It was often considered the bad toupee of the landscaping world by people who observed the glaringly fake grass that started appearing in the 1960s. Back then, it could even give football players the equivalent of rug burns if they were tackled on the stuff.

Though scoffing might still be a frequent response today when the topic comes up, the artificial turf industry has quietly reinvented itself and has been winning converts among residential and commercial customers fed up with planting, watering, mowing, edging, feeding, weeding, aerating, patching and all the other tasks of nurturing a real lawn.

"I had an area in the front with a large tree, and I couldn't get the grass to grow," says Clarence Parkison, of Livermore, who recently had faux turf installed. Now, it not only looks good -- "nice and green, trimmed," he says -- but current water restrictions might have doomed a real lawn, or at least have turned it brown.

Morgan Hill resident Helena Lowe says, "All my neighbors' grass is dead," alluding to irrigation restrictions put in place because of the drought. "It's just horrific. And mine is beautiful and green. Everyone always asks me, 'Who's taking care of your lawn?' "

Both Lowe and Parkison opted for higher-end, domestic-made ersatz turf, from one of several regional installers that get glowing comments on social media.


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More aesthetically pleasing to many than a dry xeriscape of colored rocks, today's startlingly realistic artificial grass has come a long way in both quality and practicality. Many U.S.-made products are nonflammable, lead-free and nontoxic, making them fine for kids and pets. And they can be recycled.

But they're not cheap. "The initial outlay is expensive," says Burlingame resident Maureen Supanich. "But when you come down to it, it's really reasonable," she says, considering the costs of caring for a lawn yourself or paying a gardener to do that if pushing a mower isn't your thing.

According to Lance Schepps of South San Francisco's Onelawn, which manufactured and installed Supanich's turf, "For a residential application, you're looking at between $10 and $15 a square foot, installed." He contrasts that to natural turf prices starting at $2 a square foot for the base option and going up to $6 per square foot or more if irrigation is being added.

"You may spend 50 to 60 percent more for an artificial turf system than natural grass because sod's very cheap," says Brad Borgman of Heavenly Greens, a San Jose artificial turf installer. "The payback, if you're going with artificial, is anywhere from three to six years, depending on your water consumption and how you're using the surface."

While mock grass doesn't require a lot of attention, it's actually low-maintenance, rather than no-maintenance. According to Gabriel Hernandez of the Bay Area installer Better Than Real Artificial Grass, the homeowner with faux turf will need to "remove yard debris (and), depending on foot traffic, brush the blades up. That's pretty much it," he says. "If they have a dog, we advise they rinse off the lawn once a week."

Warranties from top firms run in the neighborhood of 10 years. But, as Schepps notes, "There's no odometer reading on these lawns," and heavily used sports fields and pet runs get far more wear and tear than lawns that are mostly just admired from afar.

Fabricated from blends of polyethylene, polypropylene and sometimes nylon to re-create the length, thatch pattern and colors of various grass species, synthetic sod can raise a few issues besides cost. About eight degrees hotter on sunny days than the outdoor air temperature, an artificial lawn can't stay as cool as natural grass that has water running through it.

More problematic is bright sun reflecting off windows at certain angles, which can actually melt patches of synthetic turf. Some installers recommend adding external window screens to reduce reflected the glare.

But there's no truth to the idea that a man-made lawn is unsafe for kids. In fact, quite a few schools and playgrounds in our region have installed artificial turf, including the Park Elementary in San Mateo, Kids Corner Montessori in Fremont and Palo Alto's Ronald McDonald House, where immune-compromised kids can actually play on the back faux lawn, which might be problematic with real grass.

The Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, where kids from preschool through eighth grade can enroll in programs, recently replaced its initial fake-grass playing field with a new artificial lawn after 13 years of use. Stomped on by hundreds of kids daily, the man-made grass enabled the center to use its field year-round and drastically reduce maintenance costs.

However, pseudo lawns require skillful installation. "We have to build a drainage space" under the turf, Hernandez says. This involves carting away three inches of soil, then laying and compacting the crushed rock that will reside under the plastic grass. Occasionally, additional drainage channels are needed, too.

A screen to prevent weeds from growing through the synthetic turf is included in the higher-end domestic products. Gopher barriers are an optional addition.

The last step in the installation process is sprinkling the faux turf with "infill" made from sand and crumbled recycled rubber. Once settled between the blades, this material functions as a sort of synthetic soil. Various blends are used, depending on whether the installation will be a standard lawn, putting green, dog run, sports field, play yard, etc.

Given the expertise required for a top-notch installation, an unskilled DIY homeowner might end up with a new lawn that looks fake because of awkward edges and obvious seams, the most common problems. "I generally tell people that ... they shouldn't tackle (installation) unless they're a master carpet layer," Schepps says.

For those not daunted by the challenge, artificial turf can be purchased from installation firms, home improvement stores and now the large nursery chain SummerWinds. But Borgman says there's more to be wary of than seaming, reeling off "making the first cut off the roll, for example; making sure the grain goes in the same direction with each piece; and making sure you have the right foundation of base material underneath."

Many customers decide it's better to let the pros put in their sham lawn, so their visitors will have the same response as those enviously running their fingers over Helena Lowe's plastic lawn.

"I tell everybody to get one of these lawns," she says. "And they are. I have a bunch of friends who have already put in these greens."