SIOUX CITY -- Sometime when he was in sixth or seventh grade, Phoenix Larned's dad taught him to use the lawnmower.
It didn't take long for Larned, now 19, to parlay his newfound skill into a moneymaking opportunity.
"I'd walk up the street, and if I saw somebody's grass that was super long, I'd ask them, 'Hey do you need me to mow or anything?', and they'd let me mow their lawn," Larned said.
Today, Larned's informal lawn care business, which he calls "Green Hands," also does landscaping, leaf-raking and snow removal. He can even take out smaller trees.
"I have a couple buddies that do it with me, and we just kind of make our summer money that way," he said. The crew boasts a fleet of three lawn mowers -- two self-propelled, one a simple push mower.
The name came about "because when you mow your lawn, you get green hands. And when you make a lot of money, you've got a lot of green in your hand."
Larned has business cards, and like any pro, offers free estimates.
"I hand those out to people that ask for us," Larned said. "If they see us mowing a lawn, people come up and say, 'How much do you charge?' and we're like, 'Here's a card, just call us later!'"
Currently Larned and the crew have a total of 13 "consistent" lawns they mow each week, which collectively take around two days to mow, usually Mondays and Tuesdays -- barring rain.
After the lawns have been mowed, the group does odd landscaping jobs for the remainder of the week.
Larned usually charges between $20 and $50 per lawn, depending on the size and any mowing challenges (sheds, hills, swingsets), and whether the customer wants weed-whacking and the grass to be bagged.
"I have some (lawns) that are huge, and I have some that are small, I have some that are hilly, I have some that are completely flat," he said. "Like in Riverside, that's the perfect area to mow, because there are no hills."
But not every lawn is a walk in the park.
"We had one job one day where we had weeds probably 4 1/2 feet tall through the whole backyard, and so I texted the whole group, 'Everybody come right now! I'll pay you guys really good -- I'll buy your lunch!'" Larned said. That day, the crew ballooned to eight.
"It was crazy, but we got it done."
Lawnmower lessons learned
In his years of mowing, Larned has picked up some tricks of the trade, and he can anticipate special requests from customers who like their grass a certain way.
Some people want the lawnmower's blades cleaned off before the mowing can even commence; others want the lines to run in a certain direction. He tries not to mow hilly lawns during or after rain, so the sod isn't damaged.
Likewise, Larned employs a strategy at the beginning of lawn-mowing season where he lets the grass grow a little taller than he otherwise would, for the sake of healthy grass.
"That way it's already got good roots and everything, and then I mow it," he said.
And he's learned some lessons the hard way. Like why lawn mowers have the little plastic flap on the back.
"I got smart one day, and cut the flap off," because he found it unhelpful when trying to pull the mower backward.
"So then I start mowing this next lawn, and it's a little taller, and next thing I hear this crack, and I look down and I felt a sharp pain in my leg, and I got a piece of chicken wire stuck through my shin, about a centimeter and a half deep."
Snowblowers and shovels
In the wintertime, of course, the crew's workload is tied to the weather. When the city gets dumped on, Larned finds himself buried in snow-removal jobs.
"Every time it snows, I'm out for at least 13, 14 hours," he said.
Last winter, he only used shovels, partly because his truck recently "pooped out" on him early in the season, and he was thus unable to haul a snowblower anywhere.
This winter, Larned won't be using a shovel or a snowblower -- he'll be in basic training for the 185th Air Refueling Wing of the Iowa National Guard from September to March. The crew will move snow in his absence, and Larned saw to it that they won't have to use shovels.
"My buddies will use snowblowers, and they'll use my truck," he said.
In the future, Larned envisions Green Hands coming together as a formal business.
"I really want to push this into a bigger business someday," he said. "I kind of want to be like Holland's or Sharp (Lawn Care)."