Some years back, my wife and I moved out of our lovely condo in a pleasant D.C. suburb and into a repurposed garage space in my mom’s little rambler, with the goal of renting out our condo and saving enough money to eventually buy some real land. And it worked! Roughly 18 months of stifling near-misery in a tiny space, sharing a kitchen and a single full bathroom with my very accommodating mother, in her house with her cats, put us in position to buy some acres of scenic but terribly kept land in the absolute middle of nowhere.
I don’t know whether I should feel embarrassed about this next part: if I’m being honest, half or more of our reason for wanting and pursuing and then finally buying this land was to comfortably accommodate our two huge dogs, who have been too huge and noisy and wild to live in a condo since they were just weeks old. Out here in the middle of nowhere, they can run and pounce and dig and howl just as much as they’ve always done anyway, only now they only annoy my wife and me. Sure, the cookouts are fun, and the starry night sky is great, but mostly, we thought it would be a good idea to take our giant pets far away from neighbors before those same neighbors came for them with pitchforks.
Well, as pets do, our dogs aged. Huge dogs age very rapidly, and too soon. One of them died recently; the other one will not survive this year. Among several new realities I’ve been forced to confront is this one: I need to have some other reason for living here beyond that it provides ample space for huge dogs to get into mischief.
The new reason, it turns out, is grass. I mean, I really love to mow the grass. It takes half a day. I do a big, dumb ritual inspection of the mower, digging all the grass clippings out of the deck and various crannies. I get to change the oil and sharpen the blades. It’s a hoot! I queue up a few podcasts or a couple good albums, and then I’m under the bright sun for hours and hours, tracing patterns over the field. It’s bullshit! I’m just killing time! But in the end, it feels like an accomplishment: Look how I have conquered the land, bringing order and shape to nature’s madness. Mowing the grass is the best chore there is, bar none.
The land was shit, though, and the lawn was terrible, and so I’ve had to wrestle big parts of it into shape. I mean, this land was shitty enough that some punks who live somewhere along the lane had taken to hurling giant black garbage bags full of Bud Light empties over the hedge and onto the grass, as if all the patchy weed-choked grass could only be a public dump and not, you know, my lawn. Discouraging this kind of behavior would mean at least getting the damn lawn in order, if not waiting out in the hedge each night with a flashlight and a bullhorn.
Last fall, I turned a particularly ugly giant swath of gravelly dirt and weeds into another patch of lawn. Grass—on top of being, you know, mow-able, which is really all the use I have for it—also squeezes out weeds and soaks up water and prevents runoff. Fall and spring are the best times for laying down a new plot or reseeding your shitty old one. Here’s how it’s done.
It turns out you can grow grass on the thinnest layer of shitty, nutrient-poor soil imaginable. I know this because all I did to grow a new patch of lawn was buy a pile of the shittiest grey topsoil imaginable, and spread, like, two inches of it over the patch of land. I figured, hey, weeds are growing out of that damn gravel, so how much of a head start can grass possibly need? I hand-spread some generic grass seed over it, fairly thickly and as evenly as possible, and figured that was that. Take her away, nature!
This plan was not without flaws: the first dumb mistake was not marking the area off. It was a big, grey square of dirt, brightly strewn with happy blue-colored grass seed, and so, of course, guests and delivery trucks immediately began to treat it like a parking area/turnaround. In no time at all it was scribbled with deep tire tracks, exposing the gravel underneath, and smashing or lifting and in all other ways destroying the grass seed. Bogus!
Fortunately, home and garden stores sell these cute little brightly colored flags you can stuff down into the earth (even rock-hard gravel-strewn earth, it turns out). Make a festive little border of these guys around your grass area and you’re all set.
Big Dumb Mistake No. 2 was assuming there was enough moisture in the soil to keep the grass seed damp even between periods of precipitation, which, I felt certain, would be regular, autumn being autumn. Funny thing, though: it turns out shitty grey moon-soil, when de-piled, loses all its moisture in roughly 19 seconds. After a day under the sun, a tile floor has more give to it. A couple things happen when your grass seed sits on a hellish, scorched, Adamantium plain of nutrient-poor shitty grey soil. The first and most important thing to happen is nothing at all. Like, the seed just sits there, waiting, a gradually greying indictment of your inability to manage even something so simple as letting nature take its course. The second thing, and the more annoying one, is this: any amount of wind at all will blow your grass seed into little blue drifts, so that, if it ever does grow, it’ll grow along the side of, oh, say, those deep tire tracks left in your sorry dirt field, and nowhere else.
The thing to do, then, is to water your seed right away, and then as often as you can. This goes for brand new patches and for filling in, via reseeding, your shitty embarrassment of a lawn. Things need water in order to live and grow, and also the water will help keep the soil loose, and the seed will sink a little into the loose soil, and the wind won’t push it around much. You only need your bare seed to sit still long enough for tiny little roots to grab hold in the soil, and then, by God, that seed will be stuck there forever.
They say you should water your seed at least twice a day at regular intervals until the grass comes in, but what the hell do they know? Don’t set an alarm to water your grass, and don’t break any appointments. Water your grass as you would your tomatoes: whenever you think of it, whenever you can, as often as you can. Keep the soil dark and wet, to the extent possible.
Another thing they say: throw some straw down over your grass seed. The basic idea here is the straw will keep the soil moist and the seed in place. It works! It’s also messy, and requires a whole additional step in your grass-planting operation beyond those that are actually essential to the actual growing of actual grass. You won’t have to water as much if you do go with straw, because the straw will act like a very thin layer of mulch and trap moisture beneath it.
What they don’t tell you, because they have some kind of pro-straw agenda and are therefore massively biased (like the liberal media), is it is totally possible to grow grass without straw. Do it or don’t. Deal with straw, or water your seed a little more often. I grew my new patch without straw, which meant there were days when I marched around out there in the wind and cold like an asshole, spraying water over and over again. It worked! It will work for you, even if you are as grumpy and neglectful as I am.
Big Dumb Idiot Mistake No. 3 was surveying a craggy grey plain of shitty soil and thinking, “Oh, yeah, plenty of plant food in there.” Hell, no. This shit was basically sand, or cement. Here’s the good news: grass almost, almost doesn’t give a damn. It’ll do what it can, without consistent water, on just an inch of soil that’s only marginally more hospitable than the literal gravel surface it covers. But! You can help it along a little by using a starter fertilizer either immediately before or after spreading the seed, and then by applying a cheap liquid fertilizer as soon as the grass starts to grow.
Starter fertilizer acknowledges that, if your soil was worth a damn, it would probably have grass on it already. And liquid fertilizer acknowledges that, if you were worth a damn, your soil would be worth a damn and your grass would be growing already, what the hell is wrong with you.
Now, okay, fertilizer, generally, is not the kind of thing you’ll want to be ingesting, and so, ease of hand-spreading notwithstanding, you’re gonna want to devise a better way to spread it, one that minimizes the chances of this shit ending up on your skin, where it will then inevitably end up on one or another mucous membrane, you filthy pig. A cheap handheld mechanized spreader? A big scoop, perhaps? A bucket and spade? Some sturdy, impermeable gardening gloves? Just do your best to make sure you, your kids, and your pets avoid a lot of close contact with this stuff until it is watered into the soil and the soil has dried. Also, pro tip: try to keep it away from any flowers or other plants you want to keep.
Spread the starter fertilizer roughly as thickly and evenly as you did the grass. The idea, here, is to water the fertilizer into the soil, so go ahead and soak the ground. Liquid fertilizer comes in cute bottles that attach to the end of your hose. Nothing real advanced, here. Spray it all over the patch as soon as you notice little teeny blades of grass poking through.
I want to be clear, though: I did neither of these things, not on any kind of reasonable, responsible timeline. I laid an anemic layer of garbage soil, then a completely haphazard hand-spread layer of whatever-the-fuck grass seed, then watched it get driven over multiple times by actual vehicles, then stared at it for a couple weeks while virtually nothing happened, watering it so sporadically that at any given time you could have used the area as an air hockey surface. No amount of neglect kept those poor little seeds from doing their thing, because nature is amazing. But it was unnecessarily slow, fitful, agonizing growth, at least in part because there was just no grass food there.
I did eventually spray the surface a couple times with liquid fertilizer, but only after the grass started to come in totally on its own, with nothing to guide or nurture its approach beyond spite. And the liquid fertilizer did, in fact, encourage the grass upward. Where it had been limping along by sheer gumption, with a little boost of nutrition it suddenly took off and became a lawn. So, yeah, feed your grass. A few hits of fertilizer will do the job.
And, man, that moment, when you walk outside and see those teeny little blades of grass poking up through the soil. That is a great moment. Your sense of purpose will crystalize just then, and you will start watering your new little blades of grass all the time, spraying down liquid fertilizer and getting down on your hands and knees several times a day to check their progress into the sun. Lookit ‘em go! That’s a feeling of success, right there. You barely earned it! But you did earn it, you master landscaper you.
Emboldened by my success growing this new patch, I took a bag of generic-ass grass seed all over the damn property, like Johnny Appleseed, spreading handfuls anywhere bare earth was visible. Fall and spring are the seasons for this, and reseeding your bald, brown, patchy lawn is even easier than planting a new one. Just scatter some seed among the grass that’s already there, and bump up your watering a bit.
You totally don’t need to have a shitty lawn. The whole entire rest of your life may be in tatters, a shameful disgrace of aborted adulthood, but, man, you can have a lush green carpet of healthy grass out there, and spend your whole damn afternoon mowing it in the sun. The good life. I had the worst damn lawn in America after I bought this patch of land. You still won’t find my lawn on the cover of a landscaping magazine, but it’s mostly green, and mostly thick, and there are at least 900 more square feet of it. I did that. And if I could seed and grow and mow grass out to the highway, I swear I would. Grass is the best.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker, Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll.