Devil’s Grass! Let Us Spray
“You’ve got devil’s grass,” my father-in-law said as we watched a group of 4-year-olds play on the lawn during my daughter’s birthday party.
“Huh, devil’s grass?” I repeated.
“Yeah, Bermuda grass. It’s called devil’s grass. It’s horrible stuff. It will take over everything,” he said. “You should redo your lawn, now .”
True, it wasn’t as nice as my neighbor’s, but nothing of mine was. “Take over everything, huh? I’m lucky my house is still standing,” I joked.
“Don’t be a wise ass. Just redo it. I don’t want my grandchildren running around on devil’s weed.”
It sounded similar to something I had heard as an adolescent. “Yes, sir,” I snapped back.
I told the kid at the garden shop that I needed help with my lawn.
“Talk to him,” he said, pointing behind the counter to the oldest man I had ever seen.
“Bermuda grass,” the old man said, shaking his head. “You know it’s called devil’s grass. You’ve got yourself a project. First, you’ve got to kill it all. Easier said than done.”
I was beginning to get a headache.
He continued: “Then, you’ve got to scrape off all the dead grass.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “I recommend using a sod cutter.” He looked at me.
“Sod cutter.” I nodded to gain his approval.
“Maybe you should be writing this down.”
“I’ll remember,” I said, showing my best concentration.
“After you scrape,” he began again, as if telling an old whaling story, “you wait.” He paused, apparently to underscore the significance of this step. “You wait and you water,” he emphasized.
As I repeated the step, a group of guys gathered.
He worked the crowd: “And you watch. You watch to see if any of the Bermuda grass comes back. And it will come back. It always does. You spray, again and again, until it’s dead.”
Someone behind me cried out: “You can’t kill it.” The guy next to me nodded.
The old man continued. “Once she’s dead, then you can rototill it, level it, fertilize it, level it again. Then you’re ready to plant.” He was envisioning a big sale; he’d seen my kind before.
I was ready to accept the challenge. I’d show him, my father-in-law and all the guys in the garden shop that I could do it. There’s something about a man and his lawn. Something my wife didn’t understand. Something I didn’t even understand. Something I couldn’t explain.
When my father-in-law had mentioned my lawn, I knew he was right. I wanted a great lawn. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s related to the first time you saw the grass at a major league ballpark. Or maybe it’s fear of a receding hairline.
“What do I use to kill it?” I asked the sage.
“Kill It,” he replied. “The stuff is called ‘Kill It.’ ”
“It was used in ‘Nam,” someone said from the crowd.
Another voice chimed in: “They just dropped the word orange from the name.”
On my sixth trip back, the shop was full of guys like me. It sounded like an encounter group: “Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m redoing my lawn.”
I broke from the group for an audience with the old man.
“It won’t die. I’ve sprayed it five times now,” I began. “The paint on my neighbor’s house downwind is peeling off. All his trees are dying. There were even rumors of an epidemiologist surveying the neighborhood, checking into rumors of a recent increase in leukemia on my block. It still won’t die. I’ve poured so much Kill It on my lawn, I’m sure there is a guy in China wondering what’s destroying his rice fields. Please old wise one, help me,” I pleaded.
“Grass chopper,” he said slowly. “You have learned a valuable lesson, but it is time to move on to the next step. Do not look back, it will consume you.”
I took the master’s advice, returned home and completed the necessary preparations. As only planting, the final step, awaited me, I again went back to the shop.
“Sod or seed?” the sensei asked. I was dumbfounded. He may as well have asked “paper or plastic.” I couldn’t answer.
“What’s the difference?” I replied.
“They’re both about the same,” he answered. “Only sod is instant lawn, while seed takes four to six weeks for a nice lawn, but it is less expensive.”
I told him that I couldn’t wait that long, that I’d take the sod.
“What kind?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“There are at least nine different varieties: rye, blue rye, blue, St. Augustine, the patron saint of sod, dichondra.” He stopped to catch his breath. “Hybrid Bermuda, fescue . . . “
It would be easier selecting the type of Gore-Tex for an intra-abdominal aneurysm bypass operation, I thought. “What do you recommend for me?” I asked.
“Fescue, valley fescue type two,” he said without hesitation. “It’s green year-round, slow growing, shade tolerant, low maintenance and drought resistant . . . “
“Sold,” I interrupted. “I need 1,100 square feet.”
It was beautiful. It looked like the infield at Tiger Stadium. Now, my lawn and paint job were nicer than my neighbor’s.
My father-in-law was speechless. I was positively expansive.
Then it happened.
The grass started to develop brown spots. Like a rash becoming confluent, it was dying a section at a time.
Was I watering too much? Too little? Wrong fertilizers? Residual Kill It? The Bermuda coming back?
I consulted the old one.
“Brown spots?” the master repeated. He looked confident. I felt a sense of relief wash over me as he began to talk again. “Brown spots? I’ve never heard of that happening with fescue type three.”
My heart sank. “What? Type three? You sold me type two.”
“Well, there’s your problem. You need fescue type three, it’s air pollution resistant too. Shall I ring you a new 1,100 square feet?” he asked without apology.
I was furious: “No!” I screamed.
What a fool I had been. He was just a stupid old man working in a little lawn and garden shop. I felt small.
When I got home, my neighbor was supervising painters redoing his house exterior. It looked good. I was microscopic.
“Hey, neighbor,” he gestured. “You know your dog is killing your new lawn.”
“Buffy?” I asked, confused.
“Yes, she’s a bitch.”
“Excuse me?” I was going to have to kick his butt, I thought.
He continued: “Female dog urine kills lawns. There’s only one kind it doesn’t kill.”
“What’s that?” I asked, somewhat sarcastically. “Fescue type four?”
“Don’t be silly,” he chided. “There’s only one type of fescue. No, what you need is Bermuda grass.”