SI Vault
Barbara La Fontaine
April 04, 1966
As winter fades and the lawns of Augusta spread northward, Americans are girding to do battle with a monster of a status symbol
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April 04, 1966

'the Green Elephant'

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

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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 p�re 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.

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