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Saying No Mow

More People Outsource Lawn Care

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page F01

When Janice and Alex Dreier lived in Alexandria, they devoted a significant chunk of their weekend to yard work. Not so since moving to a house in Bethesda in fall 2003, when they hired professionals to care for their lawn.

The results? A tidy yard, for one thing. "If we didn't have a lawn service, the yard would not look nearly as good," said Janice Dreier, noting that despite trying, she and Alex "never could get control of the weeds in back" of their former home.

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For another, the couple now has more weekend time to spend with their two young children and friends. "If we had to take care of the lawn ourselves, our weekend would be much more about chores," she said.

The Dreiers are part of a trend in the Washington area and nationwide of homeowners turning to lawn care companies to maintain the outside of their property. Even as the average size of U.S. lawns decreases, more families are contracting out for lawn service, according to data from the Vermont-based National Gardening Association, a nonprofit educational group. In 2003, 17 percent, or 19.4 million U.S. households hired professional lawn and landscape maintenance companies, up from 15 percent or 16.3 million in 2000 and 13 percent or 13.7 million in 1998. The total spent by homeowners for these services has risen from $7.9 billion in 1998 to $9.7 billion in 2000 to $11.2 billion in 2003.

Bruce Butterfield, research director at the gardening association, attributes the growth in part to a change in priorities, particularly as the number of two-income households has increased. "People work hard all week and want some private time," he said. "The last thing they want to do is push a lawn mower around the yard on Saturday morning."

But it's not only working people who hire lawn services, Butterfield said. He noted that during visits to his parents in Florida he sees few retirees working outdoors. "They all have someone doing their lawn," he said.

In the Washington area, lawn care companies typically begin mowing grass and blowing clippings and other debris in late March or early April, and continue their services on a weekly basis until mid-autumn. Around the same time, many lawn and landscape companies start to offer a range of other services such as seeding, weeding, trimming shrubs, mulching, fertilizing, and weed and insect control.

Whether you are looking for a few lawn treatments or complete yard maintenance, now is the time to line up the lawn care services you want for the whole warm-weather season, advised Chuck McIntire, business development manager for the Professional Landcare Network, a Herndon-based trade association for the lawn and landscape industry. You can pick a company randomly from among the dozens listed in the phone book, or from those described in flyers left in your mailbox or advertised in local newspapers. But for the best results, he and other experts recommend using a more thorough approach.

"The key is to be an informed consumer," said Jay Feldman, executive director of District-based Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit that provides information on pesticides and alternatives to their use.

Here are some suggestions to help you choose a lawn service:

Figure out which services you want. Are you looking for just weekly mowing, blowing and edging? Do you also want fertilizer and weed or insect controls put down? How about bush trimming, tree care and perhaps some planting?

While some companies perform all of these services, "a large percentage of the lawn maintenance companies don't do chemical work because that requires licensing," McIntire said.

Yet a full-service company offers convenience. Linda Shapiro, a Bethesda resident who hired a single company five years ago to do all the lawn work, said "It's nice not to have to look for someone piecemeal."

Get referrals. "Just because a company advertises like crazy doesn't mean they are high-quality," said Ron Hall, editor in chief of Landscape Management, a Cleveland-based industry publication.

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