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Green-Lawn Mania Surfaces in Turf War Against Weeds, Pests

August 07, 1986|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Saturday morning finds Charles Blair on his hands and knees in the front yard. He inspects an emerald-green dichondra lawn.

"I like dichondra. When it's right, it's so lush and green," he said. "One of my friends who has a dichondra lawn calls it his 'crawling lawn' because you have to crawl around on it to find the weeds. I've just spent the last hour picking out all the weeds . . . you know, spurge, dandelions, crabgrass."

Blair used to leave such dirty work to the gardener. But after several brown spots appeared on the prized lawn this spring, he fired the weekly help and took matters into his own hands. The 68-year-old, who runs his own printing business, spends four to five hours at the task each weekend.

"I could afford to hire any gardener I want," Blair said, standing in front of his spacious Tarzana home. Parked in the garage next to a John Deere lawn mower are matching Jaguar XJSs. "But I know this lawn. I'll bring it back to health."

Some people may fuss over their lawns out of pride, others simply to keep up with the neighbors. With 240,000 single-family homes and probably an equal number of front and backyards, the San Fernando Valley is a perfect breeding ground for green-lawn mania.

Neighborly Rivalry

"Everyone has to keep up as a neighbor by having a nice lawn," said Peter Fliegel, a plant pathologist with the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner's office. "It's the most important thing in any urban area."

No one knows just how much lawn grows in the Valley. As one county official put it, you would have to start by measuring everyone's front yards.

There are an estimated 1.3 million acres of lawn across the state, according to a 1977 University of California study. Some of this turf is found on golf courses, cemeteries and parks. But almost two thirds of it--an estimated 860,800 acres--is spread across private yards.

In an effort to keep their yards green, Californians spend $648 million each year on everything from bottles of weed killer to rakes, according to a 1982 UC study. Nationwide, the lawn care industry brings in $24 billion a year, and that doesn't include wages for gardeners and other professional lawn tenders.

Each July and August, water usage in the Valley nearly doubles, according to Department of Water and Power records. DWP officials estimate that most of the increase is sprinkled and sprayed onto lawns from Chatsworth to North Hollywood.

'Something of Importance'

"The family lawn is probably right behind the TV as far as something of tremendous importance," said Bruce Morrison, a DWP civil engineering associate.

But keeping that important asset in the green isn't easy. Summer temperatures in the Valley often top 100. Subtle differences in climate between Burbank and Granada Hills, for example, require corresponding adjustments in how grass is cared for. There are numerous varieties of grass that flourish in Southern California. Seashore paspalum should be cut short, tall fescue allowed to grow long. Any one lawn may have as many as four or five varieties growing in it.

What grandfather used to take care of with a push mower and a rake has become a proposition of technical proportions.

"Grandfather probably didn't live in Southern California. Or his lawn probably wasn't green all year round," said Bob Cohen, whose company, The Green Scene, specializes in lawn care. "Either that or grandpa knew his grasses."

Many residents wishing for greener pastures turn to gardeners. Others are enlisting the help of a newcomer to the home gardening scene: the lawn care service. These businesses, which have been popular for years in the Midwest and East, will not mow or clip your lawn. What they will do, for about $200 a year, is analyze soil and grass samples from your yard and offer instructions on mowing and watering. Then, every other month, they return to apply fertilizer and spray pesticides.

Began Business in 1969

Cohen opened his shop in 1969, shortly after graduation from UCLA. He had studied to be an engineer, but found turf grass fascinating. He speaks of grass as though it were a dear friend, albeit a small friend, for when he assumes the personality of a lawn, his voice rises slightly.

"The main thing we tell our customers is, 'If you were grass, what would you want?' There're no little grasses that stand up and say, 'Hey, you're doing something wrong,' " he said, waving his hands in the air as if he were a blade of grass. "The grass just dies.

"A lot of people call us and say 'My lawn looks like hell. What can you do?' You have your blue grass, tall fescue, St. Augustine, Kikuyu, seashore paspalum--all of it growing right here!" He slammed a fist against the desk. "You have to understand what type of grass yours is and what the rules are."

There are 132 companies registered with the county to perform chemical lawn service. That is a significant increase over the number of such businesses operating in Los Angeles just three years ago, according to the agricultural commissioner's office.

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