Should you fake the lawn?

Get the pros and cons of synthetic grass and other low-care alternatives

Artificial lawn in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Photo: Tom Schaller 

By Maile Meloy

There's just something beautiful and comforting about mown grass. Whether you're throwing a ball, lying in the shade on a hot day, or sitting outside on a warm night, a green lawn is a pleasure.

Writer Wallace Stegner, having grown up in dry, wild Saskatchewan, Canada, first saw a lawn at age 11 in Montana. "I stooped down and touched its cool nap in awe and unbelief. I think I held my breath ― I had not known that people anywhere lived with such grace."

Lawns are also an environmental nightmare if you live in a dry climate, and Stegner did try hard to remind people of the natural aridity of the West. I live in Los Angeles, where millions of gallons of drinkable water are dumped into lawns every day, year-round.

Compare: Lawns and the alternatives

Each of the hundreds of thousands of gas-powered push mowers that whine away, cutting that lushly watered grass, puts 11 times more pollution into the air every hour than a car. The leaf blowers ― illegal in many areas but widely used anyway ― are just as bad. The carbon footprint of L.A.'s lawns is enormous.

And then there's the constant, nerve-racking noise from all those mowers and blowers, on different lawns, on 
different days.

For a while, my husband and I dealt with the problem by not watering our lawn. Call it default xeriscaping: If you don't water, you miraculously don't have to mow. But it's not pretty. The weeds start to take over, and people stop picking up after their dogs, figuring that you don't really care. We did care about the grass ― we just didn't want 
it to grow.

Then we went to a party at the house of a landscape designer who watered, she said, for only eight minutes a week, and did her own gardening, with no mowing. This was real xeriscaping: She had succulents, and drought-tolerant trees, and pink-flowering cactus, and Mexican beach pebbles ― and two stunning green rectangles of perfect lawn in the back. "The grass," another guest whispered to me. "It's not real."

"It's not?" I asked. It looked gorgeously real.

"Touch it," she said.

I did, and it was true: The grass was fake.

It wasn't Astroturf, exactly, but long, smooth blades of grass that looked exactly like real grass but happened to be plastic. It had been laid down like a carpet, over prepared ground. She hosed it off sometimes, and it drained itself. It wasn't cheap, but given that she didn't have to mow, water, reseed, or fertilize, it would pay for itself in eight years. And then there was the peace of mind, the quiet, and the conservation of water. We had a solution.

Next: The backlash

 

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