Artificial Grass: Just say, "No Thanks"

Who wouldn't want a lawn that stays forever green, is durable, and doesn't consume water or require feeding? Sounds great in theory, but we're not looking at the total emergy of artificial grass (aka artificial turf, synthetic turf, etc.).

Some applications of artificial turf might make sense. But for the home, we caution against it. photo cc Daniel Lobo

Here are some reasons we offer clients when they are considering artificial grass.

Artificial Grass was invented by Monsanto®

In the mid '60's, Monsanto® created and originally branded its synthetic turf as ChemGrass aka AstroTurf (Chemical Grass, how delicious). It was later rebranded AstroTurf after the Houston Astrodome installed it in 1966 and gained massive exposure through NFL marketing. The outgassing and noxious fumes from sunbaked plastic will repel not only insects, but your neighbors as well. And let's not forget the cancerous arsenic, benzene, lead, and mercury that they can contain. I do applaud Monsanto® for always finding ingenious ways to use chemicals, but unfortunately it's mostly for their profit and has unforeseen consequences (see GMOs and RoundUp® resistance for more info).

Artificial Grass? Don't we already have enough plastic in our oceans?

The second reason to skip on artificial grass is its carbon footprint. Sure, it may use less water in maintaining it, but the amount of water, petroleum, shipping, warehousing, packaging, marketing, installing is rarely considered. All the inputs and environmental costs that don't get passed onto the consumer are passed onto the environment and communities and people that are treated as dumping grounds. Yes, some turf companies may use recycled materials in the production of their artificial grass products, but recycling doesn't mean that the end product was produced free of energy. Using real plants and drought hardy turf alternatives like Dune Sedge (Carex pansa) or Clustered Field Sedge (Carex praegracilis) uses a much smaller amount of plastic (nursery trays and pots) that can be reused many times over before being recycled.

When artificial grass "dies", it's not food for others

Lifespans for artificial turf range from 15-25 years, depending on climate and UV exposure. What happens when the product has stopped looking brilliant green and is shedding minute plastic pieces into our waterways and oceans? It'll be hauled out, put in a dumpster, and taken to the landfill. What happens when a plant dies? It's leafy and woody bits breakdown with the help of living organisms essential to all life. Amazing creatures like fungi and bacteria chew up, dissolve, and digest those organic molecules turning them into delicious food for the next cycle of life. Say you yank out the dead citrus that always struggled. Almost every area in San Diego has a yard waste recycling program that turns those wastes into mulches and composts available for free or at a subsidized rate. Artificial grass is part of a linear waste stream. The same linear waste stream that is damaging our world at an alarming rate. By using water wise and drought hardy plants along with appropriate mulching and watering strategies, we can rebuild the cycle of life that created the world we have today.

Ummm, who turned up the heat?

For those living on the coast, you may not fully appreciate just how intense our summers get her in our Mediterranean/desert climate. Inland temperatures can be well over 20°F hotter. With current trends showing ever hotter summers and more mild winters, we don't need things that radiate more heat. You may have heard of the term "heat island." If not, it's when a large mass absorbs sunlight and UV radiation and then gives off that heat creating a hotspot or "island" in the surrounding ambient air temperature. Artificial grass does just that. Clemson professor, L.B. McCarty, took reflected heat samplings from a variety of surfaces under full sun, and the results aren't in artificial grass's favor.

Now, imagine a yard or landscape planted with shade producing shrubs and trees and how much cooler the surrounding air would be. Photos courtesy L.B. McCarty, Clemson University

Thanks for the short visit, rainwater!

We've been hydrophobic for far too long. We grade, compact, and flatten our landscapes and housing sites. Gutters, diversion channels, and culverts are installed to shunt water away as fast as possible. Then, in an act of lunacy, we import 80-90% of our water from far flung places to irrigate and satiate our thirst. The cheapest, most effective place to store rainwater is in healthy, microbial rich soil. 12" of healthy top soil can hold up to 3" of water. Not to mention the capabilities of rain tanks or underground cisterns for capturing rainwater for future use. Artificial turf, to look good, usually requires a firm and compacted base sometimes installed with concrete. A drainage point is then needed since to remove rainwater and shunt it away to the storm drain system, increasing channelization of streams, additional pollution runoff, and no moisture for our brittle soils. Here are some examples of a recent artificial turf installation in Tierrasanta.

Vibratory compactor and concrete are used for artificial grass foundation prep leading to an impervious foundation.

Water, hardly even knew ya.

Nice and firm. Adios agua.

Some sites can infiltrate and drain water through the turf, but that can also lead to pores for weeds and grasses to sprout through. But, on the bright side, rainwater could be captured and stored for other irrigation use, but refer to my points above as to why artificial grass is still a less-than-favorable option.

Well, I want my grass gone, don't want artificial turf, what now?

Thankfully, there exist myriad options for replacing your lawn. The ones we like to offer our clients are:

California Native Plant Butterfly and Bee Garden

We can design and install a plant palette that provides pollinator habitat, offer shows of color throughout the year, and smells great, all while using less water. Our team will also identify the existing rain, condensation, and greywater sources on your site that can be used to further lessen your reliance on city water. Combined with appropriate mulches to preserve soil moisture and efficient drip irrigation systems, you'll have a gorgeous alternative to your lawn in 3-6 months. Best part? With our expertise, some of these installations can actually be removed from irrigation systems altogether due to their native hardiness.

Xeric or Succulent Landscape

Thankfully, our Mediterranean climate exists throughout the world so we can plant hardy things like Aloes, Agaves, Stonecrops, etc. to brighten and delight. These plants come in a vast array of sizes, color, variegation, and hardiness. Choose from a stone, succulent, or mulch ground cover (you can mix-and-match, too, we encourage it!) to reduce soil moisture loss. We also love pairing xeric species with natives to create unique combinations to extend seasonal flower shows.

Edible Gardens

While not the most water miserly of installs, you at least can get a tangible yield out of your investment in the form of delicious, organic produce. We can help you select the crops and edibles that will grow well in your microclimate. Have lots of lawn to remove? Why not create an orchard with climate appropriate plants that can be fed by your greywater and rainwater? Uh, macadamia anyone? Delicious trees like pomegranates, figs, zapote, mulberry, loquat, pineapple guava, etc. all grow and thrive in our environment when planted appropriately.

Turf Alternatives

So, you have a dog and still want Fido to romp and play. You can do that with selecting sedges and native grasses that can take a mowing (or leave them lanky for a cool, draping effect). Carex spp. species work well in various parts of San Diego, as do other less water thirsty grasses like Buffalo grass.

Create New Outdoor Spaces

Our climate is conducive to outdoor activity for good portions of the year. Why not reclaim that turf for an extended outdoor kitchen or entertainment space? Got kids? Lets come up with something creative and fun to distract entertain them!


Or, take a little bit of everything and create more visual interest in your landscape. Every site has a variety of microclimates where certain species grow better than others. With our site consultations and landscape design services, we will help craft the yard you desire that also needs less water, and is site appropriate.

Hope that helps!

Maybe you've reconsidered installing artificial grass on your site. If not, no worries, we still love you anyway and we're certain the benefits outweighed the costs and hope you enjoy it. Check out this Houzz article on artificial grass for inspiration. Still on the fence about whether or not to go fake? Here are some more reasons not to install artificial grass or synthetic rubber groundcovers and turfs. Thanks and we hope to be working with you soon!

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