The whole nine yards

Jeff Tyler Jun 2, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: It’s that time of year: Sun’s out, weather’s nice, time to get out into the great outdoors and mow the darn lawn. According to a recent study sponsored by NASA, Americans grow about three times more grass than we do corn. That makes the lawn the largest irrigated crop in the entire United States. Personally, I’m sick of taking care of mine. Time and trouble, sweat, grass stains on my sneakers . . . oh and money, did I mention the cost of lawn care? We sent Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler to calculate just how many greenbacks it takes to grow into a green lawn.

JEFF TYLER: Want emerald-green grass? Start with a $17 bag of nitrogen-heavy “Super Green Fast Acting Lawn Food.” So says Delaina Sheffield, the in-house lawn guru at Orchard Supply Hardware in Los Angeles.

DELAINA SHEFFIELD: And then you know you need a tiller to put that in there. And then you need a fertilizer to balance that out. And then, of course, you’re going to need a lawnmower. Because once it starts growing, you’re going to have to cut it.

A new lawn mower runs around $250. To seal the deal, they’ll load the machine into your car.

TYLER: “Who’s going to unload it?”

SHEFFIELD: “(Laughs) We don’t have anybody to unload it. But I do suggest you don’t do it by yourself.”

For the mower, the edger, the weed-whacker, goggles, gloves . . . blah blah blah. Starting from seed, expect an initial lawn-care investment starting at around $500.

After that, Sheffield says general maintenance should run about $50 a year. Not including the cost of water or your time.

Ted Steinberg is the author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Law.
He estimates that Americans spend almost $9 billion on their lawns annually.

Why spend so much on grass?

TED STEINBERG: “Lawns can become social statements. And they are. The idea of a perfect lawn, a weed-free, super-green, ultra-trim expanse — a sign of middle-class respectability.”

Back at the hardware store, Delaina Sheffield says she aspires to her own private patch of grass someday. Currently, she lives in an apartment.

SHEFFIELD: “Well, I have an 8-year-old. So just to watch him out there playing and wrestling and laying out there in the grass. You know, to say, hey this is MY lawn. Get off MY lawn. (Laughs)”

But, Steinberg says, the aesthetic drive for eternally green turf is the result of insidious marketing campaigns.

STEINBERG: “From the standpoint of those in the chemical lawn-care business, this is a potential windfall as homeowners repeatedly have to go to the store for chemical inputs in the elusive quest for an impeccable yard.”

And Steinberg calculates that even a small lawn can easily consume 10,000 gallons of water over the summer.

STEINBERG: “The idea of the perfect lawn, in my opinion, is an ecological boondoggle.”

To minimize environmental impact, Steinberg recommends leaving the grass clippings on the lawn for a natural source of nitrogen. And a cheap alternative to store-bought fertilizer.

In Los Angeles, at the Orchard Supply hardware store Larry Gross is in the midst of getting rid of his lawn. In the arid California climate, he thinks grass is an excessive waste of water.

LARRY GROSS: “We’ll probably gradually remove all of the lawn and replace it with native plants.”

Some of the old grass being replaced actually got recycled.

GROSS: “Within about an hour and a half, somebody drove up and took all my used grass away and took it off my hands. So it was very easy to dispose of.”

TYLER: “They took it for free?”

GROSS: “They took it for free. They wanted to put it in their backyard.”

Gross says alternative landscaping has other benefits.

GROSS: “You don’t have to weed it. You don’t have to mow it.”

For some people, the best way to avoid yardwork is a gardener.

In suburban Cleveland, Ted Steinberg pays $25 a month for such luxury.

STEINBERG: “I don’t miss mowing my lawn in the least. I can think of thousands of things I’d rather be doing that mowing my lawn.”

Not everyone agrees. At the hardware store in L.A., a guy named Sahle says he got tired
of paying $50 for a job done poorly. So he fired his gardener and hired himself.

Tell the truth, I said, secretly, you hate it.

SAHLE: “No, no, no. I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it.”

In fact, Sahle even sings a special song as he mows.

SAHLE (singing): “This is the day that the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it. This is the day that the Lord has made.”

Almost makes yard work sound fun.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.

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