Home Turf: Faux Grass Delivers the Green Without the Fuss
For nearly $100,000, Matthew and Nina Christensen got exactly the landscaping they wanted. The 2,029-square-foot area around their home in Newport Beach, Calif., has several shades of green, gentle slopes and altering lengths of bluntly cut grass that make it look freshly mowed no matter the season. Three lush living walls cover an exterior concrete wall. What’s more, it is basically maintenance-free.
“Our neighbors on both sides are in contact with our landscaper,” says Mr. Christensen, 39 years old, a commercial real-estate developer.
The Christensens’ landscaping includes about $23,000 worth of faux elements, including synthetic grass around the pool, on a putting green, along a dog run and covering the home’s second-floor terrace. The couple tested the living walls by hanging them outdoors during their home’s three-year construction phase. In all, they bought 20 artificial green-wall panels through U.K.-based Vistagreen and installed them in three custom frames, for a total $10,000.
“We now have a lively, energetic green surface that’s much more welcoming,” adds Mr. Christensen. The 5,500-square-foot, five-bedroom, seven-bathroom home was designed by architect Christopher Brandon, of Brandon Architects in Costa Mesa, who also planned the outdoor space. Although the couple declined to give the cost of their new construction, a slightly bigger new build by the same architect in a nearby neighborhood recently sold for $9.75 million.
Mr. Brandon says about 75% of the projects he does for modern-style homes have faux grass. Homeowners like it because there is almost no maintenance, it doesn’t need water, it always looks tidy and it can be used in areas where real grass won’t grow. It gives properties a clean, high-end feel, and is especially good for certain amenities, such as zero-edge pools that tend to kill the real grass around them with the water’s chlorine, says the architect.
Mr. Brandon also added real plants. Lavender and rosemary were placed close to the home so their scent would waft through the windows. He says he tends to keep nature at a distance from the fake stuff—so as not to compare the two. He also prefers artificial turf that has brown tinges and different lengths to create realistic imperfections. “When everything is perfectly the same length, it ends up looking like a carpet,” Mr. Brandon adds.
The Christensen landscape has one small weak link: The small, artificial succulents that dot a stone bed hiding a pop-up television next to the pool are constantly being replaced. The family dogs keep digging up the fake plants to use as chew toys. The stone-and-succulent camouflage cost about $100, a fraction of the $10,000 it cost for the television setup as a whole.
In Napa Valley, Hillary Ryan and her husband spent $60,000 for their perfect synthetic lawn, a 3,600-square-foot parcel surrounding their five-bedroom home. Her favorite part is that there is no dirt to tract into the house.
“Grass is messy,” says the 42-year-old real-estate agent. “We paid six times more to have the faux grass installed.”
When building what she calls her rural rock ’n’ roll-style home in 2016, Ms. Ryan and her husband, Andy, 53, founder of a wine-bottling company, wanted turf that could thrive in drought-prone California. Both had lawns at their homes before they were married and were conscious of how much water they used. They also wanted a field that could withstand beatings from the sports activities of their blended family of four school-age sons. They paired the faux turf with drought-tolerant native plants throughout the exterior, spending a total of $200,000 for landscaping.
“We really had the goal of not having a full-time gardener and we accomplished that,” says Ms. Ryan. The Ryans own a 2.76-acre property that includes a 1-acre vineyard that produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes—and which requires a seasonal vineyard manager. They purchased the land for $1.35 million in 2014. Their newly constructed home was assessed at about $3 million in 2018, according to tax records.
Although natural grass is priced at less than $2 a square foot for initial landscaping, it can require monthly mowing and maintenance that add thousands to the total cost, says Tommy Beadel, co-founder at Thomas James Homes, an Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based custom-homes builder that installs synthetic and natural turf.
By comparison, high-end synthetic grass can cost $11 to $19 a square foot, but can pay for itself in saved expenses, says Troy Scott, an owner of Heavenly Greens in San Jose, Calif., who worked with Ms. Ryan. Such lawns can last 15 to 20 years. Maintenance includes just cleaning up occasional weed growth and caring for heavy trafficked areas that may flatten out overtime and require steppingstones, he adds.
As little as five years ago, such faux-is-best thinking was nonexistent among luxury homeowners, and their landscape designers. The turf eventually faded into a blue-tinged green, says Mr. Scott. The faux products sold to homeowners were the same ones used on sports fields, he adds.
“Even the mention of the word fake sends peoples toes curling,” says Grahame Hubbard, a New York-based landscape designer specializing in terraces and rooftops. These days, however, Mr. Hubbard uses photos of his own work via Instagram with hashtags like #syntheticlawn to sell potential clients on low-maintenance options, which include turf and boxwood hedges that he puts up for privacy.
Today’s synthetic products—typically a combination of nylon, polyethylene and polypropylene—are made specifically for the home and have better drainage, stay cooler in the sun and remain in good condition for years. The newer turf uses plastic polymers for blades that are woven into a permeable backing system made from plastics that are better bonded, stitched and seamed, with various infill materials to keep the blades in position. Crushed rock is placed underneath. Longer blades feel softer, and multiple blades woven together have a more grasslike feel underfoot. They often include thatch, a material to mimic dried grass. Also, pigment variation mimics natural grass, rather than the more uniform sports field, says Mr. Scott.
Choices are continuing to expand. When it comes to flowers, faux options are just starting to grow. Pink bougainvillea, white gardenia and freesia are some of the popular requests for faux planter boxes that can spend years outside without fading, says Paula Doherty, founder of LanaiScapes in St. Petersburg, Fla. She suggests them for pool areas, grouped strategically. “These are not your roadside memorial plants, these are high-end,” she adds.
Synthetic grass is often set among stone pavers or alongside a pool with few natural trees or landscaping. Installers typically take 2 or 3 inches off the top of the yard and then fill with recycled material before placing the turf. The lawn is installed with a slight crown in the middle, similar to grass.
When a natural lawn in her Brooklyn townhouse didn’t get enough sunlight, Alexa Suskin, 36, sought another option. She and her husband, Marc Suskin, worked with a landscape designer to complete a backyard garden and patio in 2016, using natural plants on the perimeter of a faux lawn. The project cost $50,000, including $8,000 for the artificial turf.
Passersby can’t tell real from synthetic, and several neighbors have followed suit. “It looks real and I’m less likely to step on a bee,” says Ms. Suskin.
James Stephenson, who worked with Ms. Suskin and another neighbor, says clients often choose artificial turf when they have small children they want to keep out of dirt and away from bugs, or to use under lawn furniture to keep the area from getting torn up. Increasingly, he is opting for other faux elements, including boulders and ivy walls with faux leaves above eye level, he adds.
Landscape designer Tim O’Shea, based in Sausalito, Calif., says some authentic plants can be closely integrated with faux grass. He has, for example, had a genuine boxwood bush grow out of an opening in an artificial lawn, or put wild native plants around a turf’s edges. Projects can vary in price from $500,000 to $7 million, he adds.
But, he says, “there’s a tipping point to using too many synthetics, and it doesn’t mean the garden will be more ecological.”
About 15% of his clients incorporate some artificial turf, he says. But while saving on water is a plus, the use of non-biodegradable plastics makes homeowners looking to lessen their ecological footprint more hesitant.
Still, more are giving up the fight against faux. After voting against using turf on a real-estate association board a few years ago, Palm Beach, Fla., landscape architect Keith Williams says it is now a staple in his work, including at his own home, with projects ranging from $300,000 to $1 million for new homes.
He is especially quick to recommend faux turf between stone or pavers or for a driveway, for a look that is lush without the necessary upkeep. “It’s been a slow transition, but I love it now,” he says.