Lawn alternatives gain popularity but ‘carpet grass’ remains norm

By Elena Tucker, Features Writer

The Boerne Star

Part one of a two-part series

At a glance, Boerne shows up as an emerald dot on a NASA map of lawns. The area’s cultivated green St. Augustine or “carpet” grass also figures as a fraction of Duke University data in which 40.5 million acres are said to be covered by lawns across the nation.

That’s at a cost of $30 billion annually to grounds owners and homeowners who put more than 30,000 tons of pesticides on their lawns – a rate 10 times higher than that of farmers. Water use weighs in also. Accompanying that NASA-sponsored lawn-map is a statistic claiming that more than 7 billion gallons of water are used every year to maintain lawns. Lawns are, according to that site, “the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area.”

Although homeowners are being urged to think twice about their grass, it’s clearly hard to shift the heavy sod of history. In the 1700s, “close-cut lawns became a symbol of wealth,” according to a publication by the University of Delaware.

Lawns were a demonstration of the well-to-do homeowner’s capacity to employ hired hands to raise a non-food crop. After WWII lawns became a badge of the American Dream. “No longer a status symbol of the rich and famous, front lawns became the measure of a middle-class family’s ability to keep up with the Joneses, the University of Delaware site says. Some cities have begun to shift away from this beloved and long-established paradigm. For example municipal incentives across southern California, Nevada and New Mexico are prompting homeowners to replace their 1950s-style lawns with other alternatives. To date, Boerne hasn’t appeared to join this trend – in fact homeowners associations in more than one area neighborhood still require that landscaping incorporate a certain percentage of green grass.

Even as the U.S. Drought Monitor map shows varying stages of serious drought in Kendall County, the hiss of sprinkler systems is heard on the streets, and the buzz of mowers rises over Boerne’s oak tops.

It’s not that feasible alternatives don’t exist. Although not yet the norm, xeriscaping is seeing greater and greater acceptance by Hill Country homeowners.

Steve Fey, owner of Sierra Landscape, said that by now most people are aware that xeriscape doesn’t mean just cacti and hot, sun-absorbing rocks.

And as the public’s understanding of the practice increases, so does the request for xeriscape, which is precisely what Fey recommends – along with “little patches of sod to soften the look.” Fey stressed that the sod – none that Fey installs is St. Augustine – is a small percentage of what he imagines as the new Hill Country look.

“I incorporate just as much river rock, mulch, granite chips and drought-resistant plants as I can,” Fey said one afternoon, as he led the way across the almost-completed landscaping job of a new upscale Boerne home.

A far less commonly used alternative – and far further behind in terms of public perception – is the option of artificial grass.

No longer the kelly green plastic turf of the ‘70s, the lush quality of today’s artificial grass first came as surprise to San Antonio landscaper, Tony Carranza, who now owns a company called Always Green.

At a garden show a few years ago, Carranza said he couldn’t figure out why one particular booth was drawing so much attention.

“People were walking on the grass barefoot and touching it and I didn’t understand what the big deal was – it’s just grass,” Carranza said. What he thought was “just grass” was actually artificial grass. “I got very curious about it at that moment.”

Artificial grass installations take Carranza all over the state, but he admits that the product hasn’t always been an easy sell – not even in areas where water supplies seem to be constantly in the news. “It’s pricier than going the natural route,” Carranza said, explaining that when you factor in soil, maintenance and irrigation costs of traditional lawns, artificial grass still rings up at about twice the price and may take a couple or more years to pay for itself.

One Fair Oaks Ranch resident who invested in artificial grass is a woman with the apt name of Jennie McInturff. She has only praise for her artificial grass, except “you do have to blow the leaves off at certain times of the year.” Aside from that, “it’s basically maintenance free,” McInturff said.

Carranza does recommend raking the grass from time to time to keep the fibers from matting like carpet.

“We’ve had it for two years,” McInturff said, “and it looks as good today as the day it was put down.” In fact, the McInturffs are in the middle of a move, and artificial grass is an upgrade they plan for their new place.

While McInturff’s HOA approved the landscaping change right away, Carranza said that neighborhood organizations can often be resistant.

“We’ve had some issues with HOAs not approving it, but now they’re all jumping on board. At first they don’t want to allow it, but once they’ve seen pictures and gone out to see installs, we get it approved,” Carranza said.

The benefits of artificial grass according to Carranza, is a 10-year warranty on a UV treated product that goes untouched by deer.

“It’s extremely permeable and has drainage holes in it and through the stitching allowing rain to soak into the soil. It doesn’t have to be mowed or watered. You have a virtually maintenance-free yard as well as instant gratification.”

He paused before saying without a hint of irony, “It’s taken a long time, but now it’s growing all over.”

Carranza’s final words are simple, short, and perhaps even more to the point: “Watering the lawn is a thing of the past.”

This story was originally published in the Friday, May 22 issue of The Boerne Star.

Read part two of this two-part series