Grass is greener on 1 side in turf war

Plush lawns inspire some, bother others

March 26, 2006|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN REPORTER

As the first green shoots sprout through the soil this week, lawns across America are coming back to life, cherished symbols of summer leisure and childhood innocence. But even the family's backyard oasis is no longer a refuge, it seems, from America's culture wars.

The $40 billion lawn care industry, environmentalists charge, has persuaded too many homeowners to strive for a lawn too perfect for Mother Nature herself - weed-free, trim, uniformly thick and dazzlingly green.

The expensive care that these pampered patches of grass demand has fouled the air, wasted water and helped pollute rivers and estuaries, including the Chesapeake Bay, critics say.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about lawns in yesterday's editions gave an incorrect name for a town in Ohio. The correct name is Shaker Heights.
The Sun regrets the error.

To which many lawn lovers reply: Give us a break.

"Some of this is pretty silly," said Peter H. Dernoeden, a plant scientist and professor at the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "If someone wants to have a nice-looking lawn, why shouldn't they?"

America's turf battles have intensified to the point where some homeowners have thrown in the trowel.

Pam Townsend, a senior editor and spokeswoman for the University of Maryland's agricultural service, decided there was no way she and her husband could keep up with a neighbor who mows his emerald grass in a crosshatch pattern - the kind groundskeepers shear in baseball fields.

"We call him the Lawn Ranger," she said.

So the couple replaced a lot of the turf around their College Park home with native and low-maintenance plants, such as butterfly bushes, hollyhocks and foxglove. In the grass they still have, they've decided to leave the clover and moss undisturbed.

"We've decided if it's green, it's OK," Townsend said. "Without this chemical stuff, you can't get a good lawn."

Sam Helms, owner of a rowhouse in the Glendale-Glenmont section of Baltimore County, worries about the health of the Chesapeake. So he maintains his small patch of grass, surrounded by shrubs, without pesticides or herbicides.

"You will find people who are just fanatics about doing away with lawns," he said.

Five years ago, Mary Streb of Wood Elves Way in Columbia ripped out her front lawn. A graduate of the state's master gardener program, run by the university's Home and Garden Information Center, she planted sweet bay magnolia, crape myrtle, chives, rosemary, parsley, thyme and lavender.

Since then, she has become an evangelist, preaching the gospel of replacing lawns with native plants. Mostly, her fellow gardeners have been sympathetic - although fewer have followed her example than she would like.

"I think we've kind of awakened some people," she said.

In his new book, American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, historian Ted Steinberg joins a chorus of critics who say America's love affair with greener grass has become a destructive obsession.

Steinberg, a historian at Case Western Reserve University, said he was shocked when he moved to affluent Quaker Heights, Ohio, and saw the extremes his neighbors went to in pursuit of gorgeous grass. "The lawns of my neighbors just don't look like putting greens - they are putting greens," said Steinberg.

He argues that the post-World War II lawn-care industry created the dream of the pristine lawn - a dream impossible to realize without chemicals and power equipment.

Big-box stores around the country are already setting out stacks of fertilizer bags for the spring. Retailers and manufacturers routinely urge the nation's lawn keepers to weed-and-feed four times a year.

But Steinberg notes that horticultural experts recommend fertilizing grass just once a year, in the fall. Spring feeding, he says, promotes shoot growth at the expense of root growth. That creates a thick green carpet in the short run but leaves the grass with no way to tap the deeper moisture during the droughts of late summer.

During dry spells, Steinberg says, homeowners typically overwater the burnt dry grass, leaching nutrients from the soil. That sends them back to the store to buy more fertilizer. Obsessive sweeping of lawn clippings is also a mistake, he said. Left nestled among the stalks, the clippings can enrich the soil.

Until recently, he said, the American lawn industry routinely recommended non-native species, such as so-called Kentucky bluegrass, that are difficult to nurture in much of the United States. (Despite its name, the grass is native to the colder regions of Europe.)

Marketing experts have also turned clover into a weed. "Clover captures nitrogen from the air and adds it to the soil," Steinberg said. "So it's a useful plant to have in the lawn."

Steinberg recites a slew of statistics to bolster his assertion that Americans are obsessed with turf. There are 58 million home lawns, 16,000 golf courses and 700,000 athletic fields in America. Stitched together, they would create a green space the size of Florida.

About 75,000 Americans are injured every year while cutting grass, making the job almost as perilous as shipbuilding.

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