07 Ιαν More GTA homeowners turning to artificial grass
In the spring, Adrienne Harris’s backyard was a pool of mud. In the summer, the shady yard was pockmarked with bald patches, weeds and grass stained brown from dog pee.
Now Harris’s backyard is her oasis, a carpet of indestructible green that never needs mowing or watering. Kids sprawl on her artificial grass to play with the dog, and Harris proudly throws backyard parties.
“It’s like having another living room,” says Harris, 43.
Across the GTA, synthetic lawns are gradually sprouting as frustrated homeowners give up on the natural stuff, especially in hard-to-keep-green back yards. “It’s becoming a little more popular because the product is more natural-looking,” says Vlad Apanovitch, president of GTA Landscaping, which does five to 10 artificial installations a year in private yards.
Today’s artificial turf is a distant cousin to the indoor-outdoor carpet look of past decades. “It’s like comparing today’s cellphone to one from 10 years ago,” says Rob Mislan, owner of Versatile Grass. His blades are three-dimensional, not flat, and are UV-resistant.
But it’s still plastic, which raises environmental concerns. The city of Toronto, prompted by the improved artificial grass products, is reviewing its bylaws and looking at the permeability of synthetic turf and drainage issues, the potential impact on ecosystems and the heat-emitting effect.
Presently the city considers artificial grass as “hard landscaping,” similar to pavement, as opposed to “soft landscaping,” such as real grass. Bylaws set minimum percentages for soft landscaping.
Also the bylaws don’t permit synthetic turf in the parts of yards where the city has a right-of-way, often to deal with underground infrastructure or sidewalks. About 20 violation notices have been issued to property owners this year.
Whatever the city decides, plastic grass has already taken root, creating fans among some homeowners and foes among others. “People are very passionate around the issue of natural versus artificial grass,” says landscape architect Robert Wright, a professor at the University of Toronto. “They either love it or hate it.”
Count Harris, who rolled out her new lawn this spring, solidly in the pro camp.
“I’m always on the road. I don’t have time to take care of a yard,” says Harris, an East York mother of two who works in business communications management. Now all she needs to do, she says, is a good raking in the spring and fall. She gave away her lawn mower.
Her basset hound, Hank, sniffs along the grass and lies in the sun. “One of the best things is that the dog can’t destroy it.” The grass requires only a rare hosing to clean up after the dog, she says.
Harris paid $7,000 for the grass, installation and finishing touches on her small back lawn. Artificial grass ranges from about $8 to $12 a square foot installed.
“If you think of it as amortizing over 15 years, that’s a good investment,” says Harris. Company warranties usually run for eight to 10 years, but the lawns are expected to do well for 20 or 25 years, says Mislan of Versatile Grass.
Harris also expects to save on her water bills.
Real vs. plastic
While less water usage is good, Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, says consumers need to consider the entire life cycle of the synthetic product — where it came from, where it will end up and what it’s doing on the ground. The grass blades are made of polyethylene, a common plastic, and woven into a plastic backing. “Almost all plastic products leach components,” says Gray.
Mislan insists the polyethylene grass doesn’t leach, that it’s the same material as many children’s toys. Many of the new varieties are recyclable, he says.
All a drain?
To install it, the existing grass and some topsoil are removed and a layer of crushed stone is put down as a base and compacted. Sheets of synthetic grass are rolled on top and usually secured with staples or spikes, not ground-up rubber. That rubber crumb infill is still prominent on large sports fields, explains Mislan, but not common any longer on residential lawns.
Rain water — and pet urine — drain through the holes in the grass’s backing and through the crushed stone. “We never heavily compact as we are trying to mimic the draining of the natural ground that we are turfing,” explains Jerome Keays, owner of Design Turf.
Environmentalist Gray worries that heavy rain storms would create more run-off on plastic grass than on a natural surface. Mislan says most synthetic grasses are rated to pass 30 inches of water per hour per square yard, a massive downpour.
Birds and bugs
Maurice Nelischer, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, is impressed by the realistic look of the new grass, some products even have brown thatch woven in. “I’ve gone up to some and had to put my hand on it to confirm it was plastic,” he says.
On the pro side, he points out, children and pets don’t track mud and dirt through the house.
But there are ecological concerns. Synthetic grass and its base stifle organisms in the dirt. “Birds won’t find worms there,” says Nelischer.
The worms exist, just further down, explains Keays of Design Turf. “Natural life goes on, but not on the surface.”
Feeling the heat
On a steamy day, plastic grass will feel hot, not cool like Mother Nature’s variety, whose roots pull up water. With concerns about urban heat buildup, grass and trees are our saviours, Nelischer says. Everything else is hard surface.
A few synthetic lawns won’t have a broad impact, he says, but the individual yards may be hotter.
“I spray it with water and it cools down,” says Amy Bell, whose back yard in Vaughan is artificial turf. “I’d take two months of hot grass in the afternoon over weeding and mowing.”
It’s not different than having a wood deck or pavement, says Keays. This year, his company offers a new grass with reflective blades that stay cooler, he adds.
Against the grain
Overall, from a purely ecological point of view, how would Environmental Defence executive director Gray rank yard coverings?
At rock-bottom, he rates asphalt, followed by artificial turf, then real grass, and — the best — native trees, shrubs, flowers. “Take your cues from nature instead of perpetuating the battle by increasing the armaments,” says Gray.
But in her East York backyard, her artificial lawn spread before her, Harris grins at a familiar sound. On the other side of the fence, her neighbour is mowing the grass. “I’m so glad that’s not me anymore,” says Harris with a laugh.