The Real Truth About Fake Grass

True or false? Artificial turf or “fake grass” is a great alternative to traditional lawns for water-scarce Los Angeles.

It needs no water, requires basically no maintenance, and is often billed as an eco-friendly choice because it is made from things like recycled tires. Seems like a no-brainer, but fake grass is not a good choice if your goal is a sustainable landscape. Here’s why.

Like many fake things, its beauty is only skin deep. The goal of an eco-friendly choice is a thriving eco-system. That means healthy soil. The best way to achieve that in LA is with native and climate-appropriate plants that have deep root systems, as well as by using lots of mulch. Where roots grow, they create soil that is able to absorb water, and serve as a base for all kinds of fungi and other microorganisms. You may not want to get up close and personal with these little guys, but you do want them in your soil as they are the basis of all life, including yours.

But maybe you’re thinking, well, okay, but it requires no water. How can you argue that saving water is not good? True, artificial turf may not use water to stay green. But that’s not the whole story when considering the hydrological impact. When it rains, soil that is healthy is able to absorb water which can, depending on its location, recharge our local water supply, and/or impact water quality. This is quite unlike when rain falls onto artificial turf, creating run-off which pollutes our beaches and rivers.

Whether or not a lawn requires water, a fake lawn impacts our sense of aesthetics, and not in a good way. Take the idea of a green lawn itself. We have, for many decades, had the idea that the perfect landscape is lush green grass rolling right up to our front door. In LA that ideal is simply not sustainable. One could argue that the perpetuation of that perceived “beauty” is detrimental to the landscape choices that are far better all around.

For another thing, fake grass is just downright uninhabitable—to people and animals. Artificial surfaces can get very hot, sometimes causing third degree burns. If it is that uninviting to you, imagine how the beneficial insects and local birds feel about it. Butterflies and hummingbirds need nectar from native plants. They are not attracted to plastic grass, recycled content or not.

Sustainability is a label that gets thrown around a lot, but considering just the essence of the word, one can ask: is the product able to sustain life or not? So take a cue from nature when determining if something is truly eco-friendly. No matter what the label says, if there is nothing alive around it, then chances are it’s not a very sustainable choice.

By Lisa Cahill

Lisa Cahill first began her work with TreePeople as a volunteer Citizen Forester. She currently serves on the board of directors for the reDiscover Center, continues to volunteer as a Citizen Forester, has been on the Mar Vista Green Garden Tour and serves on several green committees at her church and children's schools. She most enjoys working in the garden with her husband, watching her children and vegetables grow.