The Lawn Ranger

The Gardening Fools meet their match.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM FOLEY

The garden we two “Gardening Fools”—Marge and Maggie—created at the house we now share in our retirement is doing well. [Editor’s Note: Marge and Maggie, gardening friends for decades, first shared their first “fools” adventure way back in GreenPrints #54!] All except for the front yard. There it is the Sahara. The flowerbed is beautiful below the front porch, but the lawn is toast. Once again we have had a total outdoor watering ban in our town. The grass resembles straw and is detracting from our, I have to say, spectacular flowers. Something has to be done. Marge and I decide we will invest in a well for next year, but for now, we start planning a new design in front. Less lawn, more trees—that’s what we need. Some shade. By September, when watering is once again allowed, we’re ready for action.

We decide on a big curved bed that will embrace the front garden and provide lovely shade after we’ve put in the four trees we plan to plant. First, though, all that dead grass has to be dug out and removed. A reminder, my housemate and I are getting up in years. I’m now 70, Marge is 76, and our friend, Mary, who helps on occasion, is the Spring chicken at 64. We all, however, still feel like we can do the things we did in our 20s. This is a bit of an issue.

Apparently there are mechanized thingies that remove sod. We don’t have a mechanized thingy. The irony is not lost on Marge and me that our first Gardening Fools adventure, over 40 years ago, was in laying sod. Now we’re trying to remove some.

So, no machines, but what we do have are sharp-edged spades, edging tools, and optimism. The dead sod is slowly, backbreakingly, dug out from the large areas where the new beds will go. It is then hauled into the “back 40,” the area behind the house with the compost bins. This involves a lot of trips up and down a slope with a heavy cart. A lot of trips.

Two days of this and we three M’s—Marge, Mary, and Maggie—are a hot mess. The optimism may be flagging, but we prevail. We have a vision of three river birch, each with a multiple, exfoliating trunk and wide canopy, and an ornamental crabapple to provide fruits for the birds and blossoms for us girls.

The huge bed, we decide, needs to be mounded with new soil to enrich the area and provide for the new trees and perennials. We order six yards of topsoil, and, soon, there it is, mounded on the driveway. The trees are delivered. There they are. Four big trees. We look at each other. We can do this, we say. A piece of cake? Well, maybe not, but yes, we can do this. Three old girls, four trees, no problem.

We somehow forgot that first we have to move all that dirt (the topsoil has already been denigrated to mere dirt) before we even start digging holes and hauling full-grown trees into said holes. But, we are enthusiastic—and still think that we’re, maybe not 20 years old, but no more than 30.

He’s like the Energizer Bunny. We have no choice but to try to keep up.

Day Three starts in the morning with shoveling soil into our wheelbarrows and moving it to the new area. We work well together, changing up jobs so the aches and pains get distributed evenly. This is important. Hours pass. The pile seems to not only fail to diminish, but to actually grow. People go by and remark that it looks like a lot of work. After the eighth person says this, I still smile when I reply, “Yes, it is,”—but I’m suppressing the urge to bat them with my shovel. Instead I lie down on the front porch before my back seizes up. The breaks are getting more frequent as the day, which was supposed to be cloudy, is suddenly—for crying out loud—blindingly sunny. Various pieces of fetching headgear have appeared on our heads: bandanas, floppy straw, baseball cap. We are dripping and dirty but continue to shovel, push wheelbarrows, and rake the soil. All the while those four trees are standing by in anticipation that our twenty-something selves will reappear and dig their holes.

We are now six hours into shoveling and raking and have managed to get two of the trees planted. We’ve still got two more trees to go. And that mound of dirt on the driveway? Still there. Our backs are complaining, our limbs feel like limp spaghetti, and we decide we have to stop for the day. The pile will wait, the trees will wait: we just need to stop. Maybe we’re not in our 30s anymore. I’ll concede to 40.

And then Tony appears. He is the lovely elderly gentleman who represented the builder we hired to build the house four years ago. We thought he was in his 80s then, but he is one of those wiry little men who seem to get stuck in time. He wears an old-fashioned hearing aid that fills his entire ear but doesn’t seem to do much for his hearing. We often wondered why the owner didn’t have a more spry representative, but he told me that Tony was a good friend who would come by a building site, take off his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves, and get to work.

This turns out to be all too true. Here he is, climbing out of his car in his business suit. “Randy called me and told me to come by and help you girls,” he says. We look at each other: Randy, the builder, died a year ago. “I talk to him all the time,” he adds, winking.
We three, sweaty, dead on our feet, watch as Tony takes off his suit jacket and goes into the garage to change into a t-shirt. “I help you,” he announces. He then proceeds to start shoveling. In suit pants and dress shoes.

“Tony, you don’t have to do this. We’ve been working since morning and we were about to call it a day …”

“No problem,” says Tony, filling a wheelbarrow in what seems like seconds. “I will help you. We will finish this. No problem.” The thing about Tony we had learned earlier is that he is a born salesman who just keeps on talking. Everything you say falls on, well, deaf ears.

So now we have Tony, filling wheelbarrows at a dizzying rate. He’s like the Energizer Bunny. We have no choice but to try to keep up. We three, worn to a nub, are staggering back and forth with the wheelbarrows, emptying and raking. “Make him stop,” Mary murmurs. “Please, make him stop. I have to stop …”

I look at Tony, his arms a blur. “I don’t think that’s possible.” Gradually the beds get filled and raked. The pile is gone! Dazed, we are grateful for that and that Tony has finally stopped moving. We start to pack up. The trees can wait until tomorrow.

“Right,” says Tony. “Where you want the trees?”

We remonstrate. “No, no, Tony. We’re too tired.”

“Yes, yes, I help you and then it will be done! Where you want the trees? Here? Here?” He is hauling trees three times his size across the lawn. Then he is furiously digging a hole, all the while explaining how to dig a hole. Honestly, he looks like someone who could keel over at any time with a heart attack. I worry he will—and fall into a hole he just dug, dress shoes and all.

But, bless him, the last two trees do indeed get planted. Tony almost gets planted with them but then spryly—yes, spryly—leaps out. My mouth falls open.

The trees are lovely, all standing proud and straight. Tony, all the while lecturing on how to plant trees, then proceeds to take a broom from the garage and begins sweeping up the driveway. I consider hosing him down.

We thank him profusely. He says, “No problem, no problem,” gets his suit jacket and shirt and drives off in his car. We stand there. “Who was that masked man?” says Mary.

“The Lawn Ranger?” says Marge.

We fall about, laughing—and exhausted.

The trees are in, the new bed is mounded, and most importantly, the pile of dirt is gone from the driveway. We all acknowledge that we are glad Tony didn’t stop working: now we won’t be facing that pile tomorrow morning. We also acknowledge we will be unable to move without moaning for several days to come. This, it turns out, is very true. Perhaps we are not as young as we think we are.

But no more than 50, surely?


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