...except for that little spot over THERE

THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER

July 18, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch

When the morning sun is low in the suburban sky and the dew heavy on the creeping bentgrass, Lynn Wright arises to peer out his bedroom window at one of the great loves of his life. Sure, he's an IBM executive who has worked in the space program and literally helped men land on the moon. But out there in the back yard in Gaithersburg lies his pride, his joy, his fondest ambitions made real:

His lawn. But not just a lawn.

Beyond the flagstone patio and the spray of Delaware white azalea bushes is a kidney-shaped carpet of creeping bentgrass mowed to the length of an eyelash and ringed with a fringe of Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue. Yes, a bona fide golf putting green, built by Mr. Wright and his youngest son to United States Golf Association specifications. Now maintained -- no, nursed, coddled, babied -- by Mr. Wright, who also cares for the ornamental shrubs and rose bushes on his quarter-acre plot trimmed just so, suitable for the cover of Horticulture magazine.

This 52-year-old man says he has two dreams in life. One is to meet the Orioles' head groundskeeper. The other "is to join the [Camden Yards] grounds crew when I retire."

Keep in mind this is a man who worked under IBM contract for NASA in Houston during the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and space shuttle programs. This is a man who performed the mathematical calculations to ensure that Apollo astronauts landed on the moon and were not lost forever in space.

Call it love. Call it lawn obsession. Mr. Wright's case lies at the extreme end of the spectrum, but he is hardly alone in a world of white-collar types with soil under their fingernails and turf in their hearts. Joyfully, Mr. Wright inhabits the grassy fringe of this American scene, where billions of dollars are spent each year pursuing an elusive prey: the perfect lawn.

According to the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt., Americans last year spent $7.5 billion on lawn care supplies and equipment. Add to this another $2.4 billion spent on professional lawn care services. That's a $10 billion-a-year industry, about equal to the gross domestic product of Tunisia. Really.

A federal grass seed expert guesses that in Maryland alone, homeowners spend $50 million a year on seed. With so much invested in money and toil, one pays attention to subtle changes on the ground.

"First thing in the morning, I look out that window, then I get dressed and come out here," says Mr. Wright, now director of federal information systems for IBM in Gaithersburg. He's standing in the back yard by the putting green, which cost about $1,000 and took a month to build. Morning is time for turf inspection, the best time to spot the harbingers of grass disease. "I'm looking for mycelium, a sort of white cobweb. . . . When the sun hits it, it disappears."

A web. A few dark blades of grass, a yellowing of the greensward, a dandelion, a weed. Scary sights, especially in July and August. Especially in Maryland.

Of all places to grow the ideal lawn, Maryland is among the worst. We live in the northeastern edge of the so-called transition zone, a swath of America that runs from southern New Jersey south to about Raleigh, N.C., and west to Kansas. Summers in the zone are too hot for cool-season grasses, winters too cold for warm-season grasses. And all grasses fall into one category or the other.

"This is the worst place to grow grass," says Craig Reinhardt, club manager/agronomist at the Old South Country Club in southern Anne Arundel County. At Penn State University turf management school, he says, "They used to tell us, 'Don't take a job in the transition zone. Go south or go north.' "

Kevin Morris, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Turfgrass Evaluation Program in Beltsville, says the transition climate makes lawn care a challenge "even for the professional, let alone the homeowner."

In the worst of places we now enter the worst of seasons.

The subtropical summer of eastern Maryland is murder on lawns. Heat and humidity bake the grass dry, or stir up an array of fungal grass diseases that slumber in the soil -- brown patch, dollar spot, pythium blight, to mention a few. Across the state, thousands of pairs of eyes scout hundreds of square miles of lawn, checking for wisps of white, patches of brown.

Paul Zwaska, the head groundskeeper at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, says that even on a television monitor he can spot a slight darkening of the grass, meaning it's time to water the field immediately. Fortunately, with the state-of-the-art irrigation and drainage system at the new ballpark, he can pump water into the field from below during a game.

This comes in handy during the summer, when Mr. Zwaska is especially anxious about trouble brewing in Camden Yards' 2 1/2 acres of Kentucky bluegrass.

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