Turf tug-of-war

By Kristin Smith-Ely

In a world that is trying to be increasingly environmentally friendly, natural turf and its alternatives have created a perpetual tug-of-war over the best approach.

It’s bright green. It’s cool to the touch. It’s soft under your feet. It’s everything your client could ever want for a yard. But it’s also lot of work, its costly to treat and water and it attracts bugs and vermin. Not to mention, the kids and the dog are always tracking dirt from it into the house. Is all that hassle to have a grass yard really worth it? For the majority of Americans, the answer is still a resounding “yes.”

But as water becomes scarcer, as municipalities become stricter about water use and noise, and the jobs of maintenance workers become more difficult to fill, more and more people are seeking out alternatives. Luckily for them, there are options. Don’t worry — one of those options is choosing a suitable, living grass. But other alternatives are also gaining traction in some areas, and landscape contractors need to be ready to respond and decide if they want to offer them.

While many national associations, including the National Association of Landscape Professionals, the Turfgrass Producers International, the Irrigation Association and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute all actively promote the benefits of living, irrigated landscapes and lawns, the synthetic or artificial turf industry has made inroads into residential landscapes in a big way. Artificial turf is a trend that’s growing, even if the turf itself isn’t capable of such a feat.

Is artificial beneficial?

Mike Palmer, owner of Waterwise Grass in San Diego, has built his whole business around artificial turf installations. “I don’t do normal sod or a whole lot of landscaping. It’s just that there’s a market for this in the area we live in.”

The recent Southern California drought was a gift to the makers and installers of artificial turf. “We had drought conditions for so long, you couldn’t keep a regular lawn here without breaking the rules with the amount of watering you were allowed to do,” says Palmer.

The state of California began offering rebates for artificial turf installation about five years ago, and that kickstarted the market. “They were incentivizing people to remove their green lawns, paying them for every square foot they removed,” Palmer says.

When the funds for the program ran out a few years back, Palmer was worried that it would hurt business, but his fears were quickly assuaged. “It really didn’t even slow it up a little bit.”

Nowadays, while water conservation is still a part of artificial turf ’s popularity, Palmer says it’s more about customers wanting to make their lawns look good. Because San Diego doesn’t get a lot of rain, some lawns struggle and turn dry and patchy. But with the fake stuff, “It just sits there every day and looks great” in Palmer’s opinion.

When Palmer first started out in the business about six years ago, the majority of interest was in the eastern part of San Diego County, where it’s hotter and further from the coast. The people living in the coastal communities had no trouble paying the price of watering and keeping their real lawns. But now, even in coastal La Jolla, interest is picking up. “There are some remodels on the ocean that are $15 million to $20 million dollars, and they are spec-ing them with artificial turf now because of the look of it. They want all their finishes to be perfect.”

He notices the increase in popularity every time he hops in his truck and drives around. When he first started out in the business, he might see one yard in 100 that had artificial turf; now there are some neighborhoods where it’s more like two or three lawns out of 10. He’s seeing it more in new builds because they’re only allowed a certain amount of sod. But his largest customer base is made up of folks who decide to replace their existing grass with artificial.

Weighing the costs

Artificial turf costs more at the outset over natural turf, but Palmer says the savings over the long run, from not having to mow, fertilize or water it, favor artificial.

And though it certainly isn’t as regular as a real lawn, artificial turf is not entirely maintenance free. They need to be hosed off occasionally with an enzymatic cleaner, and dog owners still have to clean up after Fido, just as they would on a real lawn. There are special antibacterial infill and deodorizers installed with turfs where there are pets. Weeds, too, can pop up between the turf and the sidewalk or driveway, but there’s not much else to it.

Most brands of artificial turf come with a 15- year warranty against fading. Even in high-traffic commercial areas where turf can get matted down over time, a going-over with a power broom can get it looking like new again. It handles rain similarly to how a grass-covered yard would.

“It’s really just designed to sit out there in the sun, handle the UV rays and keep looking great every day,” says Palmer.

Gone are the days when fake grass looked fake.

It’s not the stuff you see at miniature golf courses anymore. Today’s artificial turf comes in different lengths and shades. Palmer says, aside from the fact it is pretty much only available in different shades of green, it’s a lot like carpet. “There are hundreds of options; each manufacturer has about 25 to 30 different lines that they produce.”

There’s been some debate about the possible dangers of artificial turf, particularly regarding playing fields covered with crumb rubber from recycled tires. The final report from a joint research project conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, expected to be published in the fall, could put those concerns to rest.

Natural turfgrass also has a cooling effect that artificial turf does not. On hot days in humid climates, heat exhaustion is a real concern. To combat this, some artificial turfs have incorporated cooling technology that helps reduce temperatures.

At the end of the day, artificial turf ’s pros outweigh its cons as far as Palmer is concerned. “I’m a big fan of it. I’ve done so many jobs where the lawn looks terrible, then we come in and do this and it looks amazing.”

But not everyone agrees. A lawn made of artificial turf might stay greener, need less water and maintenance, but it’s also made of… plastic — not usually the material we think of when we decide to go out and enjoy nature. Fortunately, most people who want natural grass still have the ability to grow it. And according to many in the green industry, it’s not the water-wasting environmental enemy some would make it out to be.

Not the enemy

As Scott Sipes, of All Seasons Grass, a privately owned 4,000-acre sod farm in Brookshire, Texas, explains, “Sod has a terrible and unfortunate reputation as being a water sucker.”

But in reality, the benefits of grass can outweigh the benefits of a tree with similar water usage, but you have to know what grass to grow where.

The appropriate grass does not only vary from Houston to San Antonio, but depending on where in Houston the property is, Sipes would make different recommendations. In the northern part of the city, he’d suggest a rain- and shade-tolerant grass, but in the southern part of the city, a shade- and salt-water tolerant grass would be more suitable. A more drought-tolerant type of grass would be better for the central part of the city.

All Seasons Turf Grass grows two types of St. Augustine, three varieties of Bermuda and five different zoysia grasses. He says landscapers will come to him and say they just use the three basics in Texas — Bermuda, St. Augustine and Zoysia — but to Sipes, that’s 12 different grasses.

He also gets frustrated by what he says is a constant battle with some of Houston’s biggest neighborhoods to choose more appropriate grass. One west side neighborhood requires homeowners to use Bermuda in their front yards with oak trees. “They couldn’t have picked a worse grass,” he says.

Another point he makes is that it’s okay to let the lawn get a little brown from time to time. “Every lawn does not have to look like Augusta National every day of every year.”

Houston usually gets around 50 inches of rain a year, but it had a bit of a dry spell in late summer. “Our grasses should be going brown, and our homeowners’ associations should be embracing that because we should be using less water,” Sipes says.

He says they should be keeping the lawns brown to conserve water, and then when the rain comes back — and in Houston, it will — then they can be green again.

Even golf course superintendents will allow this type of thing to occur during dryer periods. Even at the most recent British Open, the grass was brown. “That’s what healthy grass does in that situation,” says Sipes.

San Antonio and Dallas are extremely water-conscious because they’re susceptible to drought, where Houston isn’t as strict because it gets so much rain, Sipes notes.

Better education about what grasses are suitable for different situations and about why one shouldn’t overwater could go a long way in making natural grass better for the environment.

Zoysia is becoming extremely popular in a variety of applications, Sipes notes. Homeowners like it because it’s a “greener” grass, not in color but in environmental friendliness. It doesn’t need as much water, fertilizer or chemicals.

“Obviously we lean toward living turf because that is what we sell and what we view as being better,” Sipes says about what type of yard is best. He cautions those thinking that artificial turf is an easy alternative to real grass. “Artificial turf is not the one-time fix that everybody thinks it is. Much like regular grass, it has to be maintained, and it doesn’t handle traffic any better than real grass does.”

Going grassless

While real and artificial turf each have their pluses and minuses, some homeowners are opting to eliminate grass altogether in favor of more natural-looking landscapes. This is becoming increasingly common in drier climates, especially those susceptible to drought. In some areas, turf isn’t even allowed.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Water Smart Landscapes Rebate Program has led to the removal of some 185 million square feet of grass since 1999. Installation of new turf is limited or prohibited in front yards of single-family homes in the municipalities that are within the authority’s jurisdiction. Restrictions on multifamily and nonresidential developments also are in place. These types of limitations on turf as well as the incentives offered for removal certainly help foster both native landscape and artificial turf installations.

Greg Rubin, founder and president of San Diego-based California’s Own Native Landscape Design Inc., gets the occasional question about artificial turf from potential customers of his native creations. He usually tries to steer them away from it.

“When I get questions on artificial turf, sometimes it’s from golfers who want to have a putting green, and that’s fine. But if they’re looking at it for their children or animals, I’d rather give them something that operates like turf but is natural and much more drought tolerant,” he says.

Rubin’s company installs what he calls “lawn substitutes,” which aren’t technically turfgrass, but include some California native grasses like sedges and yarrow. He says artificial turf “has its place,” but he tries to educate his clients on other possibilities because artificial turf is “devoid of life.”

“In general, I try to go more toward turf substitutes that are highly drought tolerant. You maybe water one-half to one-quarter as much as a lawn would require, and they also work really nicely with other native plantings. It’s much more synergistic.”

He says both artificial turf installers and native landscapers recognize that natural lawns are essentially freshwater marshes that take a lot of water. But in his opinion, why go for an imitation of something real, when you can get something that actually is real? “For the same price you’re paying per square foot for artificial turf, you can get a heck of a landscape.”

Joey Young, Ph.D., assistant professor of turfgrass science at Texas Tech University, says one of the key benefits of living turf is its cooling effect. “As water moves through the plant, it transpires, cooling the environment around it.”

He says there have been many studies done with infrared thermometers on real grass, artificial turf and rock landscapes. Especially in more arid climates where grass removal has taken place, the temperatures on surfaces without real turf are much higher. “So you conserve water, but your energy costs are going to go up because it is going to cost more to cool your home in that type of environment,” he says.

Another point he tries to drive home is to have realistic expectations about a lawn. If you live in Arizona, you shouldn’t be trying to get your grass to look like it’s in Kentucky. “In order to keep it lush green, you’re going to be doing excessive irrigation. If we could take the expectation from lush green to healthy cover, it’d be a huge stride in the right direction for water conservation.”

That approach may mean a loss in cooling benefit, but he says, “It would be a better balance to let the grass get to 75 percent green. You’re still going to be perfectly fine and get the other benefits of turf.”

Will real turf always rule?

Brent Batchelor, executive director of the Turfgrass Producers of Texas, Bay City, Texas, still thinks natural turf is the frontrunner. “On average, most people still prefer turf. It’s usually easier to maintain than a large area with some type of ground cover or other type of landscape bedding plants.”

And having so much of it out there gives TPT a chance to share information with the public. “It’s a constant opportunity for us as an association working with other educators to continue to educate people on the proper use of turf and that they can cut back on water and still have a very acceptable, very healthy lawn.”

Sipes also doesn’t see real turf going away; he thinks it will just continue to get more sustainable. “There’s a real push toward zoysias and specialty grasses that are designed to meet ever-changing customer needs and desires. They want a ‘greener’ green grass that takes less water and less fertilizer, and they are all worried about chemical runoff from their lawns.”

Location is also a factor. Artificial turf may not make sense on a 5-acre lot in Mississippi, but in Los Angeles, where you typically only have about 500 square feet of yard, maybe so.

At the end of the day, whether one is a fan of real grass, artificial turf or native landscaping only, it all comes down to personal preference. You can help your clients make the choices that will be most beneficial for them and help implement those choices in the most environmentally responsible way.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kristinsmithely@igin.com.