- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

Your domain could be a quarter-acre combination of weeds and fescue. Perhaps it is a tidy rectangle trimmed as uniformly as a Marine’s haircut and with a feeding schedule to rival a newborn’s. Or, just for this year, it could be a shaggy multipurpose space for touch football and doggie bathroom breaks.

Spring brings many possibilities when you have a lawn. With those options, however, come a time crunch, expense and, sometimes, an interest bordering on obsession.

It’s the American way, says historian Ted Steinberg, author of the book “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.” The lawn is one of America’s leading crops, with something between 25 million and 45 million acres of turf growing here — that’s two times the number of acres of cotton planted in the country. The lawn care industry is a $40 billion a year business, what with string trimmers and seed spreaders and many other gadgets and weed-control concoctions to buy.

“Ultimately, the perfect lawn, like the perfect body, is an illusion,” Mr. Steinberg says. “It is a gigantic fantasy stymied by the realities of ecology and American geography.”

Mr. Steinberg also points out that the dream depends on water and fuel — two resources that are running short — as well as quite a few chemicals, which have an impact on ecosystems far beyond the front yard.

Still, that doesn’t stop people from trying.

By historical standards, lawns are a relatively new trend. Until the 1930s, many Americans lived in cities. Those in more rural locales used outdoor space on their properties to grow crops and feed livestock.

Huge suburban expansion in the 1950s meant Americans were moving into new tract homes with neat lawns. Those communities came complete with peer pressure to keep the yard manicured, writes Virginia Scott Jenkins, author of “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession.”

“American front lawns are a symbol of man’s control, or superiority over, his environment,” she writes.

The perfect lawn was a symbol of the perfect life in the mid-20th century, Mr. Steinberg says. Other factors besides sociology were at work, too, he says. There was a trend in brightly colored consumer goods — think pink flamingos and yellow slacks on a backdrop of green grass.

“Consumers had given up the black-and-white world of urban life for the multicolored life of suburbia,” he says. “A green lawn fit in perfectly.”

Also adding to the mix were architectural trends of the blurring of indoor and outdoor spaces as Americans also began their love affair with patios, grills, hammocks and swing sets. Lawn care companies reinforced the “your home is your outdoor living room” mind-set by featuring happy families frolicking in the grass as part of their advertising.

Sports and status

Sometime during the great suburban expansion, lawn care stereotypically became man’s domain. In many homes, woman’s space was home and hearth. Man’s was the great outdoors — even if it was the tree lawn by the front walk in Silver Spring.

“I don’t think it is that far away from the whole agrarian nature of man,” says Trey Rogers, professor of crop and soil sciences at Michigan State University and author of the book “Lawn Geek: Tips and Tricks for the Ultimate Turf From the Guru of Grass.” Mr. Rogers is the go-to guy in the lawn world. He even succeeded in maintaining sod in a domed stadium for the 1994 World Cup.

In fact, sports are the impetus behind many a man’s desire to transform his lawn, Mr. Rogers says. The great outdoor sports — football, baseball, golf — are all played on perfect grass. The greens of Augusta, the outfield of Yankee Stadium, 100 yards of lawn on a glorious fall football Sunday — all grass.

What sports fans don’t realize is that bald spots are sometimes spray-painted green for greater TV impact and that the outfield has a full-time staff to care for it.

“I think golf and baseball drives [people] to think if they can do it, I can do it,” Mr. Rogers says. “The first thing I tell them is you need to learn about home lawns. Augusta, for instance, involves millions of dollars and so much time. Those are the No. 1 things that hold people back from having that kind of lawn.”

Mr. Rogers says homeowners usually fall into three categories when it comes to lawns.

First is the perfectionist, the engineering type who researches with a spreadsheet when it comes to the yard.

“The lawn is a perfect place for them to strive,” Mr. Rogers says.

Then there is the competitor — the person who is always competing in sports, school or the workplace. The lawn is a place to carry on a silent competition — whether it is the man-vs.-nature battle over weeds or the man-vs.-neighbor race for the ultimate power mower.

Third is the status-conscious family. The green grass fits in perfectly with the Lexus, the pool and the McMansion. Like most pampering, lawn care for these homeowners usually is outsourced.

“A lawn is a possession that is always on display,” Mr. Rogers says. “You can go on vacation, but it can’t.”

Mr. Steinberg adds a fourth category for homeowners — the contrarian. There is a movement — gaining speed in the past decade or so — toward natural landscaping. Mr. Steinberg calls natural landscaping “the perfect lawn’s alter ego.” Environmentally conscious folks are shunning the chemical concoctions and letting lawns go to seed or replacing turf with native plants.

“The perfect lawn, in my opinion, has entered a very vulnerable period,” Mr. Steinberg says. “Since the 1990s, we have seen the growth of green consumerism. People are starting to see the connection and asking, ‘Does it make sense for me to be shopping at Whole Foods, then dropping chemicals on my lawn?’ ”

It can be done

The perfect lawn won’t come easily or naturally here in the Mid-Atlantic area, where summers are hot and cool-season grasses get stressed easily, Mr. Rogers says. One can try, however.

“If you make mistakes, you’ll just have to work harder,” he advises.

Lawn care is not rocket science. Mr. Rogers — who calls his own quarter-acre lot in Michigan “a good lawn” — says anyone can do it by fertilizing, watering and mowing correctly.

“To me, lawn care is a lot like taking care of your teeth,” he writes in his book. “Fertilizing and irrigation are like brushing and flossing. Do it regularly, and the chances of having a great lawn, and a great smile, are substantially improved. Do it when you happen to think about it or have a spare moment, and you’ll end up with crummy-looking grass and root canals.”

The mowing rule is very important, Mr. Rogers says. He calls it the one-third rule — never cut more than one-third off the blade of grass.

“Raise the blade height as high as possible,” he says. “Try and mow once a week. If you don’t scalp your grass, this single practice will have the most benefit. When you scalp it, you cut off all the leaf tissue and put the grass into physiological shock.”

A great lawn even can be achieved without chemicals, Mr. Rogers says. That’s when the mowing and watering system become even more important.

“The margin of error is small, though, particularly if you want perfection,” he says.

Mr. Steinberg is not seeking perfection on his own lawn in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He says he has a “decent, low-maintenance lawn” where dandelions and clover live in harmony with grass.

“I mow it, I fertilize it a couple times a year,” he says. “It looks great from across the street, just not with a microscope.”

Mr. Steinberg says he is not anti-lawn. He is just against using massive amounts of chemicals to get a nice one.

“When you are trying to grow a lawn with six pounds of nitrogen per square foot and herbicides, then it becomes an ecological problem,” he says. “Growing nonnative [grass] species in North America is an uphill ecological battle.”

Americans love a challenge, though, so it is game on for spring lawn enthusiasts. Clean the mower blades, get out the edger and hit Home Depot. There is a sale on string trimmers and aerators, and lawn care giant Scotts is running its massive spring marketing campaign — on TV during sporting events, of course.

“There has been some resistance to the perfect lawn culture,” Mr. Steinberg says. “But the forces are still there to prop it up.”

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