33 days without rain takes a toll on yards THE GRASS ISN'T GREENER


Skies are blue. Lawns are brown. Garden hose sales are up. Water tables are down.

The drought continues -- 33 days without significant rainfall across the metropolitan area.

"This is Baltimore's 'other' streak," said John Evans, manager of Farm & Home Service, a garden supply store in Ellicott City. "The grass is fried. Everything is fried. People want help from a hurricane, any hurricane -- but there is none."

The immediate forecast: a 30 percent chance of showers today, none thereafter.

The prolonged dry spell has homeowners fretting over how to cope with withered grass and wilting gardens. Should they soak their lawns or let them bake? Douse their shrubs or wait for rain?

"I'm just trying to keep my things alive," said Florie Bimestefer, a Howard County resident who spends most evenings flitting about her 1 1/2 -acre yard, hose in hand, dousing everything she can.

There's method to her madness, said Mrs. Bimestefer, whose newly landscaped yard is in distress. Eight young ornamental trees and a $1,000 patch of sod have already succumbed.

The ground is "tinder-dry," said the Ellicott City resident, adding that when motorists flip lighted cigarettes onto her stubble of lawn, "I feel like taking their license numbers."

A number of shallow-rooted shrubs and trees, including dogwoods, hollies, azaleas and rhododendrons, have been reported dead or dying around the state, horticulturists say.

"I've seen dogwoods that look like someone poured gasoline on them and torched them," said Rick Watson, a landscaper in Glenarm. "Even 20-year-old rhododendrons are taking a beating this summer."

"It's the driest I've seen it in 33 years," said Francis Gouin, professor emeritus of horticulture at the University of Maryland. "Worse, this is the time when plants should be storing water for winter. If we have a harsh winter, a lot more trees are going to die back."

A series of slow, thorough soakings around the base of the shrubs and trees could save homeowners from having to replace their favorite ornamentals, Mr. Gouin said.

Avoid drenching the foliage; it's the roots that count.

Younger plantings are the most vulnerable in a drought. They need about an inch of water a week. Older trees and hardy stock such as pines, spruces and junipers are more tolerant of arid conditions. People with large shade trees may have fewer problems with parched yards.

"The front lawn does not get any great degree of sun at one time," said Ben Proctor, whose manicured quarter-acre lot in Stoneleigh remains lush. Besides the shade, his yard benefits from lavish attention. "I don't play golf so it's like my hobby."

The lack of rain has motivated even lawn chair gardeners to turn on their spigots.

Sales of hoses and sprinkler systems are 30 percent higher this season than last summer, said Chris Fuller, a manager at Hechinger in Golden Ring Mall.

At Home Depot in Glen Burnie, watering accessories topped all gardening sales last month. "I can't remember that ever happening," said Mark Mellinger, a store supervisor.

Some people hope to rescue their gardens; others want to save their lawns. And some try to do both.

Dorothy Vollmerhausen of Columbia has watered her yard each week during the drought.

"You put an awful lot of money in your lawn," she said. "You can't let it die."

But Mary Greenfield of Wilna, in Harford County, opts not to fuss with her brown lawn, which feels like "a hayfield" when she crosses it.

"I don't worry about grass; it'll come back when it rains," she said.

Who's right?

Both are, said Ray Bosmans, University of Maryland horticulturist.

"If you've been watering your lawn all summer, don't stop now," he said. "If not, don't start. Most grass isn't dead, only dormant. Its roots are still alive."

Lawns should "green up" after the first soaking rain, he said.

Rick Rawlings of Pasadena was in Hechinger yesterday, browsing the aisles for an underground sprinkler system. Reviving his front lawn would make him the envy of the neighborhood. It wouldn't be bad for business either, said Mr. Rawlings, who owns a lawn service company.

"If the grass looked good, I'd probably put up a sign," he said.

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