Natural Turf or Artificial Turf?

How about a shade of grey?

I like to say, “Opportunities lie in the gray area, not the black and white”.  This came to mind when researching if Artificial Turf is a good idea compared to typical Natural Turf.  The pros and cons of financial and environmental costs seem to weigh equally on both sides, with neither option looking to good.

Natural Turf uses a lot of water, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, requires mowing, has a carbon footprint to maintain, requires irrigation improvements, and constantly needs monitoring.  Artificial Turf lasts only 10-25 years, is expensive to install, requires drainage systems, off-gasses toxic fumes, leaches lead and other metals into the water table and creeks, needs cleaning, can harbor dangerous bacteria, has a large carbon footprint to manufacture, 80% goes to a landfill when renovated, and gets very hot in the sun.

They both create value in our lives. Natural Turf provides a nice surface for activities, it absorbs some carbon, smells nice, allows soil life, absorbs some water, and helps retain property values. Artificial Turf reduces water use significantly, looks similar to conventional turf, is cheaper to maintain, provides a recreational surface, and retains property values.

After looking at both sides of the issue I asked myself numerous questions without finding satisfactory answers. Which maintenance issues would I want to invest in? Which risks are the least dangerous? Are the short term water savings worth the long term environmental costs? Is the long-term environmental health worth the short term water costs? It seems the answers could be different for everyone, while each decision has detrimental trade-offs. There is no good answer to this comparison when trying to make an either-or decision.

I think we need to look deeper. Literally, deeper, under the grass. We need to look to the soil. The soil is the gray area of opportunity between the two sides.

In my experience, when an issue provides no good choices, then we are probably looking at the systems of the problem and not the cause. If we change from discussing our grass, to discussing our soil, we will be talking about the real problem and therefore, real solutions. Until Artificial Turf has no toxins in it and can be fully composted when worn out, and Natural Turf uses a variety of grass that needs no fertilizer or water, then neither is a good choice. Something else should be done until a better solution is available.

The opportunity I see is to use Organic Soil Management on existing Natural Turf. Here is how it works:

Soil is alive when healthy. It contains a system called the Soil Food Web made up of organisms that build a healthy soil and plant system. This system moves nutrients, water, enzymes, and networks of organisms through the soil to the plants to create a resilient and active nutrient management system. It helps landscapers manage the quality and health of the plants, which makes the plants look better. An organic soil management system allows the organisms to thrive. When thriving, the Soil Food Web provides the following benefits to the landscape and land owner:

  • Improved water-holding capacity for 20%-50% water savings
  • Makes nutrients more available to the plants for a 50% savings in fertilizer
  • Helps plants fight disease to reduce chemical treatments
  • Secretes enzymes that weeds do not like to grow in for reduced herbicide use
  • Improves plant health and their ability to fight off pests for reduced pesticides
  • Increases carbon sequestration
  • Helps dry spots hold water longer to keep it green
  • Allows green color to hold longer and more evenly
  • Reduces the amount of trouble spots to be fixed and monitored

Because there are so many sources of information in the world on organic products and strategies, we wanted to know for ourselves if the Organic Soil Food Web systems work. As a result of our curiosity, Cagwin & Dorward has tested dozens of organic products and soil management strategies for over 18 months at different micro-climates around the Bay Area to determine for ourselves if the Soil Food Web is real or not. We have had great success on approximately 90% of our sites with most of the benefits listed above becoming apparent. The 10% that were not very good are the result of very poor soil conditions that required additional renovations to remedy the soil. Once remedied, the organic soil management programs were as effective as the rest.

This system is not the perfect answer to the turf question, but it provides both a financial and environmental benefit while the turf industry figures out the best solution. If we are going to have turf grass, at least we can have a more practical turf grass that allows us the aesthetic we like, with financial smarts, and environmental improvements we can be proud to pass along to the next generations.

I know checking peoples’ claims is important, so I have provided some critical links from both sides of the issue. Of course, after you look into the black and white of the issue you can explore the gray area opportunities at the Soil Food Web link also provided. The links provided are a good starting point for a potentially thorough journey of research.

Article written by Jake Voit. If you would like more information about organic turf maintenance, please contact our Sustainability Manager, Dave Phelps.

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