Artificial Grass as a Grass Alternative

close-up of artificial grass

Wonder why your neighbor’s grass always looks green and well-manicured when you never see them mowing or doing yard work? They could be wizards, but chances are they have artificial grass. 

Artificial grass is a tempting lawn alternative for homeowners ready to ditch the lawn mower, throw in the trowel, wave goodbye to the fertilizer, and turn off the sprinklers. If you’re tired of losing your weekends to lawn chores, it’s a low-maintenance solution to a long-lasting lawn. 

We’ll go through the benefits and drawbacks of this expensive but durable grass alternative to help you decide if it’s right for you. 

What is artificial grass?

Artificial grass, also known as synthetic turf (or simply “fake grass”), is made of heat-resistant, plastic fibers that are stitched onto a solid backing, like a big green carpet. 

Artificial turf can replace sports fields, lawns, and areas where grass fails to grow. It started out as an alternative to grass on sports fields, but it’s undergone significant improvements that now make it an attractive lawn replacement for homeowners.

Modern artificial grass is complete with infill (a rubber and sand mixture that holds the turf in place and keeps it vertical) between each fiber and a shock-absorbing pad underneath for durability and safety. 

illustration showing the layers if artificial grass construction

From baseball to backyards: A brief history of artificial turf

Artificial turf got off to a running start in 1966, when AstroTurf (originally called the less appealing “ChemGrass”), an artificial grass developed by Monsanto, was installed in the enormous Houston Astrodome. 

The Major League Baseball stadium had struggled with growing grass indoors, and players had been playing on dirt and dead grass painted green. When AstroTurf proved to be a good option, more multiuse stadiums like Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium and St. Louis’ Busch Stadium installed the artificial turf.  

Football stadiums also started to make the switch. Franklin Field, former home to the Philadelphia Eagles, installed AstroTurf in 1969. Other football stadiums did as well, but most have since switched back to natural grass citing players’ increased risk of injury on synthetic turf. 

In the 1990s, homeowners began noticing artificial turf as a grass alternative. AstroTurf was no longer in its infancy and many improvements had been made. Turf was softer, infill was added to keep blades standing straight and provide a cushion for walking, and more brands were available. 

Today, homeowners can choose from polyethylene, polypropylene, and nylon varieties, depending on their desired durability, lawn look, and price point. Polyethylene is most popular for its high durability, natural lawn look, soft texture, and reasonable price.

Types of synthetic turf

Depending on your lawn needs and budget, you can choose between nylon, polypropylene, or polyethylene turf. For most homeowners, polyethylene is the ideal choice. 

  • Nylon is highly durable, damage-proof, and heat-resistant. However, it’s also the most expensive option on average and can be tough for sports and play, causing “turf burn.” It’s often used for putting greens. 
    • Price range: $4.55 to $6.41or more per square foot
  • Polypropylene is the least expensive and least durable of the three. It is best suited for shady areas with little foot traffic, or it can be a good choice for indoor areas. 
    • Price range: $1.71 to $7.43 per square foot
  • Polyethylene is the fan favorite of turfs: It looks realistic, it’ll stand up to weather and play, and it’s softer than nylon so it won’t cause “turf burn.” It’s also easy to clean and deodorize so it’s great for families with pets.
    • Price range: $2.29 to $4.24 per square foot

Features of artificial grass

Artificial turf is hardly one-size-fits-all. Different turf brands and styles offer a variety of features. You can choose a turf that best suits your lawn needs.

  • Pile height (length of the grass blades): Most pile heights range from three-quarters of an inch to 2 inches high. Pile height will determine durability, softness, and how natural your grass looks.
    • If you have pets or children, you may want to go with a shorter pile height (less than an inch long) to make cleaning easy and prevent tearing. A short pile height also will make your lawn look neater.
    • If you want softer, more realistic-looking grass, a longer pile height (over 1.25 inches) will do the trick. 
  • Color: Green is green, right? Not when it comes to artificial turf. 
    • You can choose from olive green, field green, shamrock green, forest green, army green, and many more shades. You also can pick out your favorite thatch color.
    • You can buy turf with multicolored green and brown blades so your lawn looks like it has a natural blend of grass varieties.
    • If you want to get funky, there are neon options like electric blue or bright pink turf.
  • Infrared-reflective and UV-stabilized coatings: Some artificial turfgrasses have protective coatings to reduce the absorption of infrared light and UV rays. 
    • Infrared-protective coating lowers the temperature of the grass. 
    • UV-protective coating helps reduce weathering, staining, and turf degradation.
  • Sanitizing technology: Some artificial turfgrasses boast sanitizing technology that eliminates pet odors and prevents microbial growth. Anti-odor infill also can absorb moisture and neutralize pet odors. 
  • Urethane backing: Urethane backings ensure lawn durability and are perforated to allow for proper drainage. They’re heavy duty and will keep grass blades firmly in place. 
  • Non-absorbent fiber: For homeowners with pets, non-absorbent turf is the way to go. It’s permeable and will drain fluids down into the ground. 
  • Fire-resistant: Most artificial grasses are fire resistant but will melt and singe if directly exposed to fire. Some suppliers are developing highly fireproof artificial turf for areas of the country prone to wildfires.
  • Anti-static technology: For lawns where kids and pets will be playing, you can choose an artificial turfgrass that protects against static shocks.

Maintaining artificial turf

Artificial turf can save you a whole lot of time and money on lawn care, but unfortunately, it won’t completely free you from yard work. According to the NIH, “A common misconception is that synthetic turf is maintenance-free; in fact, however, these surfaces require routine maintenance.” 

You’ll need to remove dust and debris regularly (once a week), raking and brushing with a nylon-bristled brush or power broom. You also may want to vacuum or use a blower, depending on the amount of accumulated debris.

Washing your turf is also important. You’ll need to rinse off your artificial turf and clean it with an antibacterial solution (laundry detergent works well) regularly. You may want to apply a deodorant, especially if your pets are using the lawn.

Why choose artificial grass?

Homeowners choose synthetic grass for a variety of reasons: 

  • They want to be more eco-friendly, reducing their water, energy, and chemical use.
  • They want a hassle-free lawn to spend time on other projects.
  • They’re tired of their grass turning yellow-brown in the peak of summer or in winter.
  • Their lawn is shady and turfgrasses struggle to grow evenly.
  • Their soil type or climate is inhospitable to grass.
  • Brown patch and other fungal diseases are stubborn eyesores.
  • Families with children and pets want to avoid mud and mess.
  • Homeowners who are older or less mobile want a green lawn without as much manual labor.
  • Families want a playground or sports area with soft, springy turf.
  • Though there are many lawn alternatives, artificial turf is a durable, dependable way to keep your lawn green year-round.

Will artificial grass work for my lawn? 

Unlike grasses and ground covers that need certain soil types and light conditions, artificial grass will “grow” anywhere you plant it. However, it’s important that your lawn is properly prepared before you install your new green carpet. 

It may be tempting to try a DIY project, but artificial turf installation takes much more planning and labor than installing a flower bed or rain garden. You’ll need to:

  • Measure the area precisely
  • Remove previous grass and weeds
  • Contour the area to ensure proper drainage
  • Lay and tamp down gravel
  • Unroll and lay the turf
  • Tamp landscape spikes into the ground to hold the turf in place
  • Precisely align seams and reinforce them with landscape spikes
  • Trim off excess turf 
  • Work infill into the grass with a seed spreader

Considering the cost of artificial turf, you’ll want a high-quality installation to ensure that it lasts as long as possible. You can call a local lawn care expert for help with preparation and installation. 

Benefits and drawbacks of artificial grass

Pros of synthetic grass: 

✓ Evergreen

No matter the season, your grass will look lush and green. You won’t have to deal with dead grass or dormancy in hot summers and cold winters.

✓ Low maintenance and no planting

You won’t have to worry about seeding your lawn and keeping your grass healthy. While you have to spruce up your lawn a bit each week, you won’t have to abide by a planting schedule or plan around the first and last frost.

✓ No mowing

You’ll free up your weekends and reduce your carbon footprint, saving gasoline and energy. 

✓ No fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides

You can forget your 4-6 week fertilizing cycle and ditch the harsh chemicals. Not using fertilizer will protect your local waterways from algal blooms and dead zones (caused by fertilizer runoff), improving overall ecosystem health. 

✓ Saves water

Though you’ll need to give your artificial turf a weekly spray, it’s nothing compared to the amount of water traditional turfgrasses use. You won’t have to fret about dry spells or plan your day around waterings. 

✓ Some are made of recycled materials

Some artificial turf’s infill — the mixture of crumb rubber and sand that occupies the space between grass blades — is made of recycled tires. According to the Synthetic Turf Council, the recycled crumb rubber used on sports fields keeps 20 million rubber tires out of landfills every year. 

✓ Can save you money in the long term

Artificial turf is one of the more expensive lawn projects you can choose, but it’s long-lasting and low-maintenance.

✓ Great for play areas

For families, artificial turf is a springy, safe place for kids to play without the muddy mess of a traditional lawn. 

Cons of synthetic grass: 

Expensive to install and repair

During storms, branches and debris may land on your artificial turf. When turf gets ripped or torn, it must be replaced — and this replacement is often expensive and requires a lawn professional. 

✗ Can get very hot underfoot

Though there are more heat-resistant varieties of artificial grass today, artificial turf can still get uncomfortably hot in the summer, which can be an issue for dogs, barefoot children and those playing sports. It also heats the air above it, which can make it an uncomfortable environment for those outdoors. 

Environmental impacts

One of the main environmental problems with artificial turf is that it releases microplastics into local waterways. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that animals mistake for food, which in turn causes them to starve. This harms the local ecosystem and moves up the food chain, so humans are also exposed to microplastics and other toxic chemicals.

✗ Can harm lawn biodiversity

While ground covers can provide habitats for native animals and insects, synthetic grass offers no liveable habitat or food source. Bees cannot burrow down into the soil, and worms starve under the surface. This is especially concerning given the global decline in insect biodiversity

✗ Manufacturing takes energy

Though artificial grass reduces gasoline emissions and water usage once it’s installed, it uses a lot of energy — and generates waste and carbon dioxide — before you’ve made your purchase. 

✗ Possible health hazards

Scientists haven’t reached a conclusion, but some components of crumb rubber are suspected or presumed human carcinogens. As a result, some parents are wary of letting their children play on artificial turf with rubber infill. 

FAQs

1. How long will my artificial grass last? 

The lifespan of artificial grass is 10 to 25 years, depending on turf quality and the level of maintenance it receives. 

2. How often should I clean my artificial turf? 

Lightly rinse and brush out your yard weekly and do a deeper clean with an antibacterial solution each month. To avoid discoloration and odors, spot clean your lawn after your dogs do their business.

3. Other than artificial turf, what can I plant in my shady lawn? 

Ground covers and other native plants are great grass alternatives for shady lawns. There are many options that will grow better in shade than turfgrass can. You also may consider hardscapes, mulch, and gravel pathways for areas where grass struggles to grow. Grass paint is another creative option for a greener lawn.

Deciding whether to install artificial turf

Installing synthetic grass is a financial and environmental trade-off. It can save you money, but initial installation and repairs, if they are needed, can be expensive. It can save you time, but it does require some weekly maintenance. And while it offers some environmental benefits, it’s also synthetic, so it doesn’t offer the benefits of a wildflower meadow.

Based on your specific lawn needs, artificial grass may be a perfect choice, or you may want to check out other grass alternatives before committing. 

If you’re ready for a synthetic grass revamp, call a local lawn care professional to get your lawn glowing. It looks like your neighbors will have some competition.

Main Photo Credit: alvizlo | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.