Is fake grass the lawn of the future?

Posted by Demetro Carbone on June 12, 2013

It’s environmentally friendly, requires no mowing or fertilizing, and all you have to do is hose it down when it’s dirty. But are you ready to give up the smell of freshly cut grass for synthetic turf?

Like many proud homeowners, John Chen doesn’t need much prodding to brag about his lawn. The Seattle business owner will wax poetic about its perfect shade of green, its flawless uniformity and the way it neatly frames the flagstones leading to his front door. In the summer, Chen likes to pad around the yard barefoot, watching his three children dash through the grass and hurl themselves down the family Slip ’N Slide. But Chen’s favorite thing about the lawn? It’s made of plastic.

In a tiny but growing number of patches in suburbia, low-maintenance yard mavens are rolling out a high-tech version of the stuff that used to adorn concrete balconies — and are calling it their lawn. Don’t laugh. The makers of the grass say artificial lawns are one of the few landscaping businesses that have turned out to be recession-proof. Neighbors may be puzzled by the sight, but makers say they’ve been hard at work on the fake fuzz, developing new grasses with multicolor blades and even extra padding for tush-friendly picnicking.

Certainly, both the economy and environmental issues work in faux grass’s favor. Though far more expensive than real grass to buy and install — it can cost up to three times as much as natural turf, or roughly $6,000 to $8,000 for a typical lawn — the lifetime savings add up. After all, the lawns require no seeding, fertilizing or trimming; homeowners do little more than hose down the grass when it’s dirty and occasionally break out a rake to fluff up any matted patches. The industry also plays up its environmental benefits, including fewer pollution-spewing mowers, a reduction in harsh chemicals such as fertilizer or insecticide and, most important, less water use. In drought-prone regions, municipalities like Los Angeles County have even provided tax rebates for residents who remove areas of natural lawn.

So is faux grass the lawn of the future — or a glorified plastic carpet?   Here’s the skinny:

There’s a reason, of course, that artificial turf used to be seen as little more than “Brillo pad on a sponge.” That’s how Annie Costa, executive director of the Association of Synthetic Grass Installers, describes the earliest incarnation of the stuff, which debuted on football fields in the mid-1960s. Critics decried it as stiff and bristly, dangerously slick when wet, and unforgiving if you fell. But today’s residential turf has changed dramatically. Companies make it more porous for better drainage and soften up the base with sand or rubber chips. The latest grasses attempt to echo the real thing down to the tiniest detail, like using a mix of green tones on the individual blades, adding “dirt” by applying a tan tone to the “thatch” base or even weaving in bits of brown yarn to mimic bits of dead grass. Many companies model their products on specific regional species of grass, each with multiple versions: close-cropped for lawn neatniks and longer varieties for those who like a lush look.

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When David Lewis of Lake Elsinore, Calif., went synthetic, he opted for longer blades and a darker green color — a look he could never achieve with his natural lawn, which on 100-plus-degree summer days turned to dust, and on rainy days a mud pit. Tired of resodding twice a year — not to mention the endless mowing and watering — the 39-year-old business owner was more than happy to plunk down $5,000 to see installers peel away his old lawn. Now, he says, his two dogs and two small kids can romp and roll around without tearing up the turf, or suffering the plastic rug burn of yore. And perhaps best of all is how grassy it looks.

“People have to go up close to it,” he says, “before they say, ‘Wow, this isn’t real.’”