Ken Lund of South Portland stands on his drought-parched lawn on Sunday. It has been dry enough that he rarely needs to mow it these days. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Ken Lund pushed a mower over his drought-parched front lawn in South Portland late Saturday morning, trimming the browned, crunchy grass and kicking up huge clouds of dry dirt that swirled up like a desert haboob, visible far down the street.

Lund had last mowed about three weeks earlier, and the grass – which gets plenty of direct sun midday – hadn’t grown taller than three inches in that time. He was cutting it back to about two inches, “more of a formality than anything,” he said.

Lund’s vegetable garden behind his house is what gets his loving care these days. He waters the garden nightly, and his backyard is sloped so rainwater funnels down into it, keeping the soil from becoming dry and caked like it is out front. His tomatoes are about ripe and ready, and soon his family will also have cukes and zucchini to harvest, too.

“I could water the lawn out front all the time, but it’s just not worth it,” said Lund, who has lived here nine years. He knows others in the neighborhood feel the same, and just a glance at the sun-scorched lawns all around on South Richland Street seemed to confirm it.

“All of August, it’ll look like this,” Lund said of his baked front lawn. “But toward the end of the month, I rarely have to mow, which is nice.”

With the southern Maine coast now officially in a severe drought, and little short-term relief expected, being relieved of mowing duties for a while may be the bright side for homeowners. But for those who take pride in their property, put time and money into maintaining their yards, less mowing won’t make crispy fried lawns any easier to look at every day.


“I’d love to afford a sprinkler system, or have some greener grass,” said Mike Schoenbaum of Hemlock Hill Road in Cape Elizabeth. But he’s not sure how much sprinklers would help, anyway.

“It doesn’t matter now, the drought is bad everywhere right now. Every time the toilet flushes, you’re paying for water. So to throw more at the outside, it doesn’t make sense.,” he said.

Landscape companies that mow lawns for a living are also feeling the heat this summer.

Elwyn Curtis founded Curtis Lawn & Yard Care, based in Freeport, in 1987. Curtis said in a phone interview Sunday night that he has never encountered an August like this one, where lawns are so dry they are crispy when you walk on them.

Curtis has 140 lawn mowing accounts in southern Maine, a robust list of customers that in the past has kept his crews busy through October, and sometimes November. He’s not so sure about this year.

“It (the drought) has had an effect. It has cut our workload in half,” Curtis said.


Rather than cutting a customer’s lawn once a week, he has been forced to scale back his mowing jobs to once or twice a month. Even customers who water their lawns have been unable to bring the grass back to life.

Curtis said he is looking for a little outside help, but not from the government.

“I rely on Mother Nature to take us out of this and usually things will turn around. We need to get some natural rain,” Curtis said.

On the other side of Cape Elizabeth’s Hemlock Hill Road from Schoenbaum’s yard, the grass was indeed greener. His neighbors have been running sprinklers, but have still had trouble with browning.

“It’s definitely drier this year than last summer,” said Pete Clancy, a Hemlock Hill Road resident for 19 years.

This May, Clancy planted new sod over parts of his lawn that got scorched last year. The new grass has already browned.


“The sun sucks the moisture right out of the lawn. I’m trying not to cut the grass, because it’ll hold more water that way,” said Clancy, who hasn’t mowed his front lawn in almost three weeks, and it still doesn’t appear to be in need.

“At this point, I’m just kind of hoping I don’t have to replant grass again next year,” he said, adding that he’d water more often, but wants to be conservation-minded. He’s also aware it would cost him at least an extra $100 a month to keep the grass in his quarter-acre front lot watered enough to stay green.

“This year has been a losing battle,” he said.

Of course, some lawns around the drought-stricken southern coast still remain fully green and as vibrant as possible given the heat, a testament to their owners’ watering approach.

Ken Murphy of Scarborough stands on his sprinkler-watered lawn on Sunday. He says his water bill will be significantly higher because of the watering he has been doing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In Scarborough, compared with the yellowed lawns on surrounding properties along Old Blue Point Road, Ken Murphy’s thriving grass shines like an emerald in a hay field. Murphy works from home, which allows him the luxury of caring for his lawn during the week.

He runs the sprinkler as he works during the day, moving it every half hour through six different locations in the yard for complete coverage. “It’s become like a hobby for me, and a chance to get outside and away from the computer,” Murphy said.


Murphy’s devotion to yard care also comes in part from not having a yard at his last house, and being vexed by a chronically brown-spotted lawn when he was a kid in South Portland.

“I remember growing up, by the end of July or beginning of August, we didn’t have to mow anymore,” said Murphy, who now mows his lawn every five days.

When he and his wife first moved to this house, “by the end of June everything, all the grass was fried. I didn’t want our lawn to go south like it did last year,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s last quarterly bill, from before he started watering regularly, came to $80. He guessed his next water bill will be six to 10 times more.

“My rationale is, we spend a lot of money on heating oil in the winter, so we can spend some on water in the summer,” he said.

Still, as much as he’s enjoying his healthy grass, Murphy said he plans to cut back on his sprinkler regimen in the interests of conserving water. “I’m going to ease off as the drought gets more severe,” he said. “I don’t need to be excessive.”

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