Want a green lawn that needs no irrigation or mowing? That sounds ideal. As with most products that sound too good to be true, so it is with artificial turf. Modern artificial turf is not much like the Astroturf of old. Artificial grass blades are usually made of polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon, which create soft, harder or stiff blades respectively. These are anchored in an infill material that is usually a mixture of sand and ground up recycled automobile tires among other things. Utilizing recycled tires should give this product big bonus points; however, this material will leach heavy metals into the ground, contaminating the dirt for decades. When heated, the plastic and rubber will release toxins into the air as well.
Heat is the biggest problem with artificial turf. The infill made of plastic and rubber is a thermal mass: as it sits in the sun it absorbs and radiates heat. For example, at 6 pm, an hour before the Women’s World Cup in Canada began at the end of a nice 75 degree day, the artificial turf on which they were to play measured 120F. Where daytime temperatures rise to 100F, the turf could measure up to 180F. Having turf where children or animals play can cause burns.
Radiating heat from thermal mass such as hardscape (usually cements and asphalt), expanses of gravel, and especially artificial turf will heat up homes and is a contributor to more energy usage for air conditioners and fans. In arid areas there might not be much rainfall but there can be fog and ambient moisture that normally collects on leaves and drips as a form of irrigation. Good pollenization partially depends upon moist, still air because pollen dries rapidly. Radiating heat and reflected light (the albeido effect) from these surfaces help to dry out moist air and cause air movement as the heat rises. The more rising heat, the windier and drier the atmosphere becomes and the less fruit and vegetable set there is. As artificial turf heats up to a third again of the atmospheric temperature and continues to radiate into the evening it is even more damaging to atmospheric moisture than bright cement.
The claim that artificial turf greatly reduces the amount of toxins in the air that would be released from lawnmowers, and save thousands of gallons of water otherwise used to irrigate lawns is using select ideas while ignoring others. Artificial turf may not need mowing, but it needs leaf-vacuuming and hosing off, especially if there are animals using it. On soil bird, reptile and pet feces are part of the fertilization process and are quickly decomposed by microbes. On artificial turf the feces adhere to the plastic blades and are difficult to remove with even a power wash. Urine seeps into the rubber matting and cannot be completely removed, smelling strongly of urine for the life of the turf.
Native plants and grasses improve the soil, hold rainwater, moderate heat and wind, and offer habitat for hundreds of birds, mammals and insects. Areas that are covered in artificial turf are sterile, harmful to animals, people and the environment, and offer no educational value. Planted areas are magnets for wildlife that are starved – literally – for decent food, water and shelter.
The life of some artificial turf products is estimated to be 10 – 15 years, with a warranty usually for 8. If the grass is being heavily used the life is reduced. The turf doesn’t look new up until the warranty expires; the blades break off and the plastic and rubber slowly break down further been compressed, dried out and imbued with heavy metals.
The cost of installing artificial turf is heavy. It must be laid on scraped, level, rockless dirt, so there are earthworks involved. There are many types of artificial turf and they have a broad price range. A 12’ x 75’ strip of low-grade turf from a chain hardware store is currently over $1500.
What are the alternatives in this time of water scarcity? For areas that must have grass, tough native grass mixtures are a great alternative. See the selection that S&S Seeds has of native Californian grasses; they even offer sod. Lawns should be mowed higher and more frequently for best root growth, and the cuttings left to mulch in. For least evaporation and for pathogen control watering should be done between 3 AM and 9 AM. See this site for more lawn tips.
Stop using commercial fertilizers, which cause plants to need more water. Use actively aerated compost tea, which is easy and inexpensive to make, completely non-toxic and causes deeper root growth and therefore healthier, longer-lived and more resilient grass. Please explore the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham, soil microbiologist, who has perfected the use of AACT on properties worldwide. Instructions for making AACT can be found here.
For those who don’t need a lawn at all, native landscapes can be lush and beautiful and after being established dislike summer water. You can see what native and non-native plants are safe to plant near your house if you live in a fire zone with the County of San Diego’s Defensible Space Plant List. Please see the books The California Native Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren, and California Native Plants for The Garden by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien.
The secret to water storage in the soil for both lawns and plants is to dig in as much organic matter into the soil that you can. Artificial turf is also not permeable, so it channels rainwater rather than harvesting it. Old wood is best, but cuttings, organic fabric and paper can all be used to hold rainwater. One inch of rain on one acre in one hour is 27,154 gallons of water. The best place to hold that water for your plants –or to hold precious irrigation water – is in the soil. Wood in the soil along with top mulch will water and feed plants for months, as well as cleanse and build soil. This practice is called hugelkultur. Please research hugelkultur on the Internet for more information.
If you are considering purchasing artificial turf or gravel for your yard or common area, please think again. It is adding to the problem of global warming, it is an elimination of even more habitat – even the scarce habitat that a lawn can offer – and will become an expensive problem in a short time.