MANY AREA homeowners have unwittingly hired unlicensed lawn services to illegally spray toxic pesticides on their yards. Some lawn experts question the value of the pesticides. Handlers of pesticides must be licensed according to regulations in the District as well as Maryland and Virginia.

Angelo Tompros, chief of Hazardous Chemical Control in the District of Columbia, says, "Tracking down the unlicenses lawn-service pesticide user is one of our biggest problems. It's very hard to catch him in the act. You might have to wait around all day before he sprays something on a lawn. And if you do observe him, legally you may have trouble since he's working on private property.

"Regardless of whether the chemical is for general or restricted use," says Tompros, "the lawn service that uses chemicals must be licensed, have a licensed applicator and carry liability insurance." Fertilizing does not require a license.

In the Distict, before someone can even take the core examination for licensing, the person must have had at least one year's experience in the field with a licensed lawn-service company. The Hazardous Chemical Control Department's consumer safety officer, Mickey Post, points out that some states differ in their requirements. "If someone from, say West Virginia, where they don't require a license, wants to work here and they can demonstrate that they've had a year's experience, we'll allow them to take the exam."

The examination includes D.C. laws, Environmental Protection Agency agriculture standards, safety factors, the specifics of applying pesticides to turf and practical exam to identify insects.

If you are a D.C. resident, you can find out whether the lawn service you are using is licensed by calling 724-4113. In Maryland, call (301) 269-2776 and in Virginia, (804) 786-3798.

In Maryland ,the State Department of Agriculture issues certification. David Shriver, chief of the Pesticide Regulation Section, says "We require people in commercial lawn business to be certified with us. We offer the exam annually. The licensee must pay fees on a yearly basis. The lawn service has to carry $300,000 liability insurance and re-certify themselves annually."

Mike Randolph, owner of Bethesda Lawn Service, explains why: "If you're putting toxic chemicals on the lawn, you have to know the toxicity of the chemical. It protects us and the customer."

Randolph believes chemicals are overused in the industry. "Personally, I try to stay away from them. I value toxic substances. Yet, I've noticed many of those chemical lawn-company trucks wear no protection equipment when they lay down their chemicals."

Jon Hart of Chevy Chase Lawn Service adds, "I only put chemicals on the lawn when necessary -- most of the time they are not necessary."

"A lot of people are getting ripped off with unnecessary applications of pesticides. We stay away from it," says Nick Raimes, owner of Georgetown Lawn and Yard Maintenance.

Mike Kiser of Chemlawn disagrees. "The chemicals we use in pest control are not harmful; they can be bought at most hardware stores." Bob DeCraft of Lawn Doctor adds, "Everything we use [in the Fairfax franchise] is passed by EPA. We tell the homeowner how to water the lawn after we've applied pesticides. We also tell them how long to keep the pet off."

All pesticide-using companies mentioned are licensed.

Manager Jim Bennett of the Rockville and Montgomery County Lawn Doctor says, "My technicians warn our customers when we use toxic substances on their lawns. Most of what we put down now are quite safe -- especially the granular forms -- they have very low toxic levels. These are applied between the grass blades and when watered down the particles seep down into the soil where people and pets have no contact with them."

Environmental Protection Agency EPA press officer, Jim Sibbison, says "We approve a pesticide as being safe. But we don't endose the applicator. We just set the rules for putting down the pesticides. The only way we're involved with the lawn service man is by expecting him to follow the directions on the label.

Virginia also requires a license for use of restricted pesticides, says Sherry Christman, asistant to Harry Rust. Rust is the supervisor of the Pesticide Section of Virginia's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. All licenses must be renewed annually at the end of the year.

Lawn services around Washington seem split between those who favor chemical lawn treatments and those who do not. The independent firms -- for the most part -- shy away from using chemicals. They give each lawn specialized attention, teach the homeowner the basics and charge depending on services performed. For franchise companies, affiliated with national organizations, chemical treatments for the lawn tend to be the thrust of their business. They usually come out at designated times during the growing season, apply chemical substances to the ground and charge a set fee. Some provide additional services -- see below.

Bethesda Lawn Service, 8012 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda, is an independently-owned lawn service. Owner Mike Randolph prides himself on the fact that since his company is small, he really gets to know his customers. He also stresses that they're not competitive with the more chemically-oriented lawn services."We do a week by week job -- cutting and manicuring the lawn,thatching, seeding. Thatch is dead grass that chokes the soil if left on too long. Bugs love to live in it. So it's important that the thatched grass be removed periodically."

Randolph says it's hard to estimate what they charge. "We go by the terrain -- some people's yards are like obstacle courses. I guess we charge about $75 for four to five visits a month for one quarter acre -- this is just for mowing, trimming and hedges. In the spring, the homeowner might have to spend a couple of hundred dollars more for a spring cleanup, which includes weed control, fertilization, turning over the dirt, etc. By the year, the homeowner probably invests about $1,000." Randolph adds that because he and an assistant are the only workers, they limit themselves to the Bethesda area.

Randolph opened Bethesda Lawn Service in 1970 after working for others in the business for several years.Randolph feels the turn industry "has really taken off in the past 15 years. People would rather pay others to it for them; they would rather have that time for themselves."

Chevy Chase Lawn Service, 7700 Old Chester Rd. in Bethesda, will handle all aspects of maintenance from cutting grass to pesticide control. Jon Hart, manager and owner, has run the service with his wife for four years -- he got his start at Bethesda Lawn Service. Hart charges anywhere from $45 to $200 per week depending on the lawn.

Joseph Pozell, owner of Georgetown Gardens, 1802 Wisconsin Ave., NW. says "each job is different, but our minimum is $635 per 1,000 square feet per year. We do cutting, liming, fertilizing, weeding, landscaping, reseeding, sodding and mulching." Pozell has been in the business for five years and operates mostly in Georgetown and Northwest Washington. Like many of his competitors, Pozell gives customers a free estimate before taking on the job.

Georgetown Lawn and Yard Maintenance, 3900 Edmunds ST. NW, handles all general maintenance including mowing, shrub trimming, fertilization and weed control. Owner Nick Raimes says they do not do tree work -- "the insurance is too high" -- and they don't do pest control. Raimes charges about $85 to $100 a week for minimal work like mowing and shrub trimming.

Lawn Doctor and ChemLawn are two of the more familiar franchise operations. According to Tony Giordano, founder and president of Lawn Doctor, the franchise has been in this area nearly 10 years. The company itself was founded in 1967 in Matawan, N.J., which is headquarters for 300 Lawn Doctor dealers in 26 states.

"Lawn Doctor," says Giordano, "serves the nutritional needs of the lawn by providing fertilizer as well as chemical protection against weeds and insects. Our service includes five visits per year -- once each in the early spring, late spring, summer, early fall and late fall." Of course, the square feet counted is the lawn area, not for the ground the house or other building sits on.

All Lawn Doctor technicians are trained for a week at the Matawan training center. They then return to their local franchise where the owner/manager puts them through more on-the-job training in agronomy.

Lawn Doctor technicians, says Giordano, provide advice over the phone as well. "When we have droughts, we're deluged with phone calls," said Giordano. "Customers want to know if they'll lose their lawns. They won't -- as long as they take precautions. A lawn needs service even more during a drought than at other times. Lack of water makes lawns more susceptible to bugs and weeds. Weeds need less water to live then does grass. What usually happens in a drought is that the grass goes dormant -- it doesn't die. What we do during a drought is take care of the root systems -- early. When the root systems are in shape, your lawn's chances for survival are greater."

Bob DeCraft, manager and part owner of the Fairfax County Lawn Doctor franchise, says that their particular franchise offers some extras in service such as thatching and seeding. The 14-member staff charges approximately $132 per 5,000 square feet, for the recommended five visits a year. "The reason the late fall visit is important is because this is the best time to put in a lawn. By the end of the summer, lawns can be ruined by drought or by infestations of Japanese beetles (as we had last year)." DeCraft said a customer does not need to begin his service in early spring; we'll take on a customer at any time throughout the year."

Jim Bennett, manager of the Montgomery County and Rockville Lawn Doctor says their minimal charge is $131 for five trips for an area measuring about 3,000 square feet, which includes fall seeding. The cost varies depending on the lawn's needs. "We also do aseration, rowing and all chemical lawn treatments." Bennett's franchise is 12 years old -- the oldest, he claims, in the Washington area.

Bennett says homeowners should shop around before selecting a lawn service. "It's not to the homeowners' advantage to look only for the cheapest price. It's difficult to make an assessment of the service based on the quantity of chemicals they use. The most important aspect to look for is what services are provided and how they're provided. Does the company charge extra to come out one additional time? Will they take phone-call inquiries?" Bennett feels it's these "niceties" that are most lacking -- and most needed -- in the lawn-service business.

Mike Kiser, manager at Chem-Lawn, says that they provide basic maintenance service. The 7-year-old lawn service provides fertilizer, insecticides, weed control and pre-emergent for crabgrass."When a prospective customers calls us, we go out to survey the lawn, give our appraisal of how much work is involved and estimate the cost. If the customer approves, we put them on our year plan -- five visits per. This averages $31.60 per 7,000 square feet per visit, or $158 per year."

"This is a very difficult area in which to grow grass," says DeCraft. "It's too far south and [therefore too hot] for growing northern grasses, like the bluegrasses of Pennsylvania and New York. Bluegrass cannot survive our Junes, Julys and Augusts. Bluegrass also can't grow in clay soil, which is too acidic and compact -- water doesn't soak in well. We can show customers how to sweeten the soil by applying lime to it.

"Southern grasses also don't grow well here. They prefer sandy soil, like in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia Beach.

To Learn More About Lawns:

The Fairfax County Department of Extension and Continuing Education offers seminars on turf for professionals in the-off-season. "Last February we had more than 200 participants from the Northern Virginia area," said extension agent Charlie Hall.

Soil testing kits are available at the local Northern Virginia libraries. Consumers can drop off their samples at the libraries or mail them directly to the extension office, who will report back to the consumer with their analysis. t

"Sometimes the soil needs lime or fertilizer or both," says Hall. "Lime makes the soil less acidic and adds calcium and magnesium, two nutrients that soil needs."

"If a community or a citizens association wants a speaker to lecture them on lawn care, we will schedule one. But because there are more citizens than we have staff, we ask the group to hold the lecture in a large area and advertise to all. We don't have the staff to speak to a 20-member garden club," says Hall.

The D.C. Cooperative Extension Service's Natural Resource Program also tests soil -- free of charge for residents of the District. Extension agent Bill Stanley describes the procedure: "D.C. residents can call us at 282-7400 and indicate how many areas they want to test -- front lawn, back lawn, vegetable or flower garden. Then we send them testing kits. They send us soil samples, which must be left at one of four locations where we pick them up. We analyze the samples at our plant -- testing the soil for acidity as well as for phosphorous, potassium and magnesium content. Within three to four weeks we mail the results." District homeowners with other questions can call the above number Monday-Friday, between 9 a.m. and noon.

Urban agriculture program assistant Susan Charlton of the Maryland Extension Service says they also do soil testing, free of charge. "Homeowners should send a letter or call the horticulture line (948-6740) requesting the soil-test box. They should take a random sample of their lawn -- from three different areas. Then return the box to the extension offices at 600 S. Frederick St. in Gaithersburg. We then send it to the University of Maryland's testing labs. The results come back to us and we, in turn, translate them, adding our recommendations. A copy of the results with our advice is then returned to homeowner."

The University of Maryland's agronomy department offers a four-year academic course in soil and crop science. Turf-grass management comes under the crop science degree. "The classes are composed of undergrads as well as people from the industry," says Dr. Peter Dernoeden, associate professor of turf-grass management. "Our only problem is that we have more jobs available than we have students to fill them."

For professionals, the Maryland Department of Agriculture offers several re-training programs, including a four-day Maryland Turf-Grass Conference held each January in Baltimore. The conference is composed of educational workshops and trade shows. It costs $15 a day.