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Let's Talk Turf

Posted on September 7, 2015 at 5:15 PM

To Astroturf or Not to Astroturf

I’ve been teaching gardening classes and consulting on drought-tolerant landscaping recently and one thing I’ve been made acutely aware of is that there is a dearth of information on the ramifications of using artificial turf.  Some folks want to install artificial turf because they think it will be an easy, one-time solution to the problem of replacing their high-water-consuming lawn with a low-water alternative.  Others are dead-set against “Astroturf” and are outraged that others could even consider it a viable option.


Upon hearing first-hand accounts of those who have installed artificial turf, and further researching the subject on my own, I’ve come to agree with those who insist Astroturf is not the cure-all it’s touted to be.  Let’s start with the name.  When artificial turf was first introduced in 1965 it was called “ChemLawn.”  That really cuts to the heart of most arguments against its use.   It’s a chemical product, with all of the negative ramifications that we’ve come to know are associated with using chemicals in the garden, primarily depositing toxic ingredients into the natural world, causing much-documented harm to animals, insects, birds, people and marine life as well as poisoning groundwater, rivers, streams, oceans and soil.

The name Astroturf came about in 1966, a year after the product was introduced, with the first large-scale installation of artificial turf at the Houston Astrodome.  Now, almost 40 years after it was first sold,  there are only 2 Major League Baseball teams that still use Astroturf in their stadiums.   Why?  The reasons are plentiful:  expense to install and replace, care and maintenance needs, heat and odors, to name a few.

Now That's Hot

Artificial turf gets very hot.  Not a great scenario for athletes exerting themselves for 2-4 hours at a time.   It’s even hotter than asphalt by 30 degrees, and 60 degrees hotter than grass.  Who wants to play on that??   At those temperatures, Astroturf runs the risk of melting like the Wicked Witch of the West, which is a viable alternative name for this lingering drought, if you ask me.

I had one student tell me that their kids’ sports shoes melted on Astroturf.  As the turf melts and the little "blades of grass" start sticking together, artificial grass releases the chemicals that it's made up of, so it starts to smell like chemicals.  Who wants their kids, or anyone, inhaling chemicals as they run around in the heat?   

Even dogs agree, apparently, as one of my students reported that her dog would not walk on the artificial turf.  And even if he did, his urine would create yet another unwanted, odorous side effect.  Should he decide to do his big business on the Astroturf, it's no easy feat cleaning that up, either.  It either smears all over the fabric as you try to wipe it up or, should it dry on the fabric turf,  you’ll need a knife to pry it off.

What About Water?

What about just rinsing it off, you ask?  Not so fast, not so easy.  The fabric is not terribly permeable so rinsing off urine and other unwanted dirt is not as effective as you’d imagine.  Which brings us to another major drawback of using artificial turf:  if it does rain, most of that glorious,  free water will not be able to penetrate the fake lawn fabric and refill our historically low water table.  It'll either run off your property and be wasted, or pool on the spot, increasing the likelihood of the fabric developing a fungus. 

With the potential of a record-breaking 'El Nino' Winter weather system on the horizon, how can we afford to let all that precious water escape without capturing it?  A big part of the drought-tolerant landscaping revolution is enhancing the sustainability of our gardens by capturing as much water on-site as possible, whether it's occasional rainfall via swales, creek beds, berms and rainbarrels or regular irrigation from the hose or sprinklers.  Artificial turf prevents the majority of water in our yards from being captured.

The No-Maintenance Myth

Finally, the idea that once an artificial lawn is installed, all your garden maintenance troubles are over is, sadly, an erroneous one.  Artificial lawns must be brushed regularly--imagine running a pool brush over your yard--to keep the fake blades upright, resembling real grass.  The fabric must be rinsed regularly to keep it appearing clean and green; so much for not requiring any water. 

If your shoes or lawn furniture poke holes in the fabric, sections must be replaced rather than reseeded, as a natural lawn would be.   If you spill anything sticky on it, you will have a tough time cleaning the spot.  Even if you manage to clean the spot, you're likely to see mineral deposits from your sprinkler or hose water left on the fabric.

So what's a homeowner seeking to replace his or her lawn to do?

Healthy Alternatives

There are plenty of natural, living plant alternatives that can be used beautifully, safely, wisely as an alternative to high-water-use turfgrass lawns and headache-inducing artificial turf.  Low-growing, drought-tolerant plants like Hernaria glabra, Dymondia and Elfin Thyme top my list.


Hernaria glabra 'Green Carpet'                             Dymondia margaretae  'Silver Carpet'              Thymus serpyllum 'Elfin Thyme'

Hernaria glabra is that deep green that we're accustomed to seeing in our yards in the form of lawns.  It's slow-growing and tough enough to walk on.  Dymondia has medium green upper leaves and white on the undersides, giving it an overall grey appearance.  I like it best paired with vibrant blues and purples to offset the grey; it's rather underwhelming next to other greys, cement sidewalks or driveways.  Elfin Thyme has the deep green of Hernaria and lavender-colored flowers as well.  The only caution with Elfin Thyme is that bees love the flowers, so if you're allergic to bees, it's not the plant for you.     

Design-wise, you can install large expanses of low-water turf alternatives to create a lawn-like area in your garden, or you can interplant steppings stones and patio pavers with groundcovers so that water has a chance to percolate down to the water table through patios, driveways and walkways. 


Let it Be   

Finally, you don't have to do away with your traditional lawn altogether.   You can have turfgrass and still save water by  1.) reducing the size (square footage) of your lawn;   2.) letting the grass grow 3-4" long and keeping it that way.  The longer blades of grass will shade the soil, preventing moisture loss;  3.) not fertilizing during the hot summer months.  Don't encourage new growth!  New grow requires extra water, so just let the lawn be until increased irrigation appears naturally in the form of Winter or early Spring rains;  then you can apply some lawn  food.

If what we’re trying to accomplish here with the drought-tolerant gardening movement is to create healthier, more sustainable individual, community, and global environments, then artificial turf gets us no closer to our goal, but actually harms us both in the short term and in the long run.  We need natural plants to cool our environment via transpiration, to clean our air by trapping CO2 emissions in their leaves, to allow water to percolate down to and replenish our frighteningly low water table.  Agreed?




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