It’s green, pristine and doesn’t need mowing, but gardeners argue artificial grass isn’t good for the planet. Hannah Stephenson investigates.
There’s been a boom in artificial grass during lockdown, but horticulturists are urging gardeners to grow natural lawns to help wildlife and improve air quality.
Sales of artificial turf at LazyLawn, the UK’s biggest artificial grass supplier, rose by 300% during three months of lockdown, according to its sales director Andy Driver.
“Makeovers have been on the increase and artificial turf has featured in that,” he says. “The market ranges from the older generation where it’s become too much of a chore to mow the lawn, to families with a busy lawn that gets ruined quickly, and people with very small gardens who don’t feel it’s worth having a small patch of real grass which will require a lawnmower to maintain.”
Critics counter that plastic lawns are not environmentally friendly and can end up in landfill after use.
A decade ago fake grass was showcased at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, but it has long since been banned from the show, says RHS chief horticulturist Guy Barter. “As an environmental charity, it’s not the kind of thing we think is appropriate,” he says. “I would go for real grass every time. I would rather throw myself in a ditch than have an artificial lawn.”
Lawn expert David Hedges-Gower agrees. “You either want to go with nature or you don’t.”
So, what are the advantages of a real lawn compared?
To start with, real lawns are undoubtedly environmentally friendly. “Lawns are natural surfaces, they lock up carbon in the soil and promote wildlife, and are part of what makes gardens lovely,” says Barter.
“Real lawns allow invertebrates access to the soil beneath, so all the things that live under the ground, like worms, centipedes and millipedes, can bring down goodness into the soil, aerate the soil and survive down there,” adds Paul Hetherington, director of insect charity Buglife.
“Crane flies (daddy long-legs) lay their eggs there and you’ll also find beetles, so birds will come down and eat on your lawn. Invertebrates are a really important part of the food chain. Once you put a plastic lawn across, you’ve basically created a desert in your garden.”
Driver concedes: “Artificial turf is not a product designed for wildlife, it’s a product designed for living. We very much encourage people to have planting areas as well, so they can attract wildlife. Having an artificial lawn which looks lovely may encourage people to grow plants around it.”
“We are not against natural grass – it’s about a need,” he continues. “If you have a family where the lawn has become muddy, we are servicing a need that allows people to enjoy their outdoor space and get active.”
How hard is grass to grow?
Grasses cover around a quarter of our planet. “It’s the most simple plant to grow and grows very naturally without too much intervention,” says Hedges-Gower. “The use of native species – [like] bent grass and fescue – is paramount. We call native grasses ‘luxury lawn mixtures’ in garden centres and seed companies. You don’t need a bowling green lawn, you can go for a more natural look.”
What about areas that aren’t suitable to grow a real lawn?
“Some places such as shady areas aren’t suitable for real lawns,” says Barter. “Other options include ground cover shrubs or hard paving rather than artificial grass, which has a limited life and has to be disposed of in ways that are not always easy.”
He adds that it is “increasingly common to recycle concrete, slabs and paving, grinding them up and reusing them” when necessary.
Is fake grass really that low maintenance?
“The production process to make plastic grass involves using enormous amounts of water and petroleum,” claims Hedges-Gower. “Your product can last around 15 years and will still need maintaining.”
“You can get weed seeds growing and germinating in the plastic,” he continues.
Driver admits: “You will get airborne weeds, but it’s not a problem. We recommend treating the whole lawn twice a year with a weedkiller. If you do get any weeds, they just pull out.”
When leaves fall on the fake grass, you can just sweep them off with a plastic rake or use a lawn blower, Driver suggests. “People have even been known to use a vacuum cleaner on the lawn.”
Are fake lawns biodegradable?
No. Many end up in landfill say gardening experts, although Driver points out there is a facility in Holland that opened this year and allows artificial grass to be 100% recycled. “We need to work out the logistics of it,” he admits, “whether the (artificial) grass companies pay a tariff so we don’t put the cost onto customers. We need to support it moving forward.”
So, when does artificial grass make sense?
“There is a place for artificial lawns to provide wheelchair access in, say, a nursing home,” muses Hedges-Gower.
While Barter adds: “I can conceive of certain situations, like on a balcony or for a disabled gardener who wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy their garden.”