Natural or artificial turf?

Artificial or natural turf
Whether you’re laying natural or artificial turf, guide clients on how best to maintain their investment. Each option has pitfalls for the unwary, Greg Rhodes discovers for The Landscaper Magazine 

Passing a petrol forecourt recently, I spotted a strip of synthetic turf running along the frontage with the pavement – flattened, dirty and looking distinctly moth-eaten. That first impression did little to enhance the public image of synthetic grass, or the fuel retailer, merely serving to stress the importance of regular upkeep to the appearance and presentation of the product. Closer to home some neighbours brought in contractors last year to dig up their grass to replace it with synthetic lawn. Soon after, the family had to recall the contractors to correct a reportedly faulty installation. Each example illustrates important factors about synthetic turf – know what you’re doing before attempting to install it, maintain it regularly and consider site conditions carefully before selecting it.

Artificial turf in the garden

They also confirm another reality – that non-sport applications for synthetic turf are rising, a fact borne out by Colin Corline, Project Manager for sector body SAPCA (the Sports and Play Construction Association) whose members include synthetic turf suppliers and installers.

“We are witnessing an upswing in landscape installations,” he says, “with some members opening landscape-specific sales teams to handle inquiries.”  In sport the story of synthetic turf is a continually evolving one, recently impacted by mounting fears over the damage that microplastic particles can wreak on ecosystems.  It’s become a big talking point in the last couple of years. Afterall, on a full-size pitch, you’re talking about replacing some 7,000 m2 of natural turf with a synthetic surface, but the socioeconomic benefits can be major. Operators can expect to get around four hours a day sporting use on a real pitch, compared with eight to ten hours a day with a synthetic one. Hybrid pitches, blending natural and artificial grass offer an appropriate surface for football and rugby and they are also increasingly specified for golf greens.

Low maintenance turf solutions  

Synthetic turf upkeep SAPCA member TigerTurf offers low maintenance solutions to fit today’s demand from busy households less inclined to uphold the traditions of gardening and lawncare. Based in Kidderminster, they have made and supplied artificial turf for local, national and international installations since 2001. Their business still rests largely on synthetic turf for sport, but landscaping applications are “growing steadily”, says marketing manager Jess Finnegan, “mainly for back gardens but also increasingly for business sites.”  Jess voices a thought now growing in prominence. “Many think artificial grass is easier to install and maintain than it actually is. Our early adopter installers have plenty of experience of laying it to ensure the best results so we have prepared guidance on both installation and maintenance.”

“Children and dogs love the surface for playing or just sitting on,” continues Jess, “and there’s no mud to worry about. Pet wee doesn’t discolour the pile but dog wee may cause odour in warm weather. Probiotic Wee Away cleaning liquid spray is effective for that.” Today’s generation of synthetic turf offers far softer, polyethylene, pile and replicates natural grass more closely, TigerTurf states. So the message is clear. Synthetic turf is no ‘lay it and leave it’ solution but a system that demands continuing care and attention to keep the surface in an optimum condition.

 Net-reinforced grass

While hybrid turf gathers pace in the sports sector, net-reinforced grass is gaining ground for residential applications. Turf growers are reaping the business and environmental benefits of laying polymer netting to help speed the establishment and harvesting cycle of the grass plant after sowing. Part and parcel of the turf product growers supply, the polypropylene reinforcement degrades over time, explains David Davies, founder and managing director of Early Turf Systems, which supplies Belgian-made Oxygrid. “Light, heat and moisture cause the netting to naturally degrade once turf is laid,” he says, “losing half its strength after one to two years and fully degrading within around five years.”

Sitting a few millimetres below the surface, the netting could be exposed if homeowners or turfcare contractors scarify too soon and too heavily after installation. “Thatch shouldn’t present an issue for the first year or two so there’s no need to scarify until later on,” David says. Adopted on housing construction sites and golf courses, the reinforced turf system is also in place at some football club facilities in Europe, he confirms. “Fine-discing the surface ensures there is no early issue with snagging,” David states.”

Turfgrass Growers Association

Also Turfgrass Growers Association (TGA) members (David worked with the Association on soil erosion and soil loss projects) Early Turf Systems take a rounded view of polypropylene netting’s place in the green equation.

“Plastics manufacturers are working hard to develop products that are more environmentally beneficial,” David says. “Polypropylene reinforcement offers growers huge savings in carbon emissions – shorter growing cycle, more efficient land use and an enormous reduction in waste and haulage costs. In time, the sector may have moved to a position of ‘there’s no reason not to use degradable reinforcement for more efficient turf production’, David believes, adding: “Grass is one of the world’s greatest air conditioners in terms of carbon dioxide it absorbs and oxygen it emits – a fact that should be recognised much more.”

Natural turf 

Lawncare specialists across the country are doing just that, committed to keeping natural grass the go-to choice for homeowners. The UK Lawn Care Association (UKLCA) supports independent businesses serving this sector, whether start-ups or multi-van operations.

The fashion for faux maybe in full swing, boosted by Covid-19 lockdowns, but more landscapers may soon start to appreciate the true qualities of natural turf in the round, according to grower and supplier Inturf. The company harvests its product on the light, sandy, virtually stone-free loam of the Vale of York, long known as a prime place to nurture turf. Supplying public and private sectors either direct or through its distributor network, the family-run business is witnessing change in the sector, it acknowledges.

“Natural turf is not really laid for sports installations these days,” declares director Stephen Edwards. “In part that’s because hybrid pitches (a blend of real grass and synthetic fibres) allow greater intensity of use, a key cost criterion for clubs and operators,” he says. “The vast majority of our turf is destined for landscaping applications, sold via our network of distributors and stockists or direct to retailers.” As “pioneers in turfgrass growing”, Inturf has stuck to its guns in continuing to practise traditional methods, albeit with greater accent on environmental issues.

A TGA member, the company believes it holds “a responsibility to the planet” in the way it grows grass and delivers the product to market. The landscape sector for natural turf alone is “growing exponentially” he reports. “With £140bn lodged in UK personal savings accounts, the money is there for homeowners to invest in their gardens.”

Cultural practices prevail at Inturf, Stephen says. “Spring is the key time to treat natural grass. Careful application a selective herbicide is a necessary part of the turfgrowing programme to prevent risk of weed infestation.” But he stresses: “Turf is an effective barrier to weeds as greater sward density naturally deters them from proliferating.”

After the first strong growth, grass starts to seed around June time, when it’s cut, bouncing back in autumn, when it’s thinned out. “Right fertility and moisture levels are essential for healthy turf,” Stephen adds. “Although we will irrigate if necessary, it’s best to wait for rain. Though acknowledging that synthetic turf is an option, Stephen predicts a return to the natural solution.

“After two or three years, customers may begin to recognise some of the issues with an artificial lawn – fading colour, hygiene and possible slip hazards when the pile flattens with use.” Drainage is “far worse” too, he claims. “Problems can arise with water run-off from totally artificial turf. Also, natural turf breaks down the enzymes present in pet faeces and they are digested in the ecosystem.

Mental health 

“There’s also the mental health aspect. Research has proved that the feeling of coolness on the soles of the feet encourages the formation of endorphins, which generate feelings of wellbeing.”

UK Lawn Care Association member, Cheshire Lawn Therapy manages and remedies residential gardens in the North-west, offering “professional, affordable lawncare services” across the county and in Manchester. The family-run concern tackles lawn issues like moss, weeds, brown patches and turf diseases, also offering clients tips on how to best maintain their lawns. Committed to promoting the cause of natural grass, owner Steve Hatton says “people want nature in their gardens and living turf helps attract it”. He accepts that synthetics have their place though. “They can work for houses built in confined spaces with very small or narrow gardens, or lawns in deep shade that can be difficult to maintain,” he says. Steve is passionate about the importance of cultural practices to conserve a healthy soil balance, along with his stock in trade lawn renovation that covers scarifying and topdressing and seeding with dwarf ryegrass mixes.

Good mowing regimes are critical to lawn health, he insists. “I never recommend a cylinder machine, unless we’re talking about bowling and golf greens. Regular cutting is key but lawns do not need micromanaging in the way sports surfaces do.”