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For The Garden

The Truth About Turf

Author: Cathy Babcock
Issue: March, 2017, Page 148
A backyard remodel included switching out real grass for artificial, which in this case, saved water.
The grass can always be greener, but should it be real or faux?

In the not too distant past, the arrival of summer could be defined by the growl of the lawn mower and the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. Later in the year, the scent of manure used in installing a winter lawn was a harbinger of the change of seasons. Nowadays—especially in the arid Southwest— many verdant yards have given way to xeriscape or rock. But plenty of homeowners harbor a love affair with lawns and still want a grassy patch in the yard, whether for aesthetics, for kids to play on or for pets to enjoy.

The question is simple enough. Be real or go with the faux? The answer is a bit more complicated. There is no one best choice—both options have good points and drawbacks. 

On one hand, who can resist walking on fresh green grass in bare feet? It smells good; feels sublime between the toes; gives off oxygen, which acts as a natural air conditioner; and is organic and, well, real. On the other hand, a grass lawn (also called biological or natural turf) can be expensive to install and requires a fair amount of upkeep. It must be mowed and watered on a regular basis and fertilized periodically; some types even need to be dethatched seasonally for aeration. Unless you are using a manual push mower, lawn care equipment requires maintenance and uses gasoline or electricity, which contribute to air and noise pollution. Clinical fertilization can be harmful to groundwater, and in drought-prone areas such as Arizona, the water used to keep the lawn healthy and green can be considered environmentally wasteful. Real grass can also harbor pests, such as ants and ticks, and grass pollen can trigger a host of allergies and asthma.

Alternatively, faux grass (also called synthetic turf or artificial grass) does not require the continual upkeep of mowing, watering or fertilization. It is weed-, pest- and pollen-free, can be hosed down or blown off when necessary, and it can be brushed upright when flattened. It also keeps 20 million rubber tires out of landfills every year.

Artificial grass has come a long way since buzz-cut AstroTurf, which made its debut in the early 1960s. Visually, today’s faux lawns can be virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. Like carpet, it is available in a range of colors, pile heights and densities. Most are made with UV-resistant materials, making them impervious to discoloration from the sun. Faux turf can bring green to areas where real grass would be impractical, such as rooftops, enclosed courtyards and patios.

While the cost of installation can be high compared with real sod, the initial investment is generally recouped within 8 years. High-quality synthetic turf has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

Despite the ecological benefits, synthetic turf has its disadvantages. The green color is derived from chemicals and dyes, and as a petroleum-based product, pollution and waste are created in the manufacturing process. It is nonbiodegradable, so at the end of its lifespan it cannot be recycled. And no matter how beautiful it is to look at, faux turf can never replicate the tactile sensation of real grass. It will absorb the heat of the direct sun and feel hot to the touch.

When shopping for artificial grass, look at sample swatches with varying blade counts and see how they look where you intend to install. Inquire about drainage and warranties and ask to see actual installations, where you can look for seams, gaps and ripples. As with any investment, it pays to shop around.

The perfectly manicured lawn is attainable, whether you decide to go natural or “fake it.”

Cathy Babcock is the director of horticulture for Boyce Thompson Arboretum, located in Superior.
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