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Is Artificial Turf EVIL?

Updated: Mar 7

Everyone has seen a cell tower.


It towers in the air, a monument to communication by any means necessary, aesthetics be damned. Sometimes a cell provider decides it's too unsightly to be tolerated by the general public, and attempts to dress it up as a tree. Leggy, spindly branches in the exact same orientation, cut from the same dies and assembled in perfectly spaced lifts, adorn the "tree". It evokes an "Uncanny Valley" reaction from even the untrained eye. It's trying too hard to be something natural, and somehow, it sticks out worse than it would have they left it alone.


This is how many landscapers view artificial turf.


It looks a little too perfect. No thatch? No tire marks, brown spots, uneven spots, weeds, or water stains on the sidewalk? And that perfect, perfect, uniform green hue. Ugh.


"Just grow a lawn, daddy and grandaddy did it, and it was fine for them. Just use a little elbow grease. Just hire a gardener. It's only an extra $300 a month. It's only a few fertilizer treatments a year. Don't be lazy"


"The carbon footprint. The water. The mowing - why does ANYONE still have a lawn in 2022? My favorite football players play on fake grass all day, it's neat, its nice, it lasts forever"


I've heard every argument on either side of the Grass Wars. And as a landscaper myself, here's my hot take... Am I on Team Turf? Or am I a Sod Superfan?


"Mehhh, it really depends"


Anticlimactic, I know. As in life, there is a very distinct time and place for every decision or action.


Natural lawns are the benchmark every other landscape is judged by. Everything is either cheaper than it, uses less water, is uglier, is prettier, absorbs more water, absorbs less water, et cetera. So why do so many people hold dear to their fescues, bluegrasses, bermudas, ryes, and zoysias? Mostly tradition. Since the Garden of Versailles was completed in the 1660's, having a turf lawn meant "you made it" in life. This sentiment lingers in the American psyche, but should it?


Now, I want you to forget everything you ever learned about lawns and carbon emissions. There is not a single thing in our suburban lifestyle that sequesters more carbon, per square foot, than grass. Not trees, not water, not your Nissan Leaf, and not the wonky rock and succulent garden the permaculturalists told you would save the planet. Lawns don't kill the environment. People do. 30 years ago, gas equipment and toxic synthetic fertilizer was the norm, but now, you can walk into Lowe's and find electric equipment and safer fertilizers which provide the same results. Heck, we use electrics in our commercial landscape maintenance programs. I basically lived in grass and owned nothing but shoes with the toe caps stained green for the majority of the years I was studying environmental horticulture. I was "The Lawn Guy" and I probably will be so long as people call and offer money for grass related expenditures.


The serious environmental impact is the water use. It's the elephant in the California shaped room. There simply isn't enough potable water to go around. Sure, hooking up a greywater reclamation system is suprisingly easy, but even that could be more wisely appropriated than feeding the thirsty monster that is your lawn. You're on a well, you say? It doesn't affect you right? Look into the wellwater regulations being enacted for 2023 in California. It will, in a long enough timeline, affect you.


If you decide to own a turf lawn, budget not only for the installation cost, but for the increase in your water bill. Lawn grass needs 1-2 inches of water a week. If your lawn is 500 square feet, it may need 8 inches of water in the hottest month. Yep - your tiny 22x23lawn could need 2,805 gallons in months like July and August! In the town of Windsor, water costs $15 dollars per 1000 gallons. This hypothetical lawn could cost 20-30$ a month to own.


Besides the water bill, there may be more to turf than just tossin' down sod rolls. To install it properly, you must have good soil, which costs money if you don't. To keep it watered properly, you must have a reliable sprinkler system installed. (More money.) To meet code, each sprinkler system must be installed with a weather based irrigation controller, permits must be filed, plans must be drawn, and a professional irrigation auditor must survey the system. (Even more money!) If you're retrofitting an old lawn, expect to pay around 9-10 dollars per square foot for our licensed and competent team to perform these services. For a brand new landscape, expect to pay 10-16 per square foot.


The resulting living space you get from a lawn are unlike any other. Lawns invite activity - kids love to play on it, pets love to lounge in it, and you'll probably want to go outside barefoot every chance you get (Watch out for landmines if you own dogs.) Lawns are soft, cool, and smell of not only that fresh, organic, soul cleansing aroma, but of decadence as old as time. Your ancestors, who stood in the same blends of grass in the scottish highlands, the mediterranean lowlands, and all the fertile valleys between, smile upon you.


If lawn is the heart, artificial turf, or "Turf" for brevity, is the head.

It's the result of pencil pushers, petroleum execs, landscape tycoons, architects, and modern day movers and shakers reinventing the lawn in man's image. And the image, although admittedly cheesy and unappealing in the beta stages, is reaching closer to perfection everyday. Modern day artificial turf is a far cry from the mini-golf courses and houseboat decks of old. Cut a patch out of the enormous thousand pound rolls they're sold in, and you'll see a cross section that looks almost identical to real grass - A brown surface at the bottom, brownish-ruddy "Thatch" in the basal layer, and perfectly uniform little sprouts of lime, forest, and olive green to imitate the blades. This is known to installers as the "Pile" - and turf is often chosen for different uses based on it. Small pile heigths are good for rec areas, mini-golf courses, and high traffic areas. Tall pile heights are ideal for front yards and ornamental spaces.


Installing the turf is quite simple for workers with steady hands, quick minds, and strong spines. When the crew & I install the turf, we dig the soil down 4 to 6 inches to get rid of any organic layer that may settle and get lumpy over time. The soil gets hauled off in big semi-trucks, who return to the jobsite with a very fine rock aggregate called Decomposed Granite. Decomposed Granite is special - not only does it compact hard as a rock, but it leaves a buttery-smooth surface your house's floor would be jealous of. This surface is perfect for laying turf, which, if you've ever installed carpet, goes down in a similar manner. Workers move, unroll, and fluff the enormous rolls, and after sitting in the sun to flatten out, are meticulously cut, shaped, pinned down, jointed, and glued. Cutting and joining the turf needs to be precise and is not for the faint of heart. If the worker using the razor blade knife makes one mistake, he's ruined thousands of dollars in materials in a single stroke (And may win himself a trip to the hospital if his hand is in the way!). When the turf is lain, the infill, usually sand or pelletized rubber, is carefully spread and swept in until all the turf is weighed down to the ground and the piles stand straight up - just like the real thing!

A client can expect to pay 15-22 dollars per square foot depending on the shape of the area, machine access, and desired turf types and infill types.


Obviously, this is a serious investment - one that pays dividends in long term savings. Imagine that 500 square foot, 22x23 lawn I referenced earlier. Let's say the price was fairly mid-range, and came in at $9000 bucks (18 a square foot) total cost to install. If this customer got a $400 dollar water-savers rebate from the county, it would cost $8600. Let's also say he paid $250 a month for a lawn service and $30 a month in extra water bills. This project would pay for itself in 2.75 years! And since Winglewich Landscape Contracting offered easy, non-predatory project financing, the customer could prequalify for on their smart-device. Money was never an issue in the first place.


So if money isn't an issue, what is?

Oftentimes, a customer gets everything they want, only to find they wanted something else. Turf has one nasty, glaring downside, and it's heat.

Have you ever worn a polyester garment in the dead of summer? You can feel it heating up, getting sweaty and uncomfortable, possibly emitting that unpleasant synthetic odor as the sun beats down harder and harder. That's how it feels to lay in a synthetic turf patch in July. Turf is HOT. While real grass dissipates heat, fake grass reflects it and absorbs it. Many, many blends of turf have been concocted with heat dissipation in mind, but certain blends of turf have been measured at 160 degrees during heat waves. If your recreation space is going to be turf, make sure your contractor knows this and selects a cooler blend of turf for you.


Remember the decomposed granite portion of the install process, and how it compacts into an extremely firm layer? This raises its own host of concerns. Decomposed granite is unforgiving. If you fall onto artificial turf, it's a hard landing. Fortunately, our supplier sells a soft underlayment mat we install if slips, trips, or falls are a chief concern. Decomposed granite also doesn't drain well. If turf is installed in a low spot, it may hold water. Here at Winglewich Landscape Contracting, we get called out to fix drainage issues with alarming frequency. Make sure your contractor takes drainage into account.


Let's talk about your pets. I know you love 'em.

"Pet Parents" can be understandably split on artificial turf. Turf gets hot (if you're hot, they're hot). And if your pet pees in one spot all the time, it can stink to high heaven. We have ways of combatting this, namely installing a deodorizing infill and recommending antimicrobial blends for areas such as dog runs. The good news? No more brown spots, no holes, and no tracking mud in the house! (And if you were wondering how easy it is to clean up a "Suprise", it's extremely easy. We recommend letting it dry out so as not to smear it into the blades of turf.)


Finally, there's been rumors circulating that artificial turf harbors BPA's, which are known to contain endocrine disrupting chemicals. It's plastic, don't eat it. Older blends of turf weren't as safe, but thanks to a growing, and very vocal consumer base, most turf companies have stepped up their game and made their blends with health in mind. And if you're scared turf is going to expose you to microplastics or BPA's, please check your home for microwave dinners, canned food, disposable cutlery, and bottled beverages first.



As in life, and most landscaping jobs, there is never one solution for everyone. This is why we work carefully with our customers, putting in the time and the hours formulating dynamic, no B.S designs, and submitting competitive bids based on the best materials, living employee wages, and careful, courteous install practices. Whether it's "Time For Turf" or the clock reads "Sod-Thirty", smart Sonoma County homeowners, investors, and prime contractors #CallWingle!


707-755-0612.

If I don't respond, I'm probably trying to get a finicky turf seam juuuuust right.


- Sam Winglewich.








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