August 28, 2004

Serf to turf no more


The News Tribune

Sally Webster's lawn will never grow. She doesn't have to water, weed, thatch or aerate it. While her Steilacoom neighbors are planning their fall lawn maintenance, she sits back and watches their dogs come over to play on her lush lawn, and answers the doorbell to strangers who want to know how she keeps it so green.

Webster and her husband, Bob, have a lawn of Dream Turf, bright-green artificial grass blades. Unlike the old Astroturf, traditionally glued to concrete and rough as sandpaper, Dream Turf is soft, and sprouts from a mesh fabric that lets rainwater percolate through to the ground below.

"I just like the whole idea that you don't have to mess with it," Webster said. "You just do it once and forget about it."

More and more upscale homeowners are turning to artificial grass such as Dream Turf for their lawns because it's low-maintenance and doesn't need water or chemicals. Until recently, the artificial grass was seen mostly in well-funded arenas such as Husky Stadium and Qwest Field, where it's called Field Turf.

Generically, the soft turf is called infill turf. There are many brand names, including Astrolawn, Omnigrass, Sprinturf, SafePlay and ProGreen. The newly remodeled Mount Tahoma High School will have a field of artificial infill turf when it opens this fall.

Dream Turf isn't a product for the masses: The Websters' 1,590-square-foot lawn cost about $13,000, which is average for a residential project, said Dream Turf co-owner John Davidson.

Other lawns have cost $24,000 or more, he said.

"We are definitely catering to a higher household income," he said.

Why is it so expensive?

"You don't just roll a thing of carpet out," Davidson said. To install the turf, he said, workers first remove a homeowner's existing lawn and dig down four inches. They install permeable landscape fabric, top it with 2 to 3 inches of cleaned gravel, compact the gravel, and roll out 15-foot swaths of artificial lawn.

Then, on top of the lawn, they add an inch of ground rubber tires and silicon sand. The filling makes the surface springy, and looks like dark soil between the grass blades.

There are drawbacks, of course: The lawn looks almost spookily perfect. A newly installed lawn has a faint rubber-tire odor to it, and it's shiny. The shine will fade after a few seasons, Davidson said.

The turf has an 8-year warranty against fading and needs no maintenance except that it might need to be raked if a chair has been sitting on it for a long time, Davidson said.

Webster says she likes it because her old lawn struggled in her yard's rocky, sandy soil. The Websters' house is on a bluff above the beach in Steilacoom.

"We had it replaced, we had it thatched, we had professionals come, we were spending $300 a month on water, and it still looked awful," she said of the old lawn.

Finally making the decision to spend the money for artificial turf was tough, she said, but she and her husband decided it would pay for itself in seven or eight years.

"It's pricey stuff," she said. "It's not something you do unless you're really committed."

She also said she thinks the turf is better, environmentally, than a lawn, because it doesn't need fertilizer or weed killer, and no one runs the lawn mower to keep it trimmed. And it's great for people who have allergies.

Davidson said dogs can't destroy the lawn by digging or relieving themselves on it. Dandelions can land and sprout on the lawn, he said, but they shouldn't be hard to remove. He said he and a friend started the business three years ago. He had been in the lumber industry for 20 years, he said, and was nervous that his job would disappear to artificial lumber products.

Other than the cost, Webster said she hasn't heard any downside to the lawn yet. She's kept a stack of company brochures near the front door of her house to answer questions from curious neighbors. At least one called Davidson to ask for an estimate. Davidson's not surprised. The first year he was in business, he said, his company installed 12 lawns; the second year, 49. This year it has installed more than 100.

Some of those clients are day cares, he said, because owners like it that children don't track mud inside. But most are wealthy, or at least comfortable. "We're starting today on a rooftop job in Bellevue," for a software company, Davidson said. "They want to be able to play volleyball on their lunch breaks."

Copyright © 2004 The Tacoma News Tribune Co.

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