Grass - how faux can you go?

New Zealand is seeing a rise in artificial turf gardens - but just how low-maintenance are they really?
JANE USSHER/NZHOUSE&GARDEN

New Zealand is seeing a rise in artificial turf gardens - but just how low-maintenance are they really?

Only a few years ago it would have been unheard of to find fake lawn in a New Zealand garden, but now artificial turf is enjoying its time in the sun.

Although they're not nearly as popular as real grass, today's polypropylene and polyethylene products look much more genuine than AstroTurf, the nylon surface invented in 1965 for sports fields.

Henry Blakely, from Christchurch-based Henry Blakely Landscapes, has completed two jobs using artificial grass. One is at a new home on the estuary at Redcliffs, with a faux lawn measuring 3m x 11m. The clients chose artificial lawn so they wouldn't have to mow it. "It's also a high salinity situation, so a conventional lawn might struggle," Blakely says.

Natural turf ($20-$26 per square metre) is a lot cheaper to lay than artificial turf ($160-$180 per square metre).
T. KIMURA

Natural turf ($20-$26 per square metre) is a lot cheaper to lay than artificial turf ($160-$180 per square metre).

Blakely says the appeal of an artificial lawn is its easy maintenance, "if you're not into pulling the mower out. It's also great from the point of view of a rooftop or a small townhouse, where there's not a lot of room".

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Once they're installed, artificial lawns don't need the care real grass does, but after two to three years they'll need the sand underneath them topped up. The sand, usually laid on top of a concrete or compacted hardfill base, helps the lawn keep its form. It's essential to have good drainage and it's better to not be in too shady a spot or your faux lawn will run the risk of moss growing over it.

Blakely says his personal preference is still for real lawns or ground-cover planting for non-traffic areas. He wouldn't recommend artificial grass for larger suburban gardens. "It's plastic padding at the end of the day, but each to their own. It's all about client choice and what they want."

Donna Toner from Think Turf in Petone says natural turf is a lot cheaper to lay than artificial turf. "Ballpark figures are $20 to $26 per square metre for natural turf and approximately $160 to $180 per square metre for artificial," she says. "These estimates are for us to come in and do the complete job, but there are also options of laying yourself which in turn will save you money."

In Auckland, Mike Robertson is a fan of the artificial lawn in his Ponsonby backyard. His friend, architect Daniel Marshall, is not. Although at more than 600sq m, Robertson's section isn't small by Auckland standards, three years ago he opted for artificial lawn to be laid alongside a swimming pool. "For us now, it's brilliant," he says. With three sons in the family, aged 11, 9 and 6, plus a small dog, it means the boys can play outside all winter. "The backyard faces southwest and it's quite shady," Robertson says. "The lawn we had would never grow and as soon as the boys had one game of rugby or soccer there would be mud all through the house."

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Marshall says if people want to have a lawn, they should have real grass. "Imitation lawn doesn't look like lawn. It looks like lawn-paper. If you don't want to maintain or water the garden, plant something that is appropriate for the local environment. It's one of those urban things where people have a little lawn for the kids to play outside, but take them to the park if you're worried about mud."

Marshall says there is no doubt artificial lawn needs less maintenance than real grass. "It's like a paved surface. You still need to sweep and weed it. And dog droppings do not gracefully decompose into the surface." Marshall says some councils regard imitation lawn as paving. "Mainly because they are often placed on hard fill, essentially crushed gravel, which limits porosity, so you may have to apply for a resource consent before you place it."

A grass allergy meant the owners of an architecturally designed house near central Auckland chose artificial grass, but they had to stump up $1400 for its resource consent. They were happy with their lawn at first, despite hearing passersby talk about it in less than glowing terms, including a small boy who asked his father in a loud voice, "Daddy, is that the house with the yucky fake grass?"

Three years on, they have noticed seams in the grass, perhaps due to movement with the sand and fill underneath. Their biggest bugbear, though, is weeds.

"Seeds float over and if they land on the grass they take root and grow hydroponically," the owner says. "If you don't like weeding you're in trouble, but at least when you spray weed killer you're not killing anything else except the weeds. You still need to pull the weeds out, though. There's more maintenance than I thought."

He thinks artificial grass is still a great solution for places where grass can't grow easily. And he appreciates being able to walk on it in all weathers. Next time though he might put artificial grass around the back of a house and then traditional turf around at the front, where people can see it. He'll just get someone in to mow the lawn so his allergies don't flare up.

 - Homed

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