Prized lawns suffer under water limits

Americans spend billions of dollars to keep grass green

August 08, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Chuck Sells is obsessed.

No doubt about it, he can practically see each brilliant blade of grass starting to turn brown. He can feel his flowers and plants wilting. He can hear his only tomato plant making its last few gasps for water.

The Stoneleigh resident, who can do nothing but watch helplessly as the drought continues to wreak havoc on his lawn and garden, said he has spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of loving hours on his yard.

"I'm really concerned," said Sells, 56. "I've never been through a drought."

To make matters worse, he can't see a cloud in the sky, with forecasters calling for only a chance of scattered showers today.

As state and local officials worry about the shrinking reservoirs and some businesses struggle to stay open with mandatory water-use restrictions in effect, hundreds of homeowners, like Sells, are haunted by images of brown patches of turf.

"We have the same romance with our lawns as we do with our cars," said Roger C. Funk, a plant physiologist with the Ohio-based Davey Tree Expert Co. "We care for our lawns. People spend a lot of time on the lawn; they work on it, they use it often. The American lawn is an American phenomenon."

That could explain why there's a Web site called Our Love Affair with Lawns. And a lawn and garden Web site offering "tips that will make your obsession easier and more attractive."

Over the years, the lawn has become a cultural and economic symbol.

"A lot of advertising in the early part of the century said that to be a good citizen, you had to have a good lawn," says Virginia Scott Jenkins, author of the 1994 book "The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession." "There was a lot of pressure on people to keep it nice, because if you didn't, you weren't holding up your end of the community."

It comes as no surprise, then, that Americans spent $6.4 billion on lawn care in 1997, according to a recent survey from the National Gardening Association.

Count Tim O'Donnell and his wife, Deb Davidson, among those who have spent thousands on their lawn. They live not too far from Sells in Stoneleigh, a Towson community with large, colonial brick houses and exquisite lawns.

"We spent a fair amount of money getting it to the point where it is now," says O'Donnell, standing on the edge of his lawn on a recent evening.

It wasn't always so lush, so green, so carpet-like. A botched landscaping job killed off the entire lawn some time ago, he says.

And now that they've managed to get a long strip of emerald green growing down the middle of their concrete driveway, the summer drought threatens it all.

"When you put that much effort, that much time and that much money into it, there will be some disappointment," O'Donnell said, shaking his head. "You can't make it rain."

"When Deb sees the first major brown spot," he said, "I think that'll be the breaking point."

Some homeowners watered right up until Wednesday, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered water-use restrictions forbidding watering of lawns.

Some had stopped long before that.

Maria Wawer understands the need for water restrictions, and she's obeying every rule. Yet to watch as her plants droop is almost more than she can bear.

"When you get a plant, you've made a pledge with that plant," says Wawer, a 47-year-old public health physician who lives in Roland Park. "You've pledged to take care of it as well as you can. When you can't, it just tears you up inside. I feel a real personal bond with my plants. It's heartbreaking."

Before the restrictions, Sells, a construction site manager, watered his lawn every day, working on his yard and garden for about an hour or two every evening.

Now he settles for watering a few of his plants every other day. He is hoping the blue cypress, the Japanese maple, aspens and wisteria will fare better than his tomatoes. He's using recycled water to keep the goldfish, turtle, frogs and Bally sharks in his fountain alive.

He's not ashamed to admit he crosses his fingers or prays, "Lord, bring it this way" every time he sees a cloud. In fact, the last thunderstorm a week ago brought Sells out, walking along his lawn and among his trees in the downpour.

"I was soaked to my skin; it felt wonderful," the Indiana native says with a twinge of sadness. "I've raised most of these plants myself, and to make them live and survive is a challenge."

In the end, most people seem ready to cope with the ban on watering grass.

"I've got no great love for grass," says David Mold, 45, of Stoneleigh as he pushed a mower across his lawn. "It'll come back.

"Now if they banned watering my flowers, I might have to sneak out in the middle of the night with a bucket."

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