Fall Home: Synthetic turf a tempting option

On a block where the majority of the lawns are sunburned and water-starved, Steve McKiernan’s grass
Steve McKiernan poses with the artificial turf lawn at his Schenectady home.
Steve McKiernan poses with the artificial turf lawn at his Schenectady home.

On a block where the majority of the lawns are sunburned and water-starved, Steve McKiernan’s grass looks too good to be true.

It’s emerald colored, perfectly trimmed and there is not a weed in sight. But you won’t see him out there trimming, fertilizing or watering. There’s no need. His lawn is synthetic.

“What you do is you sit on the porch with a nice whiskey and a cigar and you go, ’What should we do today?’ and we go, ’Nothing to do,’ ” he said with a laugh.

McKiernan and his wife, Katherine Brickley, had about 600 square feet of artificial turf installed in the front yard of their Schenectady home this summer. Another homeowner down the street recently replaced his lawn with synthetic grass as well.

McKiernan said he’s had passersby stop to touch his new lawn and ask for information about it.

“We’ve had more calls this year [about artificial turf] than ever before,” said Tim Brennan, of Brennan Landscaping in Schenectady, the company that installed McKiernan’s lawn.

Artificial turf is gaining popularity with homeowners who have small lawns and lack the time, desire or ability to maintain them. It’s also being used for backyard putting greens and around swimming pools, where clippings from a real lawn can be a nuisance.

The elimination of traditional lawn maintenance makes artificial turf an alluring option, but it has both pros and cons.

From a distance McKiernan’s lawn could be confused with the real thing. It even contains brown fibers to simulate thatch. But up close, it’s shinier and more uniform looking than actual grass, and when you touch it, the blades feel like the needles on an artificial Christmas tree.

Unlike live grass, synthetic turf is not damaged by winter conditions or road salt, Brennan noted.

The nicest difference is that it doesn’t grow — a definite bonus for those who aren’t fans of mowing.

McKiernan simply fluffs the blades with a broom and uses a leaf blower to remove autumn leaves.

“The neighbor wants my weed whacker,” he said with a grin.

Any organic matter that falls on artificial turf needs to be removed, noted David Chinery, extension educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County.

“Any litter that’s left there — little bits of anything — never decomposes like it does in a natural turf system,” he explained in a recent interview.

McKiernan said things like pet excrement can simply be removed from the artificial turf and the turf can be hosed off.

Synthetic turf comes in different densities and heights and is made from several different materials. Brennan works with a number of producers and brings along product samples when he meets with customers.

Depending on the lay of a homeowner’s property, grading work and the addition of retaining walls may be necessary before installing a synthetic lawn, he noted.

The turf installation at McKiernan’s home included the excavation of about five inches of soil. A layer of crushed stone was added, leveled and rolled flat. The artificial turf was then laid down and secured. Silica sand was swept into the turf to help its blades stand up straight. The turf was trimmed to fit around the one tree in McKiernan’s front yard. A metal ring filled with decorative stone was placed around it, leaving the tree plenty of room to grow.

McKiernan’s small swatch of turf cost about $5,000, not including some sidewalk work and pavers that were installed.

The turf is covered by his homeowners insurance, he noted.

An artificial lawn has some eco-friendly aspects. No mowing means less fumes in the air. There is also no need to treat the lawn with fertilizer or pesticides, or to waste water trying to keep it green.

There are, however, some things about synthetic turf that are not Earth-friendly.

According to Brennan, a well-cared-for synthetic lawn should last 12 to 15 years. Once it’s removed and discarded, it will likely wind up in a landfill.

Synthetic turf does not provide a habitat for wildlife, and it can’t absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, or filter pollutants from air and water like real grass does.

There is also concern that some materials used to make artificial turf could be harmful to humans and animals. Tests conducted by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services found that turf made of nylon or nylon/polyethylene-blend fibers contains levels of lead that pose a potential public health concern. Tests of artificial turf made with only polyethylene fibers showed that the material contained very low levels of lead.

Reach Gazette reporter Kelly de la Rocha at 395-3040, [email protected] and @KellydelaRocha.

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