Questions of sustainability swirl in our heads daily as we go about the business of improving residential landscapes. At Terrain we’re constantly reevaluating our approach and refining our techniques with an eye toward superior results. Lance and I sat down to chat about some of the things that have popped up in recent weeks and I’ve transcribed our conversation below.
Lance: Hey Nate, I have more and more people telling me each day that they want to replace their front lawn and put in artificial lawn. As a landscape professional working in a drought plagued area, do you think this a sustainable option? What other options are there for lawn replacement?
Nate: I don’t think artificial turf is really a sustainable option. It does cover the ground and it is reprocessed post consumer waste, but then again so is asphalt, shredded rubber tires, and bags of fast food thrown out of car windows. I don’t think any of the above have a place in a residential landscape. My personal preference is to work with real, living plant material, not pretend plants. Drought tolerant plants in combination with porous path or patio surfaces like gravel and flagstone are a great solution for reclaiming the lawn space and turning it into something much more attractive, productive and dynamic.
Lance: People want to beautify the front of their house and add to their property’s curb appeal. What do you think they can do to renovate their front yard landscape and upgrade their house image and still abide the eventual increase in water costs and water restrictions imposed by municipalities if this drought continues?
Nate: For me there is no compromise between beauty and drought tolerance. It’s 100% possible to have an outstandingly beautiful front yard landscape without breaking the water budget. At Terrain we tend to like a mix of plants from mediterranean climates from around the world accented with california native plants to give the property a sense of place. I think one of the big challenges for most people is imagining what the space might look like if it weren’t lawn, but we address that in the design process by creating photorealistic collages which can help people see their landscape’s potential. It’s a failure of imagination more than a biological or climactic limitation. A house with proper landscaping has way more curb appeal and is more joyful to live in.
Lance: Do you see artificial lawns as a viable replacement if they are looking to make the most environmentally responsible choice for their front yard renovation? Are there any health concerns with using the artificial materials for kids and pets?
Nate: I have heard people express concerns about about the plastics off gassing and leaching chemicals into the soil, but I haven’t done the homework to determine whether those concerns are valid. Many artificial turf systems use ground up tires as a filler to keep the blades from matting down. I’d be willing to guess that ingesting the dust and bits of metal from the ground tires is not a good thing. Whether or not those concerns are based on sound science is irrelevant for me because there are so many more satisfying, functional, beautiful and affordable alternatives. For kids, I think boulders, flagstones, gravel, and just plain old dirt are more dynamic and interesting surfaces to play on… and of course there is always real turf.
Lance: You have a dog, he is an important user of the home landscape and keenly aware of their horticultural surroundings. Do you think they would enjoy artificial turf as much as a renovated drought tolerant landscape?
Nate: As a place to pee and poop I’m sure the artificial turf would do the trick, but I find Rudy (our dog) likes to exploree and sniff and check things out. He likes to nibble on the ornamental grasses. I don’t think I’d feel so good about him nibbling on the plastic. He also likes to burrow in amongst the grasses… it’s one of his favorite places.
Lance: If we are not suggesting people put in artificial turf to replace their existing front lawns, then what are your current favorite sustainable plants and environmentally friendly materials that you are suggesting they use?
Nate: Ornamental grasses. They’re fast growing, pet and kid friendly, pest free and generally drought tolerant. As a design element used in mass they can help unify scattershot planting designs. I’m nuts about Leucadendrons for me they look a lot like our native manzanitas, but they’re from South Africa and they have great foliage color though the year. I love manzanitas just as much. I’m especially fond of A. manzanita ‘Dr. Hurd’ which sits stately in my front yard. So elegant. For use areas I think it’s hard to beat a nice sand set natural flagstone patio. The stone has so much character that can’t be reproduced in man made materials. It lends an informal feeling to the space but in a classy way.