The Low-down on Lawns - Real vs. Fake and Alternatives to Consider.
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Shrinking section sizes and the popularity of low-maintenance gardens have driven a considerable increase in the use of artificial lawns. The market has responded over the years with vast improvements in the manufacturing process - fake lawns now look more natural than ever.
However, many of you are concerned about fake lawns' environmental friendliness and question what alternatives there might be to the typical rectangle of grass in the kiwi backyard.
In this blog, we answer your FAQs about grass and link you to alternative options for a grass-free, hassle-free backyard.
How to Determine your Grass Type - The Quick Version
Don't have time to read through the blog? Don't worry; we have created a quick and simple checklist to help you determine your "grass type"😜.
A natural lawn is for you if...
You love looking at porn...ahem, #lawnporn that is! (Yes, it's a real thing!)
You want to enter the #BledisLawnCup.
Your attention to detail is second to none.
You can't wait to go and buy a Fiskars "Stay Sharp" mower.
Watching the grass grow doesn't feel like "watching the grass grow".
You want a lawn that looks like this 👆🏼.
You're willing to put in all the effort to keep your lawn looking like this 👆🏼!
An artificial lawn is for you if...
You want a lawn that looks like this 👆🏼- without all the effort needed to keep it looking like this!
Ok, jokes aside, let's take a deeper look at the different options and costs of real vs fake and alternative options.
As we alluded to above, natural grass can take a certain effort to keep looking lush and weed-free all year round. However, suppose you are willing to put in the work (or you don't mind the odd week of uncontrolled growth! Or you're happy to pay someone to do all the hard work for you😜). In that case, natural grass will reward you with a depth of colour and a feel underfoot that will never be achieved, even in the highest quality fake grass.
At the risk of sounding too woo-woo, earthing (bodily contact with the Earth's electric charge through grass, soil, gravel, sand and stone) has profoundly positive effects on the body's physiology, improving blood flow, energy, sleep and mood, among others. A 2019 scientific review of some 20 research studies, alongside plenty of anecdotal evidence, "confirms intriguing evidence of wide and significant physiological improvements when the body is grounded vs non-grounded" (Science Direct Magazine, Vol 16, Issue 3). We recommend reading the report if you find this kind of thing fascinating!
So, if you're keen to feel that tickle under your toes, these are the two best laying options to consider:
1) Woolgro Lawn Mat
The seeds are sown directly into a base layer of wool and recycled pulps. The unscoured dag wool contains a range of natural nutrients balanced to feed grass. The nutrients are slowly released into the soil resulting in thick healthy green grass with strong deep roots. The recycled fibres hold approximately 60% of their weight as water, dramatically improving seed germination and reducing the amount of irrigation required. The base layer significantly reduces seed loss to hungry birds and acts as a natural weed suppressant. Over time the base layer biodegrades and adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
2) Ready Lawn (below
If instant gratification is your thing, you can't go past a Ready Lawn. The lawn is pre-grown on a specialised turf farm. The turf is freshly harvested into rolls and delivered on-site, worms and all. The turf is rolled out for instant enjoyment.
Installation and Maintenance
Before lawns can be installed, a significant amount of site preparation must be carried out, including clearing, spraying, cultivation, levelling and screeding. We won't go into all of the details here. For garden DIY'ers, specific instructions will be provided by your grass supplier.
Listed below are four grass types most commonly recommended for North Island residential use. They have varying degrees of tolerance to wear and drought and varying colour. Tall Fescue has become quite popular recently as it is both good-looking with a lovely deep green colour and relatively resistant. If tolerance/maintenance is your primary concern, you might want to consider Couch or Kikuyu.
Couch (Bermuda Grass) - high wear tolerance, high pet tolerance, high drought resistance, low maintenance, medium leaf, mid-green.
Kikuyu - high wear tolerance, high pet tolerance, high drought resistance, low maintenance, coarse leaf, mid-green.
Tall Fescue - high wear tolerance, medium pet tolerance, medium drought resistance, medium maintenance, coarse leaf, deep-green.
Fine Fescue - low wear tolerance, low pet tolerance, low drought resistance, medium maintenance, superfine leaf, deep-green.
*Supply and Installation Costs
Natural grass is the most cost-effective solution in terms of up-front installation costs at approx $80/sqm for grass supply, site preparation and installation. However, if you wish to have your lawn professionally maintained, you might want to factor in these costs long-term, along with any weeding and fertilising.
Whether you want to protect your backyard from drought, transform an area where grass won't grow, or simply don't want to mow the lawn, you may be considering artificial grass.
There is certainly no denying that artificial grass comes up trumps over natural grass in so many aspects;
it's very low maintenance,
it doesn't need watering, weeding, fertilising, mowing,
it doesn't get muddy,
it looks great all year round, anywhere in the garden,
the dog won't dig it up.
Achieving lawn perfection without mowing, watering or fertilising sounds very appealing, but some downsides are important to consider.
We have put together some information to help you.
How to select artificial grass.
Over the last few years, vast improvements in the manufacturing process have greatly improved the quality of artificial grass - both functionally and aesthetically.
Many different characteristics contribute to creating the best quality artificial grass; for example, the backing material, pile height, pile density and colour play an essential role.
There is also an essential ecological consideration, so we have tried to provide as much information as possible (short of being environmental engineers!).
When selecting artificial grass for your outdoor space, here's what we recommend you look for.
Material composition -100% Polyethelene.
Look for artificial grass made from 100% polyethene, including the backing. Here's why:
Polyethelene is one of the easiest plastics to recycle.
Polyethelene backing is woven into an open-weave fabric. This means that is it extra permeable allowing liquids to drain through quickly.
Polyethelene is not porous, so it doesn't absorb any moisture - including animal urine.
It is the best for pet owners due to its permeability and non-porous nature, as we've mentioned above.
It is soft and comes in a variety of colours, so it gives the most natural-looking finish.
It's easy to look after. The best way to care for polyethene artificial grass is to rake and brush it regularly. It is easy to wash down when you need to.
Avoid grasses that are mounted onto a latex backing. There are two main reasons for this, 1) they cannot be recycled, and 2) they are the least permeable.
Below: Smartgrass 100% polyethelene artificial grass. The fully permeable backing – almost like a fabric – enables water, dog pee and moisture to drain like a sieve.
What's best for pets?
Look for grass that has woven polyethene or polypropylene backing. These materials are incorporated into a fabric-like backing for maximum permeability and durability. Latex backings are much more absorbent and have holes punched into the back to let the water pass through, so they are much less permeable and can smell if they absorb too much urine. They are also non-porous so that animal urine won't be absorbed into the material.
Pile height, colour and density.
Your personal preference will determine the style of grass that you want to go for. However, higher quality and more natural-looking grasses will generally have the following characteristics:
Pile height - the most natural-looking grasses will have a pile height of 30-40cm. Longer grasses will flatten down more when you walk on them and require more maintenance. Any shorter and they can start to look like a sports field.
Density - depending on the material, most quality grasses will have a thickness of 2-3 kg per sqm, or16,000-18,000 stitches per sqm.
Colour - Many of the most natural-looking grasses feature a mix of straight and curled monofilaments and colours to give the turf a more organic, less uniform appearance. To avoid a sports-field appearance, look for turfs comprising at least four colours.
Does artificial grass get hot?
The short answer is yes. This is undoubtedly one of the downsides of artificial grass in the height of summer; it can get scorching, so don't forget to wear your jandals. On the flip(flop) side, throwing down a rug and lying on the nice warm grass at the late end of the day can be enjoyable.
The environmental argument - is artificial grass more environmentally friendly than natural grass?
*disclaimer - our comments below are our informed opinion based on our research. We are not environmental scientists, so the below remains an opinion and not expert advice.
One of the most frequent arguments offered by artificial grass companies is that "artificial lawn is more environmentally friendly". The main ecological argument for artificial grass is that it uses less water, less toxic fertilisers and is recyclable. However, we think that this is a narrow view and doesn't take into consideration the life-cycle of the product nor the life-cycle of the natural world.
We often only consider the environmental impact of artificial grass at the end of its life - its recyclability. More importantly, however, we must consider the ecological impact of artificial grass over its entire life, from the beginning to the end. Artificial grass is, after all, plastic made from fossil fuels. Artificial grass has to go through significant and lengthy processing to reach its final state - from crude oil to plastic pellets, then from plastic pellets into artificial grass. And there is no denying the damage to air and water quality caused by the petrochemical industry and industrial manufacturing of plastics. Additionally, while some artificial grasses are indeed 100% recyclable, we must also consider the environmental impacts of the recycling process itself.
*Note: we have contacted Recycle NZ for clarification on the recyclability of different grass types. We will update this blog post when we have received a response.
In counter-argument to the toxicity of fertilisers and weed sprays used on natural grass, several Biogro certified, organic fertilisers and weedkillers are available to purchase at major gardening and DIY outlets throughout the country. There is no need to use any toxic chemicals whatsoever. As for water usage, there are only 2-3 months in the year that we need to apply additional water to the lawn, and there are lawn varieties that are more drought-tolerant and bounce back rapidly after the odd dry spell.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to consider that natural lawn provides a home to all sorts of creepy crawlies that nourish our birds, which in turn play an important role in pollinating the fruit and veges that sustain us.
So, in answer to the question? Well, we'll leave you to decide that!!
The environmental argument - how does artificial grass compare to other landscaping materials?
In short, we don't know. The answer to this most definitely requires a level of education and research that we can't provide. Manufacturing building materials, whether concrete, timber, porcelain tiles or artificial grass, contribute to pollution in one way or another and require specific processes to recycle them at the end of their life.
This decision comes down to your personal aesthetic preference. If in doubt, plant plants 🌿.
*Supply and Installation Costs
The upfront cost of artificial grass is significantly higher than Ready Lawn, at around $145/sqm for supply, preparation and installation. This is due to the cost of the product and the preparation work involved.
Do I really need a lawn? What are the alternatives?
There's no doubt we are lawn lovers in New Zealand. Perhaps, it's a nostalgic nod to our childhood. Back in the good old days, when we had 1/4 acre sections. When you'd wake up on the weekend to the dawn chorus of lawnmowers and the smell of freshly mown grass. When the weekends lasted forever, and so did summer! Because let's all agree, life was perfect back then, wasn't it?? 😜
But as our section sizes get smaller and our lives busier, we are all for keeping things simple!
I loved my lawn—the expanse of lush green, the clean, modern lines and the freshly mowed edges. And yet, two years after the installation, my love affair is waning as the weeds take hold, the patches appear, and the constant mowing is waring me down. Surprisingly, the maintenance required to keep the lawn tidy is vastly superior to the care required on the garden beds and most definitely outweighs the time we use it.
Above left to right: Weeds, weeds, more weeds.
I thought we would picnic out there, play ball out there, and sit in the sun out there. I thought my son would roly-poly out there. In reality, we hardly ever use the lawn. My son digs in the garden beds, loves to help me plant and prune, water the flowers and hammer nails into wood. The lawn is just a useful place for him to see how far he can pee!
I thought I needed a lawn; it turns out I was wrong. If I were to start again, I wouldn't have any lawn at all.
So, what are some alternative options if you don't want to suffer from lawn fatigue and you're not into the fake variety?
If you look at many of our projects, you'll notice that, rather than creating a rectangle of green bordered by garden beds, we intersperse the greenery with hardscapes, creating multiple zones and points of focus. By doing this, we can create verdant and low-maintenance gardens with lots of interest. Mixing planting with hardscapes allows greater flexibility to cater to different budgets.
The below images show three different ways to combine greenery and hardscapes. In the left image, we simply cut sections out of a concrete slab to create pavers and planted Dichondra between them. The middle shows a combination of timber and concrete with Corten steel planters. And on the right, river stones create pathways between sizeable garden beds.
Walkable groundcovers are a very viable alternative solution. Not only do they add colour and texture to the yard, but they can also attract native wildlife and even deter insects. Plus, they’re much easier to maintain than a grassy lawn. Unlike grass, creeping groundcovers grow to a certain height and then stop. So while they may need a light trim once or twice a year, they don't need anywhere near as much maintenance as grass. They will take a little longer to establish and clump together to form a mat, so expect to see some bare soil for a season or so. The best thing is they can be mixed and matched for added interest, and there are different options depending on the soil type and aspect.
Below are some of the hardiest varieties and most tolerant of foot traffic.
Above clockwise from top left:
Selliera Radicans - a New Zealand coastal native, tolerates salt and dampness but doesn't like to get too dry.
Baby's Tears - best for shady spots.
Dwarf Mondo Grass - forms a dense carpet of dark green foliage offset by spikes of lilac flowers followed by blue-black berries. A very hardy and low-maintenance plant that prefers part to full shade.
Leptinella Diocia - a New Zealand native with beautiful spreading mats of bright green fern-like leaves.
Creeping Thyme - a dense, fast-growing, carpeting thyme with masses of flowers in summer.
Dichondra Repens - a New Zealand native with leaves that become smaller and tighter with traffic. Once established, it forms a dense thatch of stems and leaves impenetrable by weeds.
Below: Selliera radicans and Leptinella diocia have been mixed to form a dense and hardy mat of green. (Image: Jane Usher)
*How do lawn costs compare to other groundcovers and hardscapes?
To finish off, we thought it would be handy to compare the costs of various landscaping materials.
Artifical grass: $145/sqm
Ready lawn: $80/sqm
Decking: pine $250, pine premium $350, hardwood $550
*To help you understand the costs and how the use of different materials can affect your budget, here is a very basic example of a 20sqm back yard:
The cost of installing the whole area in artificial grass would be $2900.
If you lay half in tile and half in groundcovers, it would cost $2500.
If you were to plant 3/4 in groundcover and lay a stone path, the cost would be $1750.
If you lay 1/3 in pine premium, 1/3 in tiles and 1/3 in groundcover, the cost would be $3960.
But, before you start...
Designing a small backyard is fun and exciting, and as you can see, the options are endless! However, the essential part of any small garden design is to create a space that reflects you and the people who'll share it with you. Before you start, think about how you will use the area. The three most important questions to consider are:
What will I be doing in the garden?
When will I be outside?
Who will be there with me?
Then make your design decisions based on the answers.
Creating a green space in your small garden doesn't mean spending hours maintaining a lawn. We’ve helped many customers create beautiful and low-maintenance small gardens that can be enjoyed all year round. Our designers specialise in urban gardens, terraced housing, balconies, and decks. If you are considering transforming your outdoor space, don't hesitate to get in touch for a free, no-obligation consultation.
*The cost estimates provided in this article are intended as a rough guide only, are subject to change and will depend on the intricacies of each design.