Weary of lawn work? Fake it

Special to The Times

HOMEOWNERS know that in one field of life, nothing less than perfection is acceptable. The rules of the lawn are very clear: no bare patches, Fido-induced brownouts, weeds, anemic blades or lusterless shades of green. The quest for perfect grass is grueling enough that some might sell their souls to get it. Deberoh Gruver did, and she couldn't be more delighted.

The Riverside teacher's lawn is perfect 365 days a year. Instead of fighting the Inland Empire's blast-furnace heat and two dogs for control of her yard, she sits back and watches as passersby stop to behold the wonder of flawless turf.

"People look at it, touch it, say, 'Wow, that is so pretty,' " Gruver says.

But the price was steep. She had to renounce her all-American belief in real grass. Her lawn is fake. And it set her back about $16,000 for front and back yards. Worth every penny, she says.

Gruver is part of a burgeoning backlash against the hassle and expense of the traditional lawn. A new generation of synthetic lawn, lush, soft and light-years from the AstroTurf of yesteryear, is fueling the rebellion -- and a compelling environmental case for going simulated green. Synthetic grass saves on water, eliminates the need for toxic fertilizers and requires no polluting mower. A bonus: Some brands use recycled materials, including old Nike shoes.

"We have doubled in size every year, and this year we've tripled," says Dave Hartman, who runs EasyTurf (www.easyturf.com), a distributor for FieldTurf, an artificial grass used by the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, San Diego Zoo and hundreds of colleges and high schools.

One of EasyTurf's first customers, Hartman was so enamored of the way his faux grass liberated him from mowing and watering and sent gophers packing that he joined the company. In the four years since, 1,800 homeowners from Los Angeles to San Diego have made the switch to the company's facsimile lawns, he says. Though the turf is expensive ($10 a square foot), Hartman says the investment pays off by lowering water and maintenance bills.

Despite the convenience and eco-logic, artificial turf has to overcome entrenched cultural programming that dictates it's a civic duty to sow real grass. Anything less borders on slackerhood, if not suburban treason. Hartman says that attitude is changing, along with the stigma of early artificial turf, which had an image as a hard, leafless rug. No one wants an obvious fake. But one that passes for the real thing is another story.

"It looks really real," says Susan Dominguez, a Murrieta resident who had FieldTurf installed in her backyard in February to keep maintenance down after her husband had a heart attack. "It has that just-mowed look. I don't miss real grass at all. We'd do the front yard too if we could afford it."

The more lifelike synthetic comes from improvements in technology that have replaced abrasive, drain-poor nylon with a blend of polyethylene fibers, silica sand and recycled rubber called Nike Grind.

Instead of treating the process like carpeting and stuffing a pad under a thin rug, the new turf tries to replicate the dynamics between real earth and grass.

FieldTurf uses a base of decomposed rock for drainage. That's topped by an infill of sand and rubber granules recycled from tires and ground-up athletic shoes. The sand and rubber act like soil to hold the blades in place. The surface is a nonabrasive material that performs like grass without the high maintenance costs.

Most of the recycled mix is old tires, notoriously hard to dispose of. The process breaks down the rubber cryogenically, freezing and pulverizing it into rounded bits. That's blended with the crumb rubber of athletic shoes, recycled by Nike.

The green potential of synthetic turf extends beyond recycling. With 50% to 70% of residential water usage gulped by lawns and gardens, according to the nonprofit educational and advocacy group American Water Works Assn., fake grass can put a big dent in water consumption. Though xeriscaping and native plants are options, the reality is that some homeowners simply want a lawn, real or synthetic.

"We could save on water and electricity to run the sprinkler system," says Gruver, whose yard has evolved from a lawn to a xeriscape to synthetic turf. "I'm not a huge environmentalist, but we all need to do our part."

For the moment, it's not the ecoangle that's driving EasyTurf sales. It's man's best lawn-wrecker.

"It's difficult to maintain a beautiful lawn with dogs," Hartman says. The synthetic turf doesn't stain, and it can be hosed down easily after nature has called.

Gruver's Rottweiler and Labrador retriever can't mess up her new yard, or even dig it up. But they like playing on it and still act as if it's grass, she says. Except these former blade eaters are getting less lawn salad these days. "They tried to eat it, but nothing happens," she says.

Joe Robinson can be reached at home@latimes.com.



Sole patrol

How do old shoes become synthetic turf? At select sites, Nike collects used shoes as well as footwear returned by customers because of flaws. The outsole rubber is separated and ground up, then mixed with rubber discarded from the manufacturing process at factories in Vietnam, Indonesia and China. The resulting material, called Nike Grind, is then used to manufacture athletic fields that the company says contain the equivalent of about 75,000 pairs of shoe soles.

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