Every time the wind blew, John Peterson used to wince. Each breeze might bring his lawn the troubles of his neighbor's.
Peters breathes easier now that his neighbor is seeing a specialist - a "lawn doctor" who promises to get his problem dandelions under control.
Rather than spend weekends and holidays working on their lawns, increasing numbers of area residents are calling in specialists to do the job. More than 70 lawn services are listed in the Virginia Yellow Pages - a figure up from 45 just five years ago. Lawn care companies in the Washington area claim from 200 to 14,000 customers each.
Owners of the lawn maintenance companies say one reason for the increase is that the image of lawn care has changed from the exclusive province of those with mansions needing manicures to one that provides greening for America's middle-class lawns.
"It's an affordable luxury," said Mindy Larcamp, office manager with the Chem-Lawn COrp., who believes low prices ranging from $90 to $180 annually in the metropolitan area) and the homeowner's desire to spend weekends in recreation activity contribute greatly to increased business.
Two basic lawn services are offered in the area. The less expensive on provides spraying - usually including an insecticide, an herbicide (for weeks and crabgrass), a fungicide and fertilizer. The more expensive treatment includes aeration of the soil (so air can reach the grass roots), seeding and adding lime. Most companies offer about five treatments per year.
Peterson, a self-employed businessman who subscribes to a lawn service, said the service makes it possible for him to keep up with his neighbors without having to get out and do the work.
He said about 25 per cent of the people along his street (Cool Spring Drive in Collingwood) have lawn services and that those lawns with the service are "fairly distinct."
Some lawn service companies say they offer their services for less than what the supplies would cost on the retail market. But some homeowners and lawn experts disagree.
"They (homeowners) could receive the same result or better by doing the right things on their own and the costs would be negligible," said WTOP radio garden editor Jack Eden. He said he thought "the outlandish costs" of some lawn services could be cut as much as 80 per cent by homeowners doing the work themselves.
Eden says one reason people subscribes to lawn services is because "they lack information and they feel it would be a disaster if they tried to care for their own lawn."
Several garden shop owners and managers agree and give a total retail price of about 560 for the supplies necessary to perform the same services as most spray lawn companies (weed control, seeding, fertilization and pesticides). Shop owners also contend most homeowners could apply these chemicals in about three hours.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Roman T. Piernick, an instructor at Lake Braddock High School who does all of his own lawn work, estimates he spends $60 a year on his lawn for seeding, fertilizing, weed control, and insect control and liming. He said he does not subscribe to a lawn service is "some companies are prohibitively expensive and I'd rather put my time in the house than on the golf course."
Whether a lawn doctor is worth the price for a homeowner seeking "preventive lawn medicine" is a matter of contention, but many homeowners with serious fungus or soil acidity problems say the lawn services have provided an answer they couldn't find on their own.
According to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Extension Services, lawn fungus is a major problem in this area because of warm temperatures. Because of soil acidity, the area is also one of the most difficult for lawn care in the United States.
Malcolm Andrews, a VPI extension agent, said that although many area lawn companies follow VPI's recommendations, there "are some . . . that still do not practice proper lawn management and they are paying the consequences" in problem lawns.
He said one of the biggest faults is failure to establish a proper seedbed - 64 planting the grass in the summer rather than in the fall and selecting the wrong type of grass for the amount of sunlight in a yard.
He also said lawn companies should not spray nitrogen fertilizers on cool season grass (bluegrasses and fine fescues) during the summer months.
Eden compared such summer fertilization with water soluable nitrogen compounds to "stuffing an eight-course meal into a six-month-old baby" and said homeowners run the risk of lawn fungus problems summer treatments.
Some lawn companies have been applying fertilizer during the summer months to "green-up" a yard quickly. Richard W. Ewing, owner of Annandale / Arlington / McLean Lawn Doctor franchise, said the only benefit from this is a short-term cosmetic effect" that eventually will be detrimental to a lawn.
A debate also centers on whether to seed and aerate a yard every year as many full-care lawn service do.
"Why put seed on top of grass? That's just overspending," said Howard M. Bradbury, owner of Cherrydale Hardware and Garden Center. he said the common lawn company practice of seeding an entire lawn each year (instead of just bare spots) is a waste of money.
Jim C. Smith, zone manager for Professional Turf Corp. - a company limited to chemical spraying - said "most aerating does no good whatsover," because it is limited to spike method "which compacts the soil around the root" rather than providing room for expansion.
Although the merits of different lawncare programs are argued, lawn specialists say the business is increasing and probably will continue as long as people feel the grass is greener on the other side of their own fences.