Splendor in the grass

Whether you lavish love on your yard or merely mow it, now's the time to think about what to do with it this year.


It's April and what are you prepared to do with your yard? What kind of Lawn Man are you anyway?

We've unearthed the personality types, as Marylanders again pursue either the perfect, perfectly halfway decent or perfectly natural yard.

First, there is the Alpha Lawn man -- owner of a Cadillac and the Cadillac of yards. We're talking emerald grass so manicured you can double bogey on it. He's done the soil test, put the lime down, re-seeded any bare spots. He's found the right chemical to kill the crabgrass but not the fescue. Dandelions fear him. Turf-envying neighbors salute or revile him.

"You're not trying to keep up with the Joneses -- you are the Joneses," says Brian Brannan, garden shop manager at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville.

Or maybe you're the next tier of Lawn Man, who has a good yard. Not great, good. He's bought the grass seed and put down the general fertilizer -- maybe a touch of the ol' Weed-B-Gon come May. He follows enough of the usual guidelines: Mow just a third of the grass blade, and give the lawn one long, deep, weekly watering in the early morning. "Then this guy tells his wife he's done, and he'll be on the golf course with a noon tee time," Brannan says.

Lawn Man No. 3 is your basic mow-and-go guy. He has virtually no interest in the yard. He doesn't feel any compulsion to contribute to a $40 billion a year lawn-care industry. His lawn is not his "outdoor living room." It's not a personal or social statement for him.

Neighbors question his character and politics. He doesn't know rye grass from rye whiskey. His yard lacks unity, balance and proportion. "This guy," Brannan says, "has everything wrong with the yard. He has never taken care of it."

Finally, there's a fourth category -- Organic Lawn Man. He uses corn gluten meal to naturally control clover, dandelions or crabgrass. Nothing else touches his grass -- if he even has grass. He's probably into ponds or meadows. And as with the other Lawn Man types, he could just as easily be a Lawn Woman.

"I find green lawns to be very ugly and sterile," says Corinne Irwin, a computer engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Irwin's Annapolis yard features lots of daffodils, native redbud trees in pre-bloom and a rain garden in front. Coming soon is a pond in the back. Grass be gone.

Irwin calls herself a conservationist landscaping evangelist. "I got my religion early. My mother had the yard all the neighbors hated. She wouldn't do anything to get rid of the dandelions. She thought it was a pretty carpet."

A pretty carpet? And we suppose crabgrass is just nature's pretty wallpaper? The point is the American lawn, which came into its full greenery after World War II with the development of suburbs, has grown into a massive industry and a personality test.

Once an elite hobby of such lawn men as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, lawn care became everyman's weekend assignment. With the advent of herbicides, rotary lawn mowers and vacillating sprinklers, a lawn industry was born in this country. And with the modern turf boom, the seeds of the perfect-lawn crusade were sown.

"After the lawn becomes a mass phenomenon, then the perfect lawn rises to dominance across the American landscape," says Ted Steinberg, author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn (Norton).

Steinberg, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, writes about the lawn's emergence from the ready-built town and lawns of Levittown, Long Island, as well as the industrialization of the lawn in the 1960s -- the "mow and blow contingent." (Yes, leaf blowers.) The battle against weeds -- what others might call "plants" -- was on in this country.

"The lawn," Steinberg told The Sun, "became your outdoor living room and a reflection of personal identity." And the lawn's centerpiece -- grass -- was to be kept forever green.

There was only one problem. We don't live in England.

"Turf grass is not native, for the most part. Growing it in North America is an uphill battle, which is bad news for the homeowner and great news for the chemical companies. People buy more chemicals in the quest for the impeccable yard," says Steinberg. He also wants to mention he likes his lawn, won't be tearing out his lawn, plays catch with his kids on his lawn. You can't play ball in a meadow, as he says. "It's just not a perfect lawn." It's not rolled and crew-cut short as any putting green at Augusta.

John James does not claim to have the perfect yard. But he does wear golf shoes on his 12,000-square-foot lawn in Finksburg. He wears them to aerate the grass -- and to keep from falling on his hilly, slick yard.

James, a lawn-care products distributor, is fastidious about his lawn. He cuts his grass twice a week during the growing season (May-June), keeps his fescue between 2 and 3 inches, and keeps a watchful eye on the crabgrass. If you saw James pushing his Briggs & Stratton push mower on his lush grounds, you would see a happy Lawn Man.

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