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« Keep off frosty lawns! | Main | New reglulations on size of front lawns »

Consumers Have a Choice - Grass or Polyethylene

Grass Clippings - Plastic GrassIn the 2015 regular legislative session in California, 62 bills were introduced that had some reference to drought in their text.

The Legislature ultimately passed five bills designed to manage the crippling drought throughout the state.

Two of those bills, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, dealt with the matter of drought-tolerant landscaping.

AB 1164 forbids any governmental body – city or county – from “prohibiting the installation of drought tolerant landscaping, synthetic grass or artificial turf on residential property.”

AB 349 similarly forbids home owners associations from making the same prohibitions.

The intent, of course, is to give all homeowners the flexibility and latitude they want to reduce their water usage. The specific approval of synthetic grass or artificial turf – the terms are synonymous, but for this discussion I’ll just call it artificial turf – raises some interesting questions.

Some commentary indicates that while the municipality or home owners associations may still impose reasonable standards of aesthetics or scale, the effect of such standards should not be so burdensome so as to effectively prevent or discourage the installation of a drought-tolerant landscape.

For instance, the city of Beverly Hills permits front lawns of artificial turf subject to the following conditions:

• Synthetic turf is limited to 70 percent of the required landscaped area in a front yard and no more than 40 percent of the entire front yard;
• Eighteen-inch landscaped buffer must be provided between the front property line and synthetic turf;
• A 3-foot buffer must be provided between synthetic turf and a single-or multifamily building;
• Synthetic turf is not allowed in the public right of way;
• Synthetic turf may not be installed within the drip line of any native or heritage tree.

Before rushing out to place an order for artificial turf that never again requires watering or mowing, homeowners would evaluate carefully whether this is the right material for their landscape.

While there may be a financial disincentive because of the cost of installation, a major reason for caution is environmental. Consider these attributes of artificial turf:

• The installation process requires that the subsurface needs to be well-packed before installing the turf. As a consequence, water will not easily move through the packed surface into the strata below. Water will drain off rather than percolate into the soil.

• In a comparative study of natural turf versus synthetic turf done by Brigham Young University, the surface temperature of the artificial turf was 37 degrees higher than asphalt and 86.5 degrees hotter than natural turf.

One consequence of this baking effect is that the soil loses its capacity to sustain microbes, worms and other organisms necessary to soil health. It may also damage or kill tree and shrub roots that seek to grow in that space. (Note the Beverly Hills requirement of installing artificial turf beyond the drip line.)

Higher heat retention will add to the “heat island” effect created by hard and reflective surfaces in the urban setting. Scientists are concerned that growing numbers of such “hot spots” will negatively affect otherwise healthy trees and shrubs, not just those in close proximity.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Heat islands can affect communities by increasing summertime peak energy demand, air conditioning costs, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, heat-related illness and mortality, and water quality.”

• Artificial turf is not maintenance-free, particularly when dogs or cats have access to it. Regular washing may be required.

• Artificial turf is a petroleum product, and there is debate as to the health effects, particularly on children. Most such concern, however, focuses on artificial turf for athletic fields and playing surfaces rather than front lawns.

• It is believed that artificial turf has a useful life span of 10 years, after which it is consigned to the landfill and will not degrade or rot.

Should artificial turf be avoided at all cost? Not necessarily. But it should not be the automatic response when asking yourself, “what shall we do about the front lawn?”

For many situations, a landscape or nursery professional can recommend attractive alternative “lawn-like” planting material.

For the sake of the health of the environment, consider other options for turf grass replacements or other landscape solutions that use native and drought-tolerant plants.

Gene Ekenstam is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.

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