Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 8: Lawn care (or lack thereof)

Once again, I've fallen behind schedule with the Bankrate 52-Week Savings Challenge. I couldn't find any way to link this week's challenge with last week's to cover them both in one post, so instead I'm going to devote this post to last week's challenge, "Mow Your Own Lawn." Then I'll cover this week's challenge in my next post to get caught up again.

Mowing your own lawn isn't exactly new territory for us: since we bought this house nearly eight years ago, we've been cutting all the grass with a manual push mower. This is only feasible because our "lawn," if you can even dignify it with that name, doesn't cover all that much area: a patch about eight paces by ten in the front and maybe two to three times as much total space in the back. Nonetheless, it's not exactly an easy and pleasant chore. The front yard is a sort of raised, semi-enclosed area that we can only reach by hauling the mower up a flight of steps and over a short wall, and the back yard has a sloped portion that's hard to run the mower up and down. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that our "grass", far from being a smooth carpet of uniform green blades, is a dense, motley assortment of grasses and weeds: clover, chickweed, dandelions, and mugwort, punctuated by thick, mower-resistant tufts of crabgrass.

On top of that, I must confess, we're not too good at following the Bankrate article's advice about mowing frequently to keep the grass healthy. They quote an expert who advises to "Mow grass as needed and not as a scheduled weekly chore," but we're doing well if we get to it once every two weeks. On the plus side, we're great at following all the other tips in the article. It says not to overwater; we never waste water on the lawn at all. It recommends "cutting it high and letting it lie"; we keep the mower blade at its highest setting, and we couldn't bag up the clippings if we wanted to, since our little push mower won't even take a bag. And we avoid the perils of "Fertilizing at the incorrect rate or the incorrect time of year for your type of grass" by eschewing fertilizer altogether.

Nonetheless, our attitude of benign neglect hasn't exactly made our lawn easier to deal with. So what we're trying to do instead is gradually whittle away at the size of the lawn so there will be less of it to mow. Over the past seven years, we've cleared strips of grass from the front yard to make room for creeping phlox and day lilies, as well as adding three plum trees surrounded by islands of mulch. (Side note: They bloomed for the first time this year, so we might actually get to pick a few plums this summer.) In the back yard, we converted formerly grassy areas to beds for our bush cherries and rhubarb, as well as replacing a big swath of lawn with our patio. Yet even so, there's more grass remaining than we'd really like.

We're not prepared to go quite as far as the Bankrate reporter who attempted this challenge, who says that just one sweaty session of mowing her Florida lawn with an electric mower was enough to make her consider swapping out the lawn for "low-maintenance rocks and dirt." What we'd prefer, instead, is a nice, easy-care ground cover that can tolerate being trodden on occasionally. We've considered several alternatives, and we actually had a go at seeding an area in the back yard with Dutch clover, but the results were uninspiring to say the least. However, we had much better luck in the front yard with a single creeping thyme plant, which started out as a circle a few inches and "crept" at surprising speed to encompass several square feet. The Mother-of-Thyme plant we tried last year has also thrived, but on a less impressive scale; after a year, it's still less than a foot across. It's lower and denser than the creeping thyme and would probably look nicer spread across the entire yard, but it would just take too many plants to make that happen. With creeping thyme, by contrast, we could probably start with a dozen strategically spaced plants and have the whole lawn area covered in a couple of years. So if we can succeed in finding the plants at the upcoming Rutgers plant sale, I think it's worth taking the plunge. Even if we can only rustle up enough thyme plants to cover half the yard, that's still half a yard we'll never have to mow again.
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