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Maintaining a perfect lawn in a world turned upside-down

The Great American Lawn
The Great American Lawn 05:50

"It's exactly the same," said Teri Wilkie. "Just like if you were in your backyard."

Well, no. Teri and Michael Wilkie's lawn is on the 24th floor roof of a Chicago high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan. The lawn, as well as the Wilkies' baronial, 8000-square-foot penthouse apartment, can be had for a mere $24.5 million; they're for sale.

Chances are, the only resemblance their lawn has to yours is this: "We get dandelions," said Michael.

"I don't know how it gets up here!" Teri told correspondent Martha Teichner.

Yes, even way up here, there are weeds.  CBS News

What is it with Americans and their lawns? According to a 2005 NASA study, we've planted something like 40 million acres of grass.  We spend $40 billion a year on tending it. So, no surprise, coronavirus has made Americans lawn-care crazy.

"You could argue that the perfect lawn is the perfect coping mechanism in a world that's been turned upside-down," said Ted Steinberg, a historian and author of "American Green: The Obsessive Quest For the Perfect Lawn." (His own lawn, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is not quite perfect.)

Once upon a time, only landed gentry with legions of servants – in particular, the British aristocracy in the 18th century – had lawns. 

An 18th century painting shows the grounds of Kidbrooke Mansion in Forest Row, East Sussex, England. Bridgeman

It wasn't until after World War II that ordinary, middle-class Americans found themselves in possession of, and subsequently possessed by, their own lawns, when they moved to brand-new suburbs.

It was the Cold War; America had an enemy, the Soviet Union. Americans had an enemy, too: weeds.

Rallying those weed warriors: The Scotts Company. Steinberg said, "It ran advertising campaigns that linked people's personal identity to the kind of landscape they had around their home."

Today, with annual sales already topping $3 billion, Scotts is experiencing a bonanza year, thanks to the coronavirus lockdown. Sales of its lawn and garden products this season are up 24%.

According to recent studies, Americans spend $40 billion a year tending to their 40 million acres of grass. So, no surprise coronavirus has made quarantined Americans - fanatics and novices alike - lawn-care crazy. CBS News

Teichner asked, "So, the pandemic is creating new lawn fanatics?"

"It's creating a segment of new users or new participants that are learning how easy it is to maintain a lawn," replied Mark Slavens, vice president of research and development for ScottsMiracle-Gro. [Is that corporate speak for "We hope so"?] "We love the lawn fanatics."

And Scotts has learned that making fun of itself, and its best customers, is great advertising:

Lawn Whisperers | Season 4 - Episode 2 Trailer: Goat Yoga? by Scotts Lawn on YouTube

Teichner wanted to meet a real lawn nut, and see how coronavirus has affected his obsession. So, she went to visit Zac Williams in Upstate New York.

"I was mowing and I noticed, huh, there's 13 stripes from the road to the garden bed here. And I thought, Wow, I could probably put a flag right there."

Williams has been mowing the American flag into his lawn for the Fourth of July the past two summers. "I knew that it was pretty cool," he said, "and so I thought, You know, maybe this could go viral, that would be kind of cool. And it did!"

The Stars and Stripes on Zac Williams' lawn. CBS News

"Last winter was kind of rough for me," he said. "I kept looking forward to summer or spring so that I could get back on the lawn."

Potted grass. CBS News

How much does Zac Williams love his grass? "This year I cut these plugs out and I planted them in some pots. I thought they would be great Christmas presents."

Some people are into sports cars. Not Zac. He showed Teichner his arsenal of gardening equipment.  "So, when you see all these machines lined up on your lawn, what happens inside?" she asked.

"The one that really gets me excited," he replied, "that's the greens mower. It's a John Deere greens mower, and they use it on golf courses. And I really want to get on this orange mower and just full throttle, rip it down the lawn!"

Top speed: 8 miles an hour.

Zac Williams tears it on the riding mower. CBS News

Last fall, Williams decided to turn his passion into a sideline business, cutting and caring for other people's lawns at night and on weekends. Good thing he did; thanks to COVID-19, his day job, in the travel industry, was gone.

"Being able to cut the lawn into those nice patterns, which I like to do, does give me some order and sense of calm right now," he said.

In a world suddenly all cock-eyed, for Zac Williams there's nothing quite like straight stripes.

"You can look at it, and it just makes you feel good," he said.

CBS News

For more info:

Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: Steven Tyler.

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