, accommodated juniors who appeared suddenly and then disappeared just as quickly on their skateboards, and left ample time to stop for any toddlers chasing a wayward ball onto the road.

The slow drive through our neighborhood forced my attention on a new obsession that I’d acquired since moving to the Orlando suburbs. Any obsession in Florida should automatically include year-round outdoor sports, but not so in my case–it was lawn-care that obsessed me. The lawns in Dr. Phillips were greener than Ireland and mowed to an impeccable German precision. And whereas, the small ubiquitous garden in England is a unique and quaint English experience–the lawn and suburbia are quintessentially American. The bar for lawn-care in Orlando The City Beautiful was set high. And oddly enough, the suburbs of Orlando were also home to a large number of international residents.

When I lived up north in New Jersey, I thought that grass could pretty much take care of itself if it rained once in a while. That assumption did not apply down south in Florida. Setting and maintaining the water sprinkler system was 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.

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. Neighbors weren’t overly concerned with which God I prayed to, as long as the lawn also looked like it was being worshiped. If the lawn is a vibrant green and cut to 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. Allow a brown spot, or weeds to appear, however, and not only will the homeowner’s character be questioned, but religious affiliations could also be held responsible for the unforgivable lapse. Gossiping and judging by thy neighbors in suburbia 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, is 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 choice, but thou shalt indeed live by the commandments of the HOA. Their book of rules can be found in all homes 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 and growing in Florida could handle a little sunshine, especially the St. Augustine grass found on most lawns–but not so. The tropics were full of big and small 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 if I fainted from heat exhaustion while mowing.

The heat stress-levels on the grass resulted in even bigger stress-levels on the homeowner. Managing personal stress with pharmaceuticals, or naturally grown elements was optional for homeowners. Not a proponent of either solution, I managed this stress by venting and sharing my shortcomings and lawnmower settings with neighbor Ben. The lawn and my sanity survived due to his sage advice and good counsel. Ben, like a good neighbor, was always there, figuratively and literally. I’d never seen anyone tinker so much in the mid-day Florida sun and still maintain a friendly disposition.

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 foe declared war on the lawn. It had to go. And while I wasn’t an avid Rachel Carson environmentalist, I was wary of removing one unseen adversary by introducing others through more chemicals.

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 different varieties of weeds and the best ways to deal with them. The local library was my favorite place to learn most anything, but I learned about lawn-care from neighbor Ben. He also 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.

I realized my obsession with lawn-care had gone too far, when one day while visiting friends in another subdivision, I became spellbound by a front-lawn that shimmered. It was a work of art. I’d seen great lawns before, but nothing close to perfection, or befitting a royal garden until that moment. I didn’t think that a four-inch thick green carpet could be so perfectly manicured around the plants, edges, footpath, and driveway. There wasn’t a single green blade out of place. I had not seen grass in TV commercials, or putting greens look this good.

I couldn’t drive by without knocking on the front door to complement the homeowners. The owners weren’t 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 magic formula? Did they design the landscaping and do the work themselves, or had they hired a landscaping company? The industrious teenager mowing neighborhood lawns for extra pocket money was no competition for the burgeoning lawn maintenance companies that served entire subdivisions. Sensible homeowners saved time, effort, and frustration by outsourcing lawn-care to the experts with their own low-cost labor. My choices, determined by my financial resources, hadn’t earned me a seat at the table with these wise sub-division elders.

I considered outsourcing lawn-care at one time, even though I had two low-cost labor teenagers of my own. But what would be next in the natural scheme of things–outsourcing the barbecue grill? What kind of natural-selection genetics would I be passing to 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. Abraham Levitt, builder of the famous Levittown homes in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania after World War II is quoted as saying, “No man who owns his own home and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.” He was right on both counts.

I finally came to a new understanding of lawn-care, time, expenses, and the benefit 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 many complaints about the constant yard work. Out went the many 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-care 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 and then stopped. 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’d 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. Zahra and I made plans to enjoy the peace we extended to each other after dinner. The lawn, however, still gnawed away at me after our meal. I had to step outside one more time. It really wasn’t an obsession or anything. 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