Artificial grass is a horror
I pretty grandly call the area at the end of my garden stairs “Lurcher’s Leap”. The grass here is ragged and covered in grooves made by my dog Wolfie when he hit the ground at full speed after taking all four steps from the terrace in one joyful single stroke.
“Did you think of artificial turf?” recently asked another dog owner. Could the prospect of pristine greenery all year round beckon me, I asked myself? Thousands of gardeners were convinced that when looking for a stress-free green space, they would swap real grass for fake grass.
I asked advice from the meteorologist and avid gardener Peter Gibbs, who was researching man-made lawns for the BBC Radio 4 program Costing the Earth. He tells me he wouldn’t choose a fake for his own garden, but adds, “I hate judging other people for it, especially in smaller gardens where you may have a problem or not be interested in gardening, but rather to you I just want the kids to be able to play somewhere. “
The appeal is obvious. From scarifying and feeding to raking and mowing, maintaining a lawn is a hassle for many. I know I would much rather do pottery or cut herbs or sow sweet peas in my greenhouse. Not only do you save time caring for real grass, but you also avoid wasting water, fertilizer and mowing fuel – that is the argument.
Lancashire-based garden designer Lee Burkhill attempted to garden without plastic in 2019. He’s looked at the pros and cons of man-made lawns and warns me of the idea that it will be maintenance free.
Autumn flowering cyclamen hederifolium © Graham Prentice / Alamy
“It’s like a massive doormat outside,” says Burkhill. That said, while I could take the mower out of use, anything that lands on the surface – leaves, dog waste, spilled compost – will stay there until it’s removed. Artificial turf needs to be brushed regularly, can harbor moss like real grass and needs to be hosed down in hot weather if it smells like a buildup of dog or fox urine.
The sand that fills the plastic blades may also need to be freshened annually, and broken glass or spilled paint can cause permanent damage. Instead of feeling cool grass between your toes on a summer’s day, artificial lawns can get uncomfortably warm. And if you drop a burning cigarette or hot coal from the grill, the resulting mark – in the form of a melted spot – is permanent.
So there may be times when I exchange one set of maintenance tasks for another. But that’s not the deal breaker for me. When I look at my bumpy lawn as I write, he stares me in the face: the wildlife that treats my grass as a vital property. There are gangs of starlings who rush in to look for leather jackets in the lawn; Snail-eating toads (inexplicably christened “Jeffery” by my nine-year-old son) found snails after dark.
And there are the pollinators: the honeybees and bumblebees that feed on the clover; and self-healing flowers that pepper the grass in summer. Even the bare patches caused by lurchers serve a purpose, providing harvesting sites for female red mason bees to gather soil for the cells they build to protect their young.
All of these creatures have suffered from declining populations over the past few decades, so it just doesn’t make sense to me to scrub a blooming patch of lawn and replace it with an ecological dead zone.
Despite its imperfections, my lawn will last much longer than a fake one. Even the finest artificial turf will likely need to be replaced after 10 or 15 years. Gibbs’ Radio 4 documentary noted that while successful artificial turf recycling is possible, it is not an easy process.
Sand or rubber fillings must be removed first, not to mention the fuel miles it takes to transport rolls of superannuated turf to recycling centers. Real lawns that have been torn out to be replaced by fake ones often end up in landfills.
If you are convinced of the arguments against artificial turf, there are options. Burkhill says. Permeable paving combined with gravel work in some situations, while gravel gardens with hard herbs, wood shavings or bark for children’s playgrounds and permeable paving with perennials close to the ground offer plastic-free alternatives.
However, it is easy to see why garden owners are puzzled by the choices, claims, and counter claims related to artificial lawns. It is nearly impossible to come up with numbers on the real impact of artificial turf versus real grass or hard landscaping alternatives like concrete or paving stones.
Gibbs and I both agree that we need clarity about the environmental impact of our gardening choices and regulation of the lawn industry so that consumers understand where their lawns are coming from – and where they will ultimately end up.
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For me, the many benefits of real grass – even spotty, tumbling traumatized grass like mine – far outweigh the temporary thrill of a picture-perfect lawn. Plus, my lawn doesn’t take up that much time because I’m the exact opposite of the gardener who spend hours creating the perfect bowling green.
I’m a big part of the lawn care school “If it’s green, it’s a lawn”. Daisies, clover, dandelions, and buttercups coexist with the grasses and knit together to form an ever-evolving mat of leaves that I never water or dose with a weed killer.
The wonderful thing about the types of grass commonly used for lawns is that they are some of the toughest plants on earth and they can recover from drought, damage, and even burrowing. My grass may turn brown in the summer, but in the fall it’s emerald green again, which is aided by the presence of nitrogen-fixing shamrocks. It is fed maxicrop algae meal lawn manure very occasionally, but receives most of its nutrients from leaving some of the mowings in situ to rot and enrich the lawn.
There are a few tricks I can use to make my lawn look better than it really is. A sharply cut edge gives the entire lawn definition, while splashes of color distract the eye from worm and moss spots.
In autumn, candy-pink clumps of Cyclamen hederifolium glow, and in February and March an ever-growing strip of Crocus tommasinianus “Ruby Giant” glows purple and distracts the eye from the mud bath at Lurcher’s Leap.
It’s almost time to plant onions to naturalize them in your lawn, from crocuses and miniature daffodils to tulips of select species like Tulipa sprengeri: the standard advice is to cut a window in the lawn, carefully lifting it up the ground Score underneath and place the bulbs on the surface and place the lawn back on top.
As a forgetful guy, I usually spot a bag of unplanted onions on the back of a closet. So I land on my hands and knees while the light fades, cutting cuts in the lawn to insert individual onions while the dog shivers contemptuously and wonders what on earth I’m doing with his favorite patch of grass. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jane Perrone is horticulturalist and presenter of the podcast “On The Ledge”
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