Mar 19, 2007

Bringing It All Home

The recent debate over at GardenRant about the virtues and vices of artificial turf has kicked into high gear a project I take very personally: developing my own yard.

I've taken my own advice and lived with the place as-is for a full year now: observed the way the seasons play with the land, taken my time developing a design, and wonder of wonders, not adopted too many orphan plants without digging the holes first. But of all the decisions I've had to make, the play lawn is the hardest.

One point conspicuously absent from the GR discussion is the suitability of artificial (or for that matter natural) turf as a play surface for children. Glib comments such as "If you can't grow a real lawn, give it up and move to a condo!", "I say ditch the whole lawn thing and plant lettuce," and "I'd rather have no lawn than a fake one" obviously were written by folks who don't have active children.

Much more sensible are the perspectives of Bay Area designer Michelle Derviss and avid plantsman Max W, who deftly points out that "What most people from summer rainfall areas fail to realize is that a lawn is a priori artificial in the rest of the country. Of course, all lawns are by definition artificial whatever the local rainfall patterns because they only exist by human intervention -- artifice."

But I digress, which is emblematic of exactly what I've been doing with our own yard: doing everything except pulling the trigger on natural or artificial. A biosystem and water bills? Or conservation and petrochemical manufacturing? According to the Irvine Ranch Water District down south, a typical installation of about 750 square feet of synthetic turf — yep, that's me — "can conserve approximately 22,000 gallons of water per year." Holy worm castings! The UC Davis Lawn Watering Guide confirms it, and at my current utility rates, that's about $1350 a year.

Probably because artificial turf is a newer invention, there tend to be lots of these sort of statistics available touting its advantages. I figured the Turfgrass Producers International would be equally biased in the other direction; but unfortunately, the strongest doubts they can cast on their competition run along the lines of, "What gases would be released into the atmosphere in the event of a fire on the artificial surface?" and "What are the health concerns related to the ingestion of ground rubber particles that takes place from sliding face-first on the surface or dropping and re-inserting a particle-covered mouth-piece onto the field?"

OK, I'm being a little rough on the TPI guys. But seriously, why aren't there any objective comparisons out there? Perhaps it's because neither product is objectively better than the other, only better for you. Assuming you need a turf area, is the only suitable location in shade? Is the artifical turf you're considering made with recycled materials or new? Does it require crumb infill? What kind? How much water will living grass require in the same location (and don't forget the electricity for holding those irrigation valves open, and gas or electricity for the mower, and fertilizer)? And so on, ad infinitum.

Obviously I'm not as well informed on this issue as I should be. So as I continue my education, you'll be the beneficiary. Of course, if you can shed any light on this whole damn quandary, please (please!) feel free.


Brian said...

There's one big problem I have with artificial lawns. What happens to it when it's time to get rid of it? I agree, lawns are an abomination in an area that with desert conditions 8 months of the year, but at least it's not another synthetic to be tossed into a landfill when it's time has come. I have dogs, not kids and I believe I'll always have some portion of my yard as lawn. I also know, if your soil is managed correctly, water use can be lowered significantly. I can improve soil condition to a point where water use can drop by 75%. That's not a bad trade off for keeping a living system as opposed to supporting another non biodegradable synthetic.

John said...

Excellent point, Brian. Plastic is plastic, no matter what it emulates. But tell me more about what kind of soil conditioning can reduce water use by 75% -- if I can keep a durable, shade-tolerant lawn going on 5,000 gal/yr instead of 20,000, then grass is back in the game.