(Published by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on August 2, 2014.)
It’s long been considered the bad toupee of the landscaping world by people recalling the atrocious-looking fake grass of earlier years or remembering football players who got the equivalent of rug burns when tackled on the stuff.
While scoffing might still be a common response, the artificial turf industry has quietly reinvented itself in recent years and has been rapidly making converts among residential and commercial customers fed up with the demands of planting, watering, mowing, edging, feeding, weeding, aerating, patching and all the other necessities in nurturing a real lawn.
“I had an area in the front with a large tree and I couldn’t get the grass to grow,” explains Clarence Parkison of Livermore. Now, his faux turf not only looks good — “nice and green, trimmed,” he says — but his city’s recent water restrictions would likely doom a real lawn.
Water is also an issue in Morgan Hill, where resident Helena Lowe explains that “All my neighbors’ grass is dead. It’s just horrific. And mine is beautiful and green. Everyone always asks me, ‘Who’s taking care of your lawn?'”
Both Lowe and Parkison opted for higher-end, domestic-made ersatz turf from one of the several regional installers that routinely get glowing comments on social media. Prettier than an arid xeriscape of colored rocks, today’s startlingly realistic artificial grass has come a long way in quality and practicality, with many U.S.-made products even being recyclable, non-flammable, lead-free and non-toxic, making them fine for kids and pets.
But they’re not cheap. “The initial outlay is expensive,” admits Burlingame resident Maureen Supanich. “But when you come down to it, it’s really reasonable,” she says, considering the costs of lawn care, plus paying a gardener if pushing a mower isn’t your thing.
According to Lance Schepps of South San Francisco-based OneLawn, whose firm manufactured and installed Supanich’s turf, “For a residential application, you’re looking at between $10 and $15 a square foot, installed.” He compares this to natural turf prices starting at $2 a square foot for the cheapest options and going up to $6 per square foot or more if irrigation has to be added.
“You may spend 50 to 60 percent more for an artificial turf system than natural grass because sod’s very cheap,” explains Brad Borgman of Heavenly Greens, a San Jose artificial turf installer. “The payback, if you’re going with artificial, is anywhere from three to six years depending on your water consumption and how you’re using the surface.”
While mock grass doesn’t require much, consider it low maintenance rather than no maintenance. According to Gabriel Hernandez from Bay Area installer Better Than Real Artificial Grass, “Remove yard debris. Depending on foot traffic, brush the blades up. That’s pretty much it. If they have a dog, we advise they rinse off the lawn once a week.”
Warranties from reputable firms like those of Hernandez, Borgman and Schepps are in the neighborhood of 10 years but, as Schepps notes, “There’s no odometer reading on these lawns,” with heavily used sports fields and pet runs taking more abuse than make-believe lawns that just get admired from afar.
Fabricated from blends of polyethylene, polypropylene and sometimes nylon to have the length, thatch and colors of various grass species, synthetic sod has a few issues besides cost. About eight degrees hotter on sunny days than the outside temperature, it can’t stay cool like natural grass that has water running through it. More problematic is bright sun reflecting off windows at certain angles, which can actually melt patches of plastic turf. Reputable installers recommend adding external screens to cut the glare.
But there’s no truth to the rumor that it’s unsafe for kids. In fact, quite a few schools and playgrounds in the region have artificial turf, including the San Mateo Park School, Kid’s Corner Pre-School and Daycare in Fremont and even Palo Alto’s Ronald McDonald House, where immune-compromised kids can actually play on the back lawn, which might be taboo on real grass.
The Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, which teaches kids from pre-school through eighth grade, recently replaced its first fake-grass play field with a new counterfeit lawn after 13 years of successful use. Stomped on by hundreds of kids daily, the artificial grass enables the center to use its field year round and drastically cuts maintenance costs.
However, pseudo lawns take some effort and skill to install. “We have to build a drainage space” under the turf, Hernandez explains. He says this involves carting away three inches of surface, then laying and compacting crushed rock that resides under the plastic grass. Occasionally, additional drainage channels are also put in.
Some sort of weed screen is included in the higher-end domestic products and gopher barriers are optional. The last step in the installation is sprinkling “infill” made from sand and recycled, crumbled rubber into the blades to function like synthetic soil that also acts as ballast. Various blends are available depending on how the faux grass will be used: as a standard lawn, putting green, dog run, sports field, play yard or other purpose.
Given the expertise required to install artificial turf, the DIY contingent might end up with a new lawn that actually does look fake because of awkward edges and the most common problem — obvious seams. “I generally tell people that if they don’t have any experience in doing seams, I wouldn’t tackle it unless you’re a master carpet layer,” Schepps says.
The learning curve is so steep that “We don’t let our own crew members touch a seam for about a year,” he explains.
Rolls of artificial turf are widely available from installation firms, home-improvement centers and even large nursery chain Summer Winds, but “I would never install it myself,” admits a Bay Area Home Depot sales associate who declines to provide his last name. “We do get people who do it — but not correctly,” he adds.
For those not daunted by the difficulty, artificial turf can be purchased at retail from installation firms, home-improvement centers and even large nursery chain Summer Winds. But there’s more to be wary of than just seaming. Says Borgman: “Making the first cut off the roll, for example. Making sure the grain goes in the same direction. Making sure you have the right foundation of base material underneath.”
Better to have the pros put in your sham lawn to ensure that visitors have the same response as those enviously running their fingers over Helena Lowe’s plastic blades. “I tell everybody to get one of these lawns. And they are,” she reports. “I have a bunch of friends who have already put in these greens.”