Is Artificial Turf Right for You? 3 Things to Consider Before Installing a Fake Lawn
Because the grass isn’t always greener
By Ali Montag August 12, 2021
It’s the American ideal: a green lawn, neatly trimmed, and free of brown spots or blemishes. Like most American ideals, it comes at a high cost—unending weekends of fertilizing, mowing, and watering.
But what if you could have the perfect lawn without the maintenance, chemicals and pesticides, and the three trillion gallons of water that grass consumes each year? That’s the promise of artificial turf, a product proliferating across American yards as severe droughts strain our national water supply. In major cities like Las Vegas, Palm Beach, California, and even Boise, Idaho, homeowners all seem to be clamoring to replace their sod with yards of artificial turf.
Veer Singh, owner of four Purchase Green stores across California and Texas, has up to 100 clients interested in installing artificial grass at any time. “I’ve seen a huge adoption,” he says. “How will we fight drought? By eliminating ornamental lawns. That’s where a lot of our water goes.”
It’s been impossible to witness this year’s fires, droughts, and disasters without feeling compelled to reduce waste in our own backyards. As the environmentalist Wendell Berry wrote in his 1972 collection of essays Think Little, “There is no public crisis that is not also private.” But environmental scientists and landscape architects largely agree that artificial turf—which now covers 265 million square feet of land in the States—can cause more problems than it solves. So what should you do? Before scheduling that turf installation, here are three important things to consider.
Water conservation is multifaceted
According to San Clemente landscape designer Jodie Cook, although grass requires potable water and turf doesn’t, that’s too narrow a comparison. Other elements of the water cycle are a major issue. Plants, even grasses, create water themselves. “When you put turf down and replace a living plant, you’re removing moisture from the environment,” she explains. “You’re removing atmospheric water.”
Turf also impacts runoff. Plastic traps heat during the day and holds it through the night, meaning runoff water will leave turf hotter than it would natural grass. “That’s a problem for aquatic ecosystems,” Cook says. Rubber filler, the particulate layer that gives artificial turf its springy bounce, can wash away and contribute to microplastics in waterways.
Artificial turf’s impermeability can also prevent rain from returning to the soil to recharge groundwater, a concern that led Los Angeles to revoke turf rebates in favor of other options. But Singh says that the technology of artificial grass has improved in the last decade. So if you’re installing turf, be sure to look for brands that offer cooling features and water permeability.
Artificial grass isn’t green forever
At an average of $12 per square foot ($7,200 for a 600-square-foot yard) the installation of an artificial lawn will buy you years of maintenance-free greenery (or low maintenance, since turf still requires raking to maintain shape and re-topping of infill rubber to keep things bouncy). But eventually, those artificial lawns do degrade.
The average lifespan of artificial turf is about 10 years. That means unlike other landscaping costs, your upfront investment will depreciate over time. Many manufacturers offer warranties, Singh points out, so keep that in mind as you shop.
The alternatives may surprise you
Sloping lawns—artificial or real—aren’t your only options. “Lawns are nature purged of sex and death,” Michael Pollan wrote of his decision to break his homogenous grass into diverse garden spaces.
Instead of lawns, low-water herbaceous plants, native trees, and permeable ground covers like crushed stone or decomposed granite can be mixed together to create the space you want while also benefiting natural ecosystems, suggests Phoebe Lickwar, a founding principal at Forge Landscape Architecture.
First map out your design: Create areas for seating, spaces for kids and pets to play, and greenery. Then consider the low-water alternatives that may work. Permeable pavers that allow water to soak into the ground can be laid down for level surfaces to gather and sit. Native “no mow” grasses can also be planted for play areas.
Lickwar insists that ideas for low-water landscapes are everywhere you look. “Drive around, go to parks, go to natural areas, learn to identify plants,” she says. “Discover which ones really thrive in your area—even in the heat of summer.”