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Expert advice: all you need to know about artificial grass

Michelle Ogundehin looks into the one fake we approve of here at ELLE Decoration headquarters: artificial grass

artificial grass on a lawn
Grass

Artificial grass! Surely that’s a big no no in the land of ED, authenticity being king and all that? Well, the fact is, the use of artificial grass is growing in the UK by some 20–30 per cent each year.

Why is it becoming more popular? Probably because it’s essentially maintenance-free. No chemicals are needed to keep it looking weed-free and neat; nor water, which as another increasingly precious resource is kind of a big deal. Also, the average garden could take quite some hours to mow each month, meaning that by choosing artificial turf you get a big chunk of your life back.

laying an artificial lawn
The original sorry patch of lawn
Michelle Ogundehin

Yes, but real turf is worth the effort, surely? Well, I have a postage stamp-sized lawn in my front garden, which is a lumpy bumpy nightmare that needs cutting by hand (too small for a lawnmower) every week in growing season, so it often looks horribly unkempt. I also have two dogs. Net effect? Something that’s ugly, unhygienic and not remotely verdant.

But doesn’t artificial grass always look obviously fake? It certainly used to, and there are a lot of different products out there and a lot of confusion, but some companies have invested a huge amount of time and energy creating something that’s a long way from the lurid, scratchy plastic of a decade ago. Part of this is down to the way that it’s manufactured. For example, if you looked at leading Brit brand Wonderlawn’s grass with a magnifying glass, you’d see that the individual blades are cut into various different X, C, U or V-like shapes.

laying an artificial lawn
First, even out the lumps and bumps and level
Michelle Ogundehin

Well that’s nice, but I can’t see how a fancy profile is going to help the grass... The shapes each have different properties. Softness, resilience against flattening and so on. And flattening is a big deal. A lot of the products of lore looked pretty good for the first five minutes, but as soon as you walked on them they went flat and stayed that way. Let alone what they looked like if you let loose small children or dogs on them.

Great recovery is down to the way the product is made, but a lot lies in the installation too. You install it yourself, don’t you? I mean I’ve seen it sold by the metre? You could, but it’s really not a DIY job. Plus many of the commonly available, cheap faux turfs are shipped in from the Far East, and they often have a Latex rubber backing making them completely unrecyclable. They also won’t weather well, quickly flattening and discolouring so when you have to replace it, it would go straight to landfill.

laying an artificial lawn
Next, a crushed-granite underlayer goes on
Michelle Ogundehin

But it can’t be that hard to put down, surely? Don’t you just roll it out like a carpet? Well, as Mel Wright, managing director of Wonderlawn, puts it: ‘The success of artificial turf really lies in the base that it’s laid upon. Our method involves a seven-step process that results in a lawn we’ll guarantee for ten years but, realistically, should look great for the next 15–20 years.’

Seven steps! That sounds a bit excessive, spell it out for me. First, they remove the existing grass and dig down about 10–15 centimetres. Then the ground is carefully levelled and a layer of crushed granite added, which is compacted down to make a firm underlayer. A commercial grade membrane goes on top of that to prevent weed growth, and only then does your Wonderlawn of choice go on top, followed by a fine layer of a special sand infill. Then they clean everything down, take away all the excavated soil, and leave you to admire your new lawn.

laying an artificial lawn
Lawn is laid on top of a weed-busting membrane
Michelle Ogundehin

I’m not sure about the sand part, won’t I be able to see it? I want a lawn, not a sandpit. They use a dedicated machine to spread it on in the first place and another special brush-like tool to shake it down. It’s very fine and pours right down to the base of the blades, the point being it not only holds the lawn securely in place, but it ensures the blades don’t flatten over time– the key to a really natural look. Most companies secure their turf to the ground timber frame, which is all well and good, until it rots.

laying an artificial lawn
A fine layer of sand infill is spread onto the lawn
Michelle Ogundehin

And how does the water drain away? The grass and the membrane both allow water to drain straight through to the soil below, so rain will never sit on the grass. This means no more mucky paws or muddy knees, and a space you can use come rain or shine.

laying an artificial lawn
The finished maintenance-free product
Michelle Ogundehin

And what of the birds and bees, aren’t they upset by all this fakery? Actually data suggests that people who have artificial turf might turf end up spending more time tending their borders, because the grass saves them so much time. So if these can include bee-and bird-friendly plants, all will be well.

How do I know this isn’t all cobbled together from a press release? Because I challenged Wonderlawn to do its best with my whole my unholy patch, and the pictures speak for themselves. I can also testify that one energetic toddler and two boisterous hounds have already tried to destroy it, but the lawn just keeps bouncing back. Result (wonderlawn.com).

Fast facts:

My lawn is 12 square metres.
Wonderlawn removed about three-quarters of a tonne of soil
It took two men half a day to lay
Cost: £1,500 (including a nine-square-metre back patio)
A typical lawn is 45 square metres
This would involve removing about two tonnes of material
Two to three tonnes of material would be put back
It would take about a day
Average cost £3,240

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration October 2016.

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