Skip to main content
Publish date:


As winter fades and the lawns of Augusta spread northward, Americans are girding to do battle with a monster of a status symbol

Guess what, all you people down there on the 35th parallel? It is crabgrass germination week, from Polloksville, N.C. to Hickory Plains, Ark. Is everybody ready? An ounce of pre-emergence control is worth a pound of AMA or DMA, to say nothing of four or five hours on your hands and knees, and any moment now it is going to be too late. The vernal equinox is over and another grass-growing season is upon us, to be replete, no doubt, with plantain, dandelion, chick-weed, cudweed, pearlwort, oxalis, sod webworms, grubs, moles, fungus, cutworms, dollar spot, knotweed, sheep sorrel, chinch bugs, leaf spot, brown patch, moss, algae, mushrooms, toadstools, kikuyu grass and creeping spurge. Also filaree, heal-all, baby's tears, nimble will, cat's-ear and cinquefoil, which, for all the charm of their names, you do not want in the Merion blue or the Chewings fescue.

Americans will spend some $3 billion in 1966 to stamp out the heal-all, the cudweed, the chinch bugs and the pearlwort and coax their grass into looking "like velvet" or "like the top of a pool table." The country, alas, still suffers acutely from grass mania.

For the sportsman, this is a justifiable state of mind, because his is perhaps the oldest and closest association with the turf. Consider the intimacy with grass of a Willie Mays sliding on his face across the Candlestick Park outfield to clutch a fly ball, or the winner of next week's Masters in Augusta with perhaps a $20,000 putt to hole out. Not only in baseball and golf is grass important, but football, soccer, Rugby, field hockey, horse racing, lacrosse, croquet, mumblety-peg, cricket, polo and tossing the caber all make their several demands upon the turf. As to the age of this relationship, the medieval lawn bowler was achieving a smooth grassy surface long before the medieval gardener was.

Sport, and the game of golf in particular, has made specific contributions to the improvement of lawn grasses and maintenance practices. Golf courses in this country, more than the grounds of private estates, are the spurs to all the gramineous perfectionism going on. Virtually everywhere golf courses exhibit magnificent turf, often through 12 months of the year and, having seen what is possible, millions of homeowners feel compelled to go and do likewise. The market thus created for seed spreaders, aerators, fertilizers, fertilizer spreaders, lawn sprinklers, chemicals, hoses, soil-acidity testing kits, lawn mowers and proportioning sprayers is a very large one, and so is the stake in grass research.

Grass to the homeowner has become what Russell Baker of The New York Times christened "The Green Elephant," and at this time a few years ago he was predicting sourly that "millions of hours will be spent listening to grass bores. Respectable citizens will be silently blackguarded by their neighbors for grass failure. Hundreds of thousands of children will be started down the road to neurosis by parents with grass anxiety.... Valuable weekend sleeping time will be destroyed by grass-proud neighbors running their power mowers through the morning dew...."

Mr. Baker was right, of course, and there is no reason to suppose that summer 1966 is going to be any better. This has all been going on for a long time. In 1897 F. Lamson-Scribner wrote in the U.S. Yearbook of Agriculture, "Lawns are the most fascinating and delightful features in landscape gardening, and there is nothing which more strongly bespeaks the character of the owner than the treatment and adornment of the lawns upon his place." Then, as now, it was necessary to carry the whole thing too far to make sure that one's lawns spoke well of one's character. "If the land is very weedy," F. Lamson-Scribner said, "the cultivation of corn or potatoes for a season will assist in reducing the stock of weeds." At least in those days people showed a decent patience about the business.

For the information of little children who may come to you, in the absence of Walt Whitman, to ask, "What is the grass?" the grass is a monocotyledonous plant of the family Gramineae. True grass has spear-shaped leaves which grow double-ranked and alternate upon a jointed stem. It may grow only an inch in its lifetime or it may keep growing for 100 feet in all (few grasses will reach that height, of course, though the bamboo, which is a grass, can exceed it).

Intensive work on the lawn grasses has been going on for only 10 years, and already strains are being developed that are naturally resistant to disease, are drought-tolerant or water-tolerant and are able to fight off the incursion of unwanted kinds of grass. A healthy, vigorous turf will resist crabgrass, for example, and early-spring applications of a fertilizer that releases its nitrogen slowly should leave nitrogen residues that will stimulate grass growth during the crab-grass germination period. If good grass itself can be kept a few steps ahead, you can avoid having to go in with herbicides to kill everything off and start over.

In Tifton, Ga., where the hybrid Bermuda strains—Tifiawn, Tiffine, Tifway and Tifgreen—were developed, Dr. Glenn W. Burton has unleashed a new hybrid, Tifdwarf, which, it is rumored, will revolutionize golf courses in the South and, as one gathers from the name, will require less mowing. If the researchers just keep busy we should ultimately have a do-it-itself grass, fighting off weeds, resisting blight and growing to satisfactory heights and stopping there, while we sit on the porch with a gin and tonic and periodically offer it a kind word.

In the meantime, everybody has still got a yardful of old-fashioned grass, and spring is the time to start doing things to it. But what things? Should you be seeding or not seeding, fertilizing or not fertilizing, watering deep or watering shallow? And the clippings—do you take them up or let them lie there or what? By the time you have made your way through garden columns and a few tons of literature from the lawn-care companies, you will have had authoritative and wholly contradictory advice about all of these matters, and the system of lawn care adopted by one of this magazine's editors may begin to sound terrific. "I curse at it," he says.

The reason for contradiction in expert advice is that one really cannot generalize too widely about the choice and care of grasses. Climatically, the United States is divided roughly into four different regions, each suitable to different strains of grass requiring different kinds of maintenance, and within these regions there are differences in soil composition from state to state and from one corner to another of any given six-foot square of front yard.

"There really is no one way to grow grass, because there are so many variables," says Harry Fries, formerly of the Nassau County Extension Service in New York. "The bugs you get will be different, the diseases you get will be different—the combinations can be infinite. Growing good grass really is still an art, and not a science."

Where the question is one of art, it is instructive to go to an artist. Richard Valentine, of the Merion Golf Club in Philadelphia, is a second-generation expert, the son of Joseph Valentine, who "discovered" Merion blue. In 1932, when he was greenkeeper at Merion, Valentine père observed and isolated a new strain of Kentucky bluegrass growing behind the 17th tee. It took years to develop the variety to a point where seed became commercially available, but Merion blue is now feasible, if expensive, and acknowledged to be the best possible grass for its region (the northern cool humid). "The best grass you can have," said Irvin M. Williams, head gardener at the White House, when he replanted the White House rose garden and told President Kennedy that he was not to allow guests to stand on any one bit of the grass for longer than two minutes. This would seem to be coddling a strain which, in addition to being handsome, is tolerant of heat, cold, drought, disease and wear. It has been elected the grass most likely to survive the activities in Yankee, Briggs and Shea stadiums, the Yale Bowl, Fenway Park and Comiskey Park in Chicago, and if you let it grow to two inches you can even turn children loose on it. County agricultural agents in New York feel that many lawn problems in their area could be avoided if people would spend the money to put in pure Merion.

Joseph Valentine's son grew up raking the Merion sand traps, mowing the Merion greens and learning to take grass seriously. Now 37 and in charge of Merion himself, he may be more hung up on grass than even his father was. "I may be crazy," Richie Valentine says, "but I think of grass as very close to animal life. When I start feeling bad in the summer, I just know that grass is feeling bad." It was a warm summer day during a drought. Out behind the 2nd hole at Merion. Richie Valentine got down on his hands and knees on an experimental zoysia plot. "Look at that root system! They have a wild root system—hear that?" He cut into the sod with a penknife and there was a harsh, ripping sound; he might have been tearing canvas. "Oh, it's a rank grower," he said admiringly. "Here's a strain of one starting to run—see that? See this runner? Let's see if we can trace it out." He traced the grass's subterranean course and lunged with his penknife. "Feel that." The runner had a head that looked and felt like ivory: pale, hard, sharp. "Isn't that murder! I get a kick out of feeling it myself, it's just so rank-growing. If you could get that on a football field! Of course, you're still playing on it during the dormant season, tearing it up when it can't renew itself."

Zoysia—Japanese lawn grass—is a relatively new grass here. It is nice-looking, for a grass with the texture of copper wire, and it has had something of a vogue over the last few years among people who want a dense, sturdy, relatively independent grass. However, it is a warm-season grass that turns a sulky brown at the first hint of cool weather, and it must be propagated vegetatively, which is a slow process, rather than from seed. "People send away for a cigar box full of zoysia plugs for $9.98," Richie says, "and spend forever trying to establish a whole lawn. It's so slow. You have to treat zoysia the way zoysia wants to be treated; it loves fertilization. It's a great feeder, a real hog when it comes to eating. So is Merion blue. Merion loves to be fed. Fescues don't; they're more or less a field-type grass.

"Then there's Bermuda, but up here Bermuda goes in the winterkill. Two years ago I thought, 'Suppose we promote Bermuda?' You go out there in July and no crabgrass, and you think. 'Gee, isn't that beautiful.' Then you get a winterkill and you're right back where you started from. Now, mixed bents"—he looked at one of the greens—"these greens are South German mixed bents, and mixed bents you can give the heat of the day but they need the cool nights, and you don't want too much rain."

Except in the hot climates, the silky greens on most golf courses are creeping bent grasses, fine, thin, with a yellow cast to their green. Bents are the sirens of the grass world. There will always be homeowners who insist on a lawn like a putting green, but by and large a man would do better to take up with a chorus girl. In each instance the object of his passion is going to cause a lot of trouble, require a lot of attention and will leave him without a second thought. "The most beautiful grass," says Grass Doctor O.J. Noer of Milwaukee, "is velvet bent. But when it dies, it dies."

Richie Valentine mows his greens four or five times a week and keeps them at 3/16 of an inch. "We can get it down to 5/32 for championship play," he says, "but basically I stay about 3/16." A besotted bent-grass lawn-owner would not have to mow his lawn five times a week, but he would probably have to go over it two or three times, and with a special mower. Bent grasses, being fine and growing not erect but sort of sideways, must be kept short, not just because you want to putt on them but because they mat and thatch and choke themselves to death.

Bents are the only cool-season grasses that actually benefit from close cutting. The rest of the turf grasses do better left to grow longer than is considered sightly in lawns or practical on playing surfaces, because a deep root system is the sine qua non of grass, and the depth of your root system is proportionate to the height of your grass. A need for short grass and deep roots drives golf course superintendents to such stratagems as Valentine's poking fertilizer down deep, to make the roots burrow after it.

Where grass is to be kept short it is essential to mow regularly, because one of the dismaying facts about good grass is that you cannot let it grow to, say, four inches, and come back from vacation and hack it back down to two inches. Valentine gets ill at the thought. "If you want to bring down four inches," he says, "you cut it down by half inches, a half inch every five or seven days. If you cut it right down to two, you're playing with fire.

"You can only expect so much of grass," says Valentine. "This constant pounding! Golf carts, mechanical mowers—it's like rabbit-punching the grass. When does it get a chance to grow? You go to bed at night, but now they play night golf.

"Between the middle of August and Labor Day, that's when you don't want to eat, when you feel wilted, just like the grass. You have to be careful with everything, even your watering. You can't just throw water around like a wild man. We had to go into our fairway watering program at night," he said resignedly of the dry spell he and the grass were currently enduring, "and we held our greens pretty well, but we probably started new diseases."

It is generally agreed that in the extremely dry parts of the country, where you could not grow a fungus in a wet bucket, regular night watering may encourage fungus disease, but you have to allow golfers on the course during the day. It is just one of the crosses green-keepers must bear. "A little bit of water is deadly," Valentine says. "That's like teasing grass, so to speak. I don't know how to explain it. Like you just walked across the Mojave Desert and you want a drink and somebody gives it to you in a saltcellar."

Other experts (except for the Scotts lawn-care company) agree with Valentine that no watering is better than a little. A bit of water encourages the shallow-rooted undesirable weeds and grasses, strengthening them and doing nothing for the deeper-rooted turf grasses. Some unwanted grasses can even be controlled by using dry conditions to choke them out while the good turf holds on. "A fairway that has never been watered," he says, "that doesn't get watered year after year, has better grass in it. It acclimates itself, and when you get a cool night and some rain it comes back better than ever."

In 1895 F. Lamson-Scribner, the gentleman who delivered himself of those observations about a man's lawn and his character, wrote, "The gardener will...soon discover individual peculiarities in the plants he cultivates, and detect variations which may be found to be as fixed or permanent as those which limit species." It is the intensity of a grass gardener's concentration on his plants' "individual peculiarities" and his knowledge of the infinite variety of effective circumstances that result in a superior turf.

And it is the absence of this specific knowledge and attention that constitutes the relative weakness of lawn-care-company grass-growing. The large lawn-care companies necessarily deal with their customers en bloc, and any plan, even a ponderously flexible one, that involves a lot of general directives probably will produce acceptable but not optimum results. Companies do their best, of course, since it is not going to be to their advantage to advocate procedures that will leave a customer with a patch of mud. But seed mixtures, amounts and kinds of fertilizer and multiple-purpose pesticides, all meant to be used across large chunks of the country, stand less chance of being the best for any given lawn.

"They recommend materials we don't need here," says an Arizona agent. "They develop mixes that cover everything, so you're spending money for two or three things when you're only trying to control one."

"They do advocate program, though," says another, "and I like program."

For a reasonable man who has enough trouble without falling in love with a lawn, for a man who does not require perfect grass or worry about paying for chemical controls he may not need, commercial programming is usually sufficient. A grass maniac, however, should, and would, enjoy really learning for himself what he is doing. All over the United States he will receive courteous and informed assistance from his local county agricultural agent, who will be knowledgeable about the specific local conditions on the one hand and the recent agronomical advances on the other. "We know from experience what will work here," an agent in Wyoming says, "and we aren't trying to sell anything."

"We answer two or three hundred calls a day about lawns," says Nassau County Agricultural Agent Bill Titus. "Our most serious problems are the wrong variety of grass, and insect and disease damage. The queries vary with the time of the year, and usually we can take care of a lot of them over the phone. The first thing we hear in early spring will be leaf spot. Then drought. The grass will be turning smoky gray, and following that will be browning out. It's hard to convince people that that's what they've got, because they water, so you go out and look, and it's wet on top, and you dig in and it's powder-dry underneath." The Nassau office sends out releases on current problems, works with commercial lawnkeepers and garden-supply centers and in the summer holds lawn clinics. "We have had as many as 3,000 people show up—we were a little overwhelmed."

The lawn-owner who wants to go beyond the specific what-to-do afforded by a county agency to an understanding of why to do it should part with $10.95 and buy a book by Agronomist H. Burton Musser called Turf Management, a publication of the U.S. Golf Association and McGraw-Hill. Turf Management is written primarily for those responsible for large turf areas such as golf courses, and thus it may contain somewhat more information than the homeowner really requires, such as discussion of how much to pay a course superintendent to enable him to attend turf conferences. But, as it is written for men who must maintain good turf or be fired, it is specific, thorough and technical, and yet so comprehensible that Agronomist Musser could be regarded as the Dr. Spock of lawn care.

After you have absorbed everything in Dr. Musser's book there is not much left to learn. You will know not only what to do with your weeds, you will know how many seeds there should be in a pound of weeping love grass; how to calculate the pore space in your soil ([S-w]/V = percent noncapillary porosity) and the friction loss in your rubber hose, pounds per hundred feet.

If you are not that interested in your grass, you are probably a neighborhood curiosity. But if you go out and buy a package of "grass seed" at the supermarket, 89¢ the five pounds, or seed out of a bin marked "shady" at a supply store, what happens to your lawn you can blame only on yourself.















New Plants