THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER ...except for that little spot over THERE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

He remembers all too well the bout he fought with summer patch disease at Memorial Stadium in 1991. That was his first season as head groundskeeper, the year he succeeded Pat Santarone, Memorial Stadium's venerable cultivator of turf and tomatoes. Mr. Zwaska was only 30, a kid from Madison, Wis., emerging from his six-year apprenticeship as an assistant groundskeeper. was managing the most famous lawn in all of Maryland.

The pressure was heavy, and the spring "was very hot, very dry," says Mr. Zwaska. Summer patch, a fungal disease that appears as a brown-to-yellowish ring of dead grass, "started showing on the infield in mid-June. By mid- to late July it was in full force."

The stuff is utterly lethal for bluegrass, so he ordered the infected area repaired with rye grass, which is resistant to summer patch and grows quickly. He also ordered the application of much fertilizer. Mr. Zwaska, who commands a grounds crew of seven, survived the last hot summer at Memorial Stadium with the turf and his job intact.

Things would be easier if he could grow the grass to normal home lawn height, say, 2 to 3 inches. That would make the grass stronger, more resistant to disease and drought. But 1 inch is the highest he can mow at Camden Yards, so he relies heavily on fertilizer and pesticides to sustain the field through the dog days.

Mr. Zwaska makes no apologies about the chemicals. It's that or a brown field, and perhaps his own unemployment.

Turf grass managers and chemical companies have in recent years found themselves on the defensive. "Environmentally, turf grasses are under fire for the water use and the pesticides," says Mr. Morris. As a result, he says, industry research is focusing on natural pesticides and fertilizers and new, more pest-resistant seed varieties.

Mr. Wright finds that his beloved putting green, mowed to a height of 1/8 inch, would be doomed without pesticides. He spends about $200 a year on lawn maintenance, much of it on chemical fertilizers. In early June, he had only to hear a forecast of the first onset of summerlike heat before snapping into action. He quickly loaded his sprayer with fungus-killing Bayleton, headed for the putting green and doused it. This before even spotting mycelium's dreaded white web.

In Crofton, western Anne Arundel County, Joseph Pesci says he also finds his mornings devoted to turf-watching. In the new light of day, he pauses to check for signs of nascent disease in the lush, if modest, stretch of green outside his townhouse.

Sometimes he can nip it in the bud, sometimes not. Sometimes there's an outbreak of dollar spot, and straw-colored patches appear.

"When you first see it, you go into the denial stage," says Mr. Pesci, plumbing the shadowy depths of the suburban psyche.

He has seen dollar spot spread over his lawn, causing enough damage "to be upsetting."

And why not? After he and his wife, Stefanie, moved in, it took him about three years to get the weeds under control. He spent hours "literally on my hands and knees with a screwdriver pulling them up by the roots. After the initial three years, it [the lawn] became manageable. I still get weeds, I still get out on my hands and knees."

Mr. Pesci's rigorous lawn care has not been lost on the neighbors. It was tough to miss him that night when he got home after dark, realized his lawn needed mowing and did the job by the light of his car headlights.

This story is recalled with amusement by Jerry Morris, who lives across the street. Over the years the two men have engaged in a good-natured turf war, vying for the most attractive lawn on Foxdale Court.

In spring, Mr. Pesci has an advantage with his tall fescue, a cool-season grass. Mr. Morris grows a crop of zoysia grass, a warm-season variety that takes longer to green. Mr. Morris picked it because it stands up to the constant traffic of local children across the lawn, withstands heat better and grows slower, which means less mowing.

When he and his wife, Sandy, moved in six years ago the yard was "was nothing but mud," says Mr. Morris. "The people who lived here did nothing . . . I bought 1,500 plugs of zoysia. I spent three weeks, probably, putting in the plugs."

Now it's a constant battle with dollar spot. And weeds, of course. And Mr. Pesci.

"I tell him I'm going to pick dandelions and blow the seeds on his lawn," says Mr. Morris.

Pat Pugh, another Foxdale Court resident who has been less than vigilant about lawn care, lately has been inspired by the competition down the street. Although the lawn on the west side of her front walk is scraggly and spotty, there's been a new development on the east side: Ms. Pugh has raised a small crop of thick turf using a fecund mix of compost, manure and seed.

She stands there proudly, pointing out a rectangular plot of grass the size of an elongated billiard table. It's a start.

"Pat's been shamed into doing something about her lawn," says Mr. Pesci. "She's a late comer."

It's all friendly enough. But neighborhood skirmishing over lawns is not always so cordial. It can get ugly. And this being America in the 1990s, it can wind up in court.

Consider the case in Severna Park, Anne Arundel County, where Carroll Johnson and his wife, Kathleen Smith-Johnson, were summoned to District Court in 1991 as the result of a neighbor's complaint about their yard, which was abundant with wildflowers, hunks of dead wood, twigs and grass more than a foot long.

The Johnsons had joined the state Wild Acres program, which encourages homeowners to provide habitat for birds, squirrels, rabbits and other small wildlife. In so doing, however, the Johnsons ran afoul of the county Grass, Weeds and Rank Vegetation ordinance, which forbids grass more than a foot tall.

The Johnsons lost in District Court, then in Circuit Court. Under a judge's order, a county crew went into their yard last summer to mow the grass. Mr. Johnson claims that the neighbors' complaints were mainly retaliation for Ms. Smith-Johnson's complaints about their barking dogs and raucous parties.

Either way, he says he and his wife have been mowing the grass and as far he knows the complaints have ceased. Their once-wild quarter-acre now more closely conforms to the American image of suburban order.

"They thought it looks like a jungle," says Mr. Johnson. "The neighbors don't like anything but immaculate lawns."

Cultural historians might say that the Johnsons were up against not only the county weed ordinance, but the legacy of British landscape architecture transported to America in the 19th century.

A 1991 article in American Heritage magazine reported that the American attachment to manicured lawns may be traced in part to the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing, a 19th-century horticulturist and landscape architect who designed the public grounds around the U.S. Capitol, the White House and Smithsonian Institution and also edited Horticulture magazine. A devotee of English landscape style, Downing wrote books and articles that stirred in American gardeners a craze for things British. Sort of a horticultural Beatlemania.

Downing's gospel of English-style gardening was carried forth by Frank Scott, who published the first suburban gardening book in 1870: "The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds." In this book, Scott warned against such atrocities as excessive flowers, vegetables, statuary, anything that would detract from the expanse of green.

This green expanse, this property devoted to producing no income, this conspicuous waste of fertile land, was held as a status symbol by British aristocracy. At least that's the theory put forward by Thorstein Veblen in "The Theory of the Leisure Class," which he published in 1899. The notion of lawn as status symbol soon traveled to America, where it took root in suburbia.

But none of this took into account the fact that the American climate is not the British climate. The British Isles, abundant with rain and cooled by winds from the North Atlantic and the North Sea, are an ideal place for growing cool-season grass. But here in the Lower 48, we live considerably below those northern latitudes. We live in subtropics, or deserts, prairies, savannas, mountains, rocky shores and sandy flats.

And some of us live in the transition zone. Burdened with these old British landscaping notions without the climate to fulfill them, the Maryland homeowner is destined to struggle.

It could be worse, says Mr. Reinhardt, manager/agronomist of the Old South Country Club. Your job could depend on it.

"At least if your grass goes bad you've got dinner," says Mr. Reinhardt. "If my lawn goes bad I'm on the street."

He knows of turf superintendents who have lost their jobs after losing battles with weeds. And of one who was fired for refusing a golf tournament director's demands to mow a sodden golf course. The superintendent was fearful that mowing the too-wet grass would kill it. The pressure can be intense, said Mr. Reinhardt.

At Camden Yards, Mr. Zwaska knows the feeling of being jammed between a rock and a soft, green place. He gets flak from the ballplayers and flak from the management and occasional critiques from broadcasters, all wanting perfection in the turf. He gets annoyed with television commentators who claim the ball travels slower on the Camden Yards infield because the grass is grown higher than at Memorial Stadium. He tells them the grass is the same height, but because the new, sand-based field gets more oxygen and drains better, the roots are healthier. Hence, the turf is thicker than that at the old ballpark.

"A lot of people don't realize how tough it is to keep a healthy stand [of grass] like this growing during the summer. A lot of people take it for granted. Even the people upstairs," he says, referring to club management.

"It can be interesting," he adds. "It can be fun. And there are some days you just wish you were somewhere else."

ARTHUR HIRSCH is a reporter for The Sun in Anne Arundel County.

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