Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Odd and Unnatural? In Favor, I Think...

I've been preoccupied with the idea of artificial turf for quite a while now, and I'm not sure if I've completely sorted out my thoughts yet.  But here goes.

Victor's photo of newly installed synthetic grass
Recently my friend Victor had artificial grass installed in front of his family-owned nursery Plants For All Seasons.  When I first saw the pictures, I was surprised -- it looked exactly like beautiful, healthy turf.  The local SYNLawn distributor, Strickly Green Grass, installed it as a demonstration piece, using two different kinds in two different areas.

My snooty initial reaction?  I turned up my nose.  Who in their right mind would install artificial grass in their garden?  Why, that's as bad as those hanging baskets of red silk geraniums!  Right?!?

The same grass, several weeks later
Then I got to thinking a little bit more.  Victor believes that water conservation will drive installation of synthetic grass, and that's a pretty serious topic.  Even here, where we generally get more than 50" of rain per year, ground water supplies are limited.  We don't pay even a fraction of what our water's really worth.  So I had to ask myself what my problem really was.

Because I myself have criticized the Texas lawn culture and deplored the incredible amount of water applied to turfgrasses.  (Which is generally far in excess of what the grass actually needs, but that's for another blog.)  I have shaken my head at carpets of grass verging on 4 inches thick, the product of overfertilization, followed by overwatering, and then the application of fungicides to combat disease induced by overfeeding and overwatering.  And I had to ask myself this question: Which is worse, synthetic grass or grass kept perfectly green by such extremely artificial measures?

Looks pretty natural to me...
My own lawn is rarely watered.  I allow it to turn brown during times of drought, and it generally recovers.  It is properly dormant in the winter and I fertilize once or twice a year, well after the weather warms up.  It is mowed once a week almost all year long, though the winter mowings usually just provide me with shredded leaves for the compost pile.  An acceptable, but far from perfect lawn: that's my own preference.

For those compelled to have bright green grass, all summer and all winter long, perhaps synthetic turf is the answer.  I think it's odd and unnatural and I wonder what the heck it's made of.  But it bothers me less than lawns that have been fertilized, watered, and treated to within an inch of their lives.  And I've always been very supportive of the gardener's right to do odd things in the garden.  So if you install synthetic grass in your front yard, I may chuckle about it.  But I'll fight by your side when the Homeowner's Association comes to get you.

You can read about Victor's synthetic grass installation in his blog, The Dirt.


  1. Because it is rather attractive it gives you the chance to contemplate it's usefulness and rationalize it's existence. We can hardly keep the plants watered in front of the nursery... much less the turf. We haven't had rain in well over a month and none expected anytime soon.

  2. Okay, I've got to rant a little. Granted, I've done no research into this, but I think this seems like a REALLY bad trend. Leaving aside the fact that there will be no squirrels digging, no birds hunting, no toads, fewer lizards (I realize this might sound like a positive to some, but I think it would be a crying shame), don't our grassy yards contribute to CO2 reduction? If people are going to hack down all the trees, let's at least encourage them to replace them with something else that lives and grows! I think artificial turf is a GREAT idea for folks living in areas of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, etc., where the lawns they've planted in those low-water environments are wreaking havoc on the atmosphere. If you won't xeriscape there, lay a turf lawn! But, as you mentioned, you don't even need to water here to maintain grass year-round. How about we start charging MORE for excessive water consumption, instead of giving a reduced rate for non-treated water usage? I'd be willing to bet that (like gasoline and groceries) people would think twice about what they consumed and how much they REALLY needed to use...Okay. Rant over. Sorry about that :)

  3. Hi Victor! I hope people begin to think about their own prejudices. The grass is very attractive and is perfect for that strip in front of your property.
    Hi Angie! Thanks for your comments, too. My heart is with you. I think we should charge a LOT MORE for water. Maybe there's a way for separately metering water that comes out of the hose/sprinkler system. The people I think would be good candidates for synthetic grass are using so much conventional fertilizer and pesticide to keep that weirdly green look that they may not be providing that much habitat anyway. Keep those comments coming!

  4. So artificial turf gets hot. And it doesn't last forever, so you have to think about disposal and replacement. But I agree that it is better than trying to get perfect turf with gallons of who knows what.

  5. ??? It is plastic? Made of non-sustainable fossil fuel. What about an Australian idea I saw, using crushed builder's rubble, concrete, roof tiles, bricks. Instead of mining gravel. Claiming lawn as CO2 reduction and habitat is optimistic/naive. Any wildlife is using the habitat AROUND the monoculture of turf grass. Unless you are talking about a prairie meadow. Then you can tick all the boxes ;>) When that astroturf is done. Disintegrating in the sunshine. How could you ever harvest those tiny bits to recycle?

  6. Hi Liz,
    Thanks for your comment. The products I looked at have a 7-9 year warranty and are made of things like nylon and polyethylene. Definitely not an organic product! Hi EE! I agree -- there are lots of things one could do to be more earth-friendly. It's not something that I would do. But is it better than intensively managed turf grass? That I do not know. Thanks both of you for the comments!

  7. Water is essentially free to the user - what you're paying for is the power and infrastructure to deliver it to you.

    In the commercial realm, utilities typically offer separate metering for water that does not go down the sanitary sewer (landscaping, fire protection, cooling towers, etc.) such that you are not charged for treatment of that portion. This is rarely available at the residential level.

    It would be some calculation to determine the energy/environmental impact of the artificial turf versus the lifetime expenditure on water, pest control, fertilizer and fuel for lawn care! Might be fun!?!

  8. Petrochemical composition? Out gassing of toxic fumes? Savings on fertilizer, water, pesticides and herbicides? Earthworms? Dead soil? What about native alternatives like Buffalo grass? So many questions I can not even list. I have designed two putting greens and they used synthetic grass, and are probably larger than Victor's yard. These questions and others have crossed my mind before. Just rambling.

  9. Thanks for all the great comments! I have not been able to find any independent university-based research that looks at synthetic turf for other than playing fields. However, I did learn that synthetic grass will earn you at least 4 LEED points for sustainability, and more, if recycled materials are used for the base. Typically the rubber base is made from recycled tires. Chief Engineer -- your mission, should you accept it...

  10. Elizabeth, What a great conversation~I am pretty sure we won't be adding it to the garden, but, it would thrill me to frustrate the chipmunks. What I wouldn't mind having is Buffalo grass! gail

  11. I do wish Buffalo grass would grow for us here in Houston. I'm down to two small patches of lawn on one side of the gardens. The destruction wrought by the utility crew on the patch of grass in front was a good excuse to plant groundcover there instead!