"Crunch, crunch," said Bob Ditz, CPA, as he tramped across a lawn of withered bluegrass in Fairfax County's Centreville section. "These lawns are bone-dry."
Times are ticklish for CPAs, Certified Pesticide Applicators, such as Ditz, who are paid to maintain grassy front yards in a state of suburban grace.
They may spread fertilizers and seed. Slaughter grubs. Uproot weeds. Choke the living daylights out of crabgrass. They may even, like Ditz, an employe of the Lawn Doctor firm, wield a two-wheeled apparatus called the Turf Tamer, that exercises a kind of enforcement role in the shadowy world of coarse fescues.
Ditz's potent terranean arsenal, however, does not extend to a rainmaker. As other mortals who pray for rain, he is left to the twin feelings of hope and faith. "It'll come through, trust me," he says. "The rains'll come. They always do."
No rain is forecast for the Washington area for the rest of the week, and the National Weather Service predicts only a chance of showers for Monday. The area has received less than an inch of rain since the beginning of March -- three inches below the annual norm, and that means trouble for lawns across the region.
Until it does rain, most lawns in the area are likely to retain a brownish cast that makes the arrival of spring and Washington's cherry blossoms somehow flawed. Said Ditz: "You don't really see anything that really" -- he snaps his fingers -- "appeals to you."
As lawns become ever thirstier, lawn care companies in the suburbs will continue to handle phone calls from property owners trying to make the best of an arid situation.
"We have definitely been swamped," said Nancy K. Brandell, whose husband runs a McLean company that sells underground sprinkler systems. "Everybody thinks they should be turned on or installed yesterday. Right now we're three months behind on installations." She said the company has sold nearly 50 automated underground sprinkler systems in the past month.
Until the sprinklers or heavens are activated, many lawns will not wake up from their long winter's sleep, or will suffer the brown and brittle effects of what lawn experts call drought stress -- the vegetative equivalent of battle fatigue. The only benefit for homeowners is that those lawns don't need to be mowed.
The first steady, soaking rain should change all that. "Once we do get some rain I'm sure some of those lawns are really going to pop," said Marty Bennett, manager for a branch of Chemtech in Sterling.
Brandell also said the calls pour in from past customers who simply want someone to come out and turn on their systems. Although activating the systems already in place usually requires little more than the flip of a switch, Brandell said: "You're talking about people in McLean and Great Falls who have so much money they don't know where to spend it. It's like having a maid or anything else -- you just have somebody come do it."
"People have invested a lot of money in lawn companies to treat their lawns with fertilizer and chemicals," Brandell said. "And if the lawn doesn't get water, those chemicals can burn the grass. You've invested so much money in the lawn, to have it dry up and blow away is devastating."