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Dormancy's uses

A NIP in the late August air has restored a green flush to lawns parched by summer heat and drought - if one doesn't look closely. New England lawns tend to the bare and scratchy. They are not at all like Midwest lawns which submit, like miniature prairies, to watering and manicure through long summer evenings.

At one time all of New England - and definitely Massachusetts - was far more heavily farmed than it is today. Most of the land was cleared. Forests have returned, without respect for stone hedges that mark the old field lines. New clearings are for subdivisions and vacation home sites, the latest outposts for trying to establish lawn in the Northeast.

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Apart from our dispositions and spacecraft engineering, not everything has to be perfect. Horticulture is one area where the 80-20 rule applies - 80 percent of the benefit derives from the first 20 percent of effort: Efficiency drops and costs rise the nearer one gets to 100. The organic-farming movement - now called alternative farming - correctly assumes that good enough may indeed be all right for growers, and better for everybody in the long run. Farmers in Iowa have discovered that planting rye after the corn harvest will ensure a residue of natural weed-killing substances that makes use of chemical herbicides unnecessary.

To water and chemically feed lawns through the dog days of summer is to overlook one of nature's best inventions - dormancy. What is dormancy for if not to lie low until the arrival of cool nights?

Great lawns don't come readily in a region of glacial gravel deposits, where acid-loving trees thrive. At some point soon, New England's optimum green, such as it is, will offer sufficient contrast to the fiery display of autumn foliage. Perfection need be no better than this.

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