Sometimes Fake is Better

image Can You Tell When Grass Is Fake?

synthetic lawns have come along way… Like many proud homeowners, John Chen doesn’t need much prodding to brag about his lawn. He will wax poetic about its perfect shade of green, flawless uniformity and the way it neatly frames the flagstones leading to his front door. In the summer Chen likes to pad around the yard barefoot, watching his three children dash through the grass and hurl themselves down the family Slip ’N Slide. But Chen’s favorite thing about the lawn? It’s made of plastic.

It’s that time of year again, when homeowners start paging through seed catalogs, tuning up their mowers and dreaming of front-lawn nirvana. But who says you can’t fool Mother Nature? In a tiny but growing number of patches in suburbia, low-maintenance yard mavens are rolling out a high-tech version of the stuff that used to adorn concrete balconies—and are calling it their lawn. Don’t laugh. The Association of Synthetic Grass Installers estimates that last year more than 60 million square feet of fake home lawns were installed, up 20 percent from 2006. Neighbors may be puzzled by the sight, but makers say they’ve been hard at work on the fake fuzz, developing new grasses with multicolor blades and even extra padding for tush-friendly picnicking.

But not surprisingly, many people still find ersatz grass about as appealing as covering their yard in Velcro. Indeed, critics say that despite industry advancements, plastic lawns haven’t completely lost their stubby, neon-hued look. In some areas the stuff is so controversial that towns have banned turf altogether, with neighborhood associations levying fines on homeowners who refuse to remove it. Detractors also dismiss the industry’s earth-friendly claims. And artificial lawns still have a few rough patches; just ask pet owners, many of whom report that the turf makes their animals’ waste especially, well, fragrant.

Certainly, both the economy and environmental issues work in synthetic lawns favor. Though far more expensive than real?grass to buy and install—it can cost up to three times as much as natural turf, or roughly $6,000 to $8,000 for a typical lawn—the lifetime savings add up. After all, the lawns require no seeding, fertilizing or trimming; homeowners do little more than hose down the grass when it’s dirty and occasionally break out a rake to fluff up any matted patches. The industry also plays up its environmental benefits, including fewer pollution-spewing mowers, a reduction in harsh chemicals like fertilizer or insecticide and, most important, less water?use. In drought-prone regions, municipalities like Los Angeles County are even providing tax rebates for residents who remove areas of natural lawn.

So is synthetic turf the lawn of the future—or a glorified plastic carpet? Below, the latest in the turf wars.

There’s a reason, of course, that synthetic lawn used to be seen as little more than “Brillo pad on a sponge.” That’s how Annie Costa, executive director of the Association of Synthetic Grass Installers, describes the earliest incarnation of the stuff, which debuted on football fields in the mid-1960s. Critics decried it as stiff and bristly, dangerously slick when wet, and unforgiving if you fell. But today’s residential turf has changed dramatically. Companies make it more porous for better drainage and soften up the base with flexsand or rubber chips. The latest grasses attempt to echo the real thing down to the tiniest detail, like using a mix of green tones on the individual blades, adding “dirt” by applying a tan tone to the “thatch” base or even weaving in bits of brown yarn to mimic bits of dead grass. Many companies model their products on specific regional species of grass, each with multiple versions: close-cropped for lawn neatniks and longer varieties for those who like a lush look.

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