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Save the weeds and the mowers

(ran LA edition of LT and S edition of CTI)

I'm glad the summer rains are finally here.

I was starting to worry about my weeds.

Some people have lawns to tend, lush carpets of grass woven together through tender loving care and lots and lots of water.

I, on the other hand, have weeds _ lots of them. There may even be a few actual blades of grass among them but not enough to spoil the effect.

My family likes to think of our lawn as something of a museum piece, the last vestiges of real Florida in this great city of ours, a collection of plant species that would boggle the best minds at the extension service.

It's even politically correct.

After all, xeriscaping is all the rage among water conservationists these days. It's a fancy name for landscaping that doesn't require massive watering and fertilizer.

The idea is to plant stuff that will withstand our periodic dry spells and still look green enough to pass for a lawn.

We have embraced this concept at our house, and taken it one step further.

We call it zeroscaping.

This concept allows nature to truly take its course. Of course, this means putting up with a few patches of sand here and there and more than a few sand spurs.

It can be hard on bare feet, but it's easy on the water table.

You might think this would make it easier for mowing. Wrong. Weeds grow just as much as grass, and the parts that are mostly sand take a toll on your lawn mower, a little-known fact I discovered recently when I took the family mower down to Finch Machine Shop for its annual checkup.

Alfred Jones has repaired thousands of South Tampa lawn mowers in the 31 years since he took over the business from his father-in-law. He still works out of the same garage on Platt Street on the edge of Hyde Park where the business started in 1951 and lives in the house next door.

Drive by nearly any weekday morning and you'll likely find someone leaning on a lawn mower in need of help.

The first time I walked in I was reminded of my uncle's garage in Virginia. It wasn't so much the look as the smell of the place, a mixture of old wood, oil and gasoline. I felt comfortable there and knew I was leaving the mower in good hands.

When I went back a couple days later Jones held up what used to be a straight, sharp blade that had been worn to a nub. "Sand'll do that to a blade every time," Jones said.

Still, this news did not lead me to rush out and start scraping up weeds, installing sprinklers, laying down St. Augustine.

We're committed to zeroscaping. Besides, we're too cheap to buy a lawn.

Unfortunately we're in a decided minority in South Tampa. The concept of abandoning sod in favor of more water-friendly lawns hasn't really taken root, so to speak, among most homeowners.

More and more people seem to be heading in the opposite direction, scraping their lawns, installing water sprinklers and laying down lush carpets of grass.

And hiring lawn services.

"The lawn business is changing," Jones said the other day with some authority. "So many people get their lawns done now."

And it's not good for people like Jones. "Each of those commercial guys have 40 or 50 customers," he said. "Each one takes 40 or 50 mowers off the market."

It's market-driven, I'm told.

The appraiser who checked out our house a couple of years ago was enthusiastic about everything but our lawn. The one thing that would boost your property value, he said, is grass.

Chuck those weeds, he said, and get a lawn. That will boost your curb appeal. Buyers like those thick, green lawns, he said.

But then I'd have to hire a lawn service to take care of it. And that would mean one less mower for Jones to fix.

I think I'll stick with my weeds for now. It may be ugly, but at least I'm doing my part to support small business.

Tom Scherberger is a staff writer in the Times' downtown Tampa office.