A well-tended patch of lawn brings this Kāpiti Coast man unbounded joy.
Words: Heather Kidd
At its most basic, a lawn is lovely to look at and wonderful to walk on. And nothing, not a single thing, gets the nostrils twitching like the scent of freshly mown grass. Indeed, in 2009 Australian scientists released their findings of seven years’ research to report that cut grass releases chemicals that make people happy and relaxed.
Grass, and lots of it, has been central to Leo Barber’s life. He’s always loved the green stuff. “I can’t put it down to anything tangible; it was just a feeling.”
So intense was his fascination with it that he became a greenkeeper, with a 30-year career working at golf courses in New Zealand and overseas. Fifteen years ago, he was appointed course superintendent at one of this country’s most iconic courses, Paraparaumu Beach. For the past 13 years, he’s combined the role with that of general manager (20 per cent greenkeeping, 80 per cent management).
Unlike most greenkeepers, who have a reputation for being lax when it comes to their own patch of lawn, until he stepped up to GM, Leo’s passion for grass was enduring. He was generally home mid to late afternoon and had a couple of hours free to tend to his lawn.
But that changed when he got the top job. Often not home until after dark and faced with the demands of a busy home life — Leo and wife Delwyn have four children — Leo let his front lawn go from fabulous to forlorn. It wasn’t until last year, during the level 4 lockdown, that he had time to nurse it back to health.
Leo’s lawn is a mix of fescue and browntop — grasses that flourish in sandy, coastal conditions. By caring for it consistently — scarifying, weeding, reseeding, watering and mowing — he brought it back to life. And as it grew, so too did Leo’s pride.
“I thought I’d be able to get it back to a good level, and it’s ended up at a great level. Now, every morning when I leave for work, I look at that lawn and it brings me immense satisfaction. Every night when I come home, I look at it and feel the same. When a neighbour walks by and says something positive about the lawn, my chest puffs out. My lawn brings me joy.”
Leo’s sense of competitiveness has also been ignited. “As the lawn got better, I got more and more into it. Initially, it was about having the best lawn in the cul de sac. Then it was wanting to be the best lawn in Paraparaumu Beach. Now I think I have the best lawn on the Kāpiti Coast.”
Far from feeling like he’s bringing his work home, Leo says time spent tending his lawn is therapeutic. “I’m out doing something at least every second day — weeding, watering, doing the edges, or mowing. Mowing is the most underrated thing you can do
to improve your lawn. It improves the tillering and the density.
“During peak growing season, I’ll mow three times a week. Once a week in the middle of winter.”
You won’t see stripes on Leo’s lawn. “I know a lot of people get pretty excited by stripes, but I hate them. I think they make lawns look too busy.”
The rejuvenation of his lawn led Leo online, where he found his tribe — fellow lawn enthusiasts. He’s caught the lawn-envy bug, wishing he had a bigger property and hankers after a certain type of mower.
“I want a reel mower as opposed to a rotary.”
With his front lawn pristine, Leo’s next project is the back yard of his Paraparaumu property, currently not so much a blank canvas as a playground for four kids and an exuberant dog. Maybe it’ll be a good opportunity to get the family involved? Maybe.
“A couple of them got interested when I did the front. I trust them to help but not to take the lead on anything. There are lots of tips and tricks to mowing a lawn; it’s all about the feel…”
Maybe it’s all about their father’s obsession.
TOP LAWN TIPS
Cutting. Regular mowing promotes density. Never remove more than one-third in any one mow; keep at slightly higher height for improved resilience.
Fertilizing. Choose a slow-release product, applied every two months. Don’t overfeed.
Watering. Little and often.
Weeding. Don’t automatically reach for a spray. Lever a screwdriver and ensure the whole taproot is removed. Spray annually if necessary.
Insects. Silent killers. Treat for grass grub in autumn.
Scarifying/aerating. Remove dead and old growth by rough raking or with a purpose-built machine. Levering a pitchfork across the lawn improves drainage, reduces compaction and promotes stronger roots.
This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.