Lawn And Order

Some homeowners defend their turf obsessively against drought, weeds and bugs. Their reward is a field of dreams.

June 27, 1999|By PETER JENSEN | PETER JENSEN,SUN STAFF

Dave Colon stares in disbelief at the thin brown band, this dagger through his heart, this imperfection, this disfigurement in his near-perfect front lawn. He's too good-natured to do much more than swallow the pain, but there's no use denying the injury. Ever since those cable TV installers dug their narrow trench one week earlier, the strip of dead grass has been standing out like a scar.

"I wish I had a can of green spray paint," he says wearily. "They tried to be careful. They made a slit. But it died. There's nothing I can do."

Some people may read these words and think this man has overreacted. Some will think Colon, who mows twice a week (and does so at a slow pace to avoid "ripping" rather than cutting the grass) is a little too involved with his lawn.

Well, maybe those same naysayers don't understand a guy who has treated his too-rocky backyard to truckloads of rich black topsoil, who has installed an oversized water line strictly for the lawn sprinkler, and who lovingly cleans his 18-horsepower garden tractor with a leaf blower to keep it dry and rust-free.

But a lot of guys will understand. Their reaction will be envy. Colon knows that, and he smiles.

"What can I say? I take a lot of pride in my lawn," shrugs Colon, 51, who is a quality-control supervisor for the U.S. Postal Service when he's not mowing a 2.5-acre lot in Darnestown, 12 miles northwest of Washington.

Jonathan Swift once wrote that whoever could make "two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, [and] did more essential service for his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

What then do we say about the people who shoot far higher, whose burning desire is to have their neighborhood's finest lawn, a plush, weed-free emerald carpet that beckons to be rolled upon -- except after a rain, of course, lest someone bruise those perfect stalks of Kentucky Blue.

There are 850,000 blades of grass in the average 1,000-square-foot suburban back yard. That's a lot of essential service for the country.

"The lawn sets up and beautifies a home," marvels Edward J. Bender, a retired Baltimore County recreation official and avid Timonium lawn tender. "It's like setting a table. You have to make it look good."

Colon readily admits that he represents a small but formidable group of mostly affluent suburbanites for whom having a "nice" lawn is not enough. They seek something greater, something monumental. A higher, if you will, turf.

Vince Patterozzi knows about that. By weekday, he is the Ravens' chief groundskeeper, creating a landscape that can endure repeated pummelings by 300-pound linemen. On weekends, he is just as fanatical about his own lawn in Severna Park. "How many people can bring their work home and have everyone enjoy it?" asks Patterozzi cheerfully.

But there's a twist. Patterozzi uses his one-third-acre lot as a test site, trying out the latest seeds and fertilizers. Sometimes, he deliberately harms parts of his lawn, leaves bare or brown spots, or cuts it too short so he can see the effect.

When he moved his family to Maryland from Cleveland in the fall of 1997, much of the front yard was torn up and left bare for weeks -- to test the slow- germinating Creeping Bentgrass that is so common on putting greens. His wife, Lynne, was not pleased with the mess and issued an ultimatum.

"She said she wanted a real lawn, and she wanted it right now," he recalls.

Despite his experiments, Patterozzi still has the nicest lawn in his neighborhood these days, green and lush despite a recent drought. He has ryegrass growing thick beneath an oak canopy in a shady back yard that is better suited to growing ferns and moss -- as many a frustrated amateur knows.

It doesn't hurt that he has installed an $8,000 computer-controlled, 14-zone, 56-head sprinkler system that covers every square inch of turf. Or that he gets the latest products and grass seeds from the leading suppliers.

"I guess I've just always enjoyed the color green over brown," says Patterozzi, 45. "And there's just that little bit of exercise involved."

Lawns are big business. Americans spend an estimated $39.3 billion on lawn care each year, making it by far the nation's most lucrative crop.

A recent contemporary art exhibit from the Canadian Centre for Architecture, "The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life," ran for two months in Cincinnati and brought in large crowds. It featured such attractions as mowers from the '50s and an array of weed tools, as well as slides and film clips of rolling estates and country homes.

Warren Schultz, the author of a hefty coffee-table book on the subject, "A Man's Turf/The Perfect Lawn," (Clarkson Potter $35), says lawn care is a passion felt primarily by men. Perhaps, he says, it reflects man's need to feel in control, or to seek mindless escape, or simply to be accepted by other men.

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