12 Reasons Why Natural Turf is Better Than Artificial Turf
When urban development collides with scarce water and monetary resources, corners are cut. School boards, city planners, developers, and frugal homeowners must weigh costs and sometimes mistakes are made. That's when fake turf (a.k.a. artificial turf, synthetic grass) enters the landscape.
Obviously, you're on the website of a turf farm. Just to be clear, we grow real turf (a.k.a. beautiful lawns) and real turf is a living, growing plant. Even with our bias toward natural grass and our lifestyle choice to become sod farmers, we know research shows why a living plant is a better choice than a synthetic replacement. Because we are outside people, gardening our own home yards, we threw in a few personal reasons of our own.
But what about watering and maintenance of real turfgrass, you ask? Those are the two biggest arguments against natural grass, yet there are now innovative solutions that make those arguments sound rather frumpy. We'll present those tech solutions after you're done pondering our 12 reasons why we choose real turfgrass over fake plastic. (Sing "fake plastic" in your mind to the tune of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees.")
1) Real sod is safer for human health
Artificial turf can contain toxic chemicals that can be hazardous to humans.
One of the most significant hazards of artificial turf is the presence of "forever chemicals." These are man-made chemicals and metals that are used in the production of artificial turf and can cause serious health problems. Forever chemicals are so called because they do not break down in the environment and can remain in the soil and water for many years.
Studies have linked exposure to forever chemicals to a range of health problems, including cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and immune system disorders. Athletes who play on artificial turf fields are at risk of exposure to these chemicals, as are children who play on playgrounds with artificial turf.
2) Real sod is safer for athletes
Another hazard of artificial turf is the risk of injury.
Artificial turf is made from hard, unforgiving materials that can increase the risk of injury, especially for athletes playing contact sports. This contrasts with natural turfgrass, which provides a soft, cushioned surface that can help reduce the risk of injury for athletes.
- Higher Rates of Lower Extremity Injury on Synthetic Turf Compared with Natural Turf Among National Football League Athletes: Epidemiologic Confirmation of a Biomechanical Hypothesis
- Lower Extremity Injury Rates on Artificial Turf Versus Natural Grass Playing Surfaces: A Systematic Review
3) Real sod is better for our environment
Artificial turf releases microplastics into the air and water when it breaks down, causing environmental damage.
Artificial turf is manufactured with plastics made from hydrocarbons and can't offer benefits to the environment. As mentioned above, it actually releases harmful chemicals. Because artificial turf breaks down over time, it's releasing microplastics into the air and water, making them a detriment to both our health and the environment. Synthetic turf has been identified as the second largest contributor to microplastics in our water, second only to plastics from our roads (tire wear and tear).
On the other hand, natural turf grass is a living, photosynthesizing organism that plays an important role in the ecosystem. It produces oxygen, sequesters carbon dioxide (it's a CO2 sink), plus natural turfgrass helps prevent runoff and soil erosion. Real turf is part of a living ecosystem, that when carefully cared for, offers environmental benefits (examples peppered throughout these 12 points).
- There are endless articles on the threat of microplastics shedding from artificial turf, but I’m going to share only one (you can easily find more by Googling) because it’s the most readable for non-scientists and well-balanced so you can think things through for yourself. Don’t let the boring title fool you – it’s a good read: Ecosystem Services for Compensation of Artificial Turf Systems
- Real Turf and Oxygen Production
- Real Turf and Carbon Sequestering
4) Natural sod cools the air around it
Whereas artificial turf can trap heat and cause an increase in summer temperatures.
Baby on hot, artificial turf.
Natural sod is an antidote to global warming - cooling its immediate environment wherever it's installed. Not only is natural turf more pleasant under bare feet, but research shows that artificial turf may result in an increase of summer temperatures because it is a heat sink, contributing to the urban heat island effect.
You can test this for yourself on a steaming July day. If given the chance to spread your picnic blanket on hot fake turf or a cool patch of lawn, which will you choose?
5) Artificial turf needs irrigating too
Fake sod gets so hot it needs irrigating to cool it down.
It was easy to find stock footage of artificial turf being irrigated.
Word on the street is that artificial turf gets as hot as asphalt, so field managers irrigate it to cool it down before practice or games. Where’s the water savings then?
Here are two articles by a municipal park director, with practical stories and pro tips about recreational synthetic turf watering.
6) Natural sod reduces water runoff
Only real sod filters and absorbs rainwater.
Heavy rainstorms create challenges for natural and synthetic fields, alike. Both can have significant pooling and puddling when rainfall is heavy. Under wet conditions, athletes should be prohibited from playing on both natural and synthetic fields until they drain and dry out. This is for player safety and to protect the fields from undue wear and tear.
However, real sod uses water for growth and the roots filter water, so it’s actually using the water to grow and repair itself. Plus, turf stolons (runners), deep roots, and dense foliage actually reduce runoff, thereby reducing erosion. Not only does turf reduce runoff, but it slows the flow of water, allowing it to percolate into the ground.
As discussed in Point 3, when synthetic turf is rained on or irrigated, it releases toxins that flow into our water systems.
- 10 Reasons Sod is the Best Erosion Control
- Real Turf and Runoff Reduction
7) Real sod is more durable
A well-maintained natural lawn will last forever, while artificial turf needs to be replaced periodically due to fading and wear-and-tear.
Artificial turf wears out due to regular wear-and-tear and degradation from sunlight, requiring regular repairs and replacement. This generates more trash when the old synthetic turf is thrown away at your local landfill. On the other hand, real turf literally thrives in the sun, requiring sunlight to grow and turn carbon dioxide into oxygen.
When you choose a living warm season lawn such as Bermudagrass, Centipedegrass, and Zoysiagrass for lawns and sports fields, you’re investing in a self-healing organism. These types of warm season lawns use energy from the sun to grow and spread. They spread by sending out runners, technically called stolons. These stolons can grow several feet a year, filling in gaps, bare spots, and damage. When properly cared for, warm season turfgrass repairs itself, removing replacement and waste from the equation.
If you have a cool season lawn, such as Tall Fescue, you need to overseed it every autumn, but you don’t have to completely replace a natural lawn unless you want to upgrade to a better type (such as drought tolerant TifTuf Bermudagrass).
For high traffic areas with kids and dogs, or where sports are played, we recommend choosing TifTuf Bermuda. It’s the best-self healing lawn because of the vigorous runners. Aerate it annually and topdress with compost to further help it repair damage and traffic ruts.
8) Real sod offers cost-effective advantages
As opposed to artificial turf, natural lawns require less maintenance over time and do not normally need to be completely replaced.
Artificial turf is not maintenance free. While it doesn’t require mowing or watering, it does require water for cleaning (sap, manure, stains, dust, pollen) and water for cooling. Even though it doesn't require a mower, it does require a leaf blower for blowing off debris (leaf litter, branches, nuts, flowers).
Then there's the sanitizing aspect (see point 12), that doesn't need to be done on natural turf because soil microbes take care of that.
There's a whole bunch of other routine maintenance required for artificial turf: herbicide applications (yes, weeds can grow in it!), removal of puddling water due to improper installation, fixing when it’s improperly installed, and replacement when it wears out, fades, or otherwise begins to look dingy.
Unlike artificial turf, real sod does not need to be replaced (see point 7), but it does require regular maintenance, such as overseeding, fertilizing, herbicide, aerating, not to mention mowing.
Wait, you don’t like to mow? Let me introduce you to my robot: electric robotic mowers save energy, money, and your time. You or your landscaper can trim bushes and plant flowers while the robot mows the lawn. Diversifying lawn care with electric robotic mowers saves homeowners, organizations, and municipalities money over the long term. There are robotic mowers designed specifically for residential yards as well as for sports turf mowing.
Installation and maintenance costs vary so much by type of grass and region, that we cannot possibly do a cost comparison for you. However, we can help you with some of the measuring with our yard area calculator.
9) Real turf grass is more versatile
Unless you want a lawn on a wall.
Even with the newly-patched area of sod, the green sweep of a real lawn provides much-needed breathing space amongst the bodacious hydrangeas. Without the lawn or the wide path where I'm taking the picture, there wouldn't be a vantage point to soak in the riot of color. Photo by Hillary Thompson.
Natural turf grass can be used for a variety of purposes, including sports fields, playgrounds, and parks.
Designers make patterns in it and with it. A lawn is a critical element of garden design that provides texture, an area for humans to gather, and vantage points for viewing flowers beds, specimen trees, sculpture, or scenery.
Real turfgrass is also used for non-recreational purposes, such as erosion control and water filtration (see point 6).
Artificial turf, on the other hand, doesn't bring other benefits besides offering an unnatural covering for the ground. It doesn’t bring out the beauty of flowers, rather it mocks them with their fake green sheen, and it doesn’t draw people towards it to spend time relaxing.
Though, it is challenging to grow grass vertically on a wall, so a good use for fake turf is as a design element inside an office building.
10) Natural turf grass has a positive impact on mental health
Does plastic grass lift your spirits? We know the answer.
Studies show that spending time in natural settings has a positive impact on mental health by reducing stress, improving mood and concentration, and promoting feelings of calm and relaxation.
We at Super-Sod know that not only spending time relaxing outside, but the act of creating a garden, will turn your life around.
Personally, I don’t need a think tank's report to know that spreading a blanket on a Zoysia lawn and reading a book is my preferred way to unwind, daydream, and think.
11) Real sod is more aesthetically pleasing
Artificial turf is often a bright green shade of plastic-looking grass, whereas real sod has a natural, lush appeal.
Kids of all ages respond to real lawns by kicking off their shoes (thanks Kame @whosinthegarden!).
Real lawns have an allure that draws us to it. Kids respond by running across it. Teenagers flop down on it. Adults become lawn whisperers and weed on their hands and knees after work or obsess over their mowing patterns (they enjoy this "work").
Natural turf grass has a natural, alive look and feel that enhances the beauty of neighborhoods, gardens, playgrounds, parks of every size, and sports fields.
Artificial turf, on the other hand, has a uniform, plastic-like appearance that can detract from the overall aesthetic of an area. It's easy to tell fake turf apart - its fake sheen stands in striking contrast to the lush texture of real sod.
Can you (not) meet me for lunch . . . in the fake park? Photo by Hillary Thompson.
12) Synthetic turf is not a sanitary solution for your dog
Fido’s mess will need extra attention.
Not only does Fido prefer a natural lawn, but I'm pretty sure you'd rather let beneficial microbes in the soil do the cleaning for you.
Number 2, oops I mean Number 12, is probably the most important topic for homeowners with dogs to consider. In a natural system, dog doo is handled the way nature intended . . . microorganisms in the soil break it down. If you choose phony turf, you will need to scoop up and then soap down to sanitize those spots where he leaves his business.
Solutions to Watering & Maintenance
As established in the introduction, the nay-sayers claim real turfgrass wastes water, time, resources, and money. Those claims are irrelevant if you dig a little deeper into certain grass varieties and modern cultivation methods.
1) Choose the Right Type of Sod
- TifTuf Bermudagrass lawns use 38% less water than other types of Bermudagrass and 60% less water than Tall Fescue. It is so drought tolerant that, once it’s fully rooted in, it never needs to be irrigated again to maintain an acceptable appearance for residential and commercial use.
- Centipedegrass lawns are called “Ecograss” or “Lazy Man’s Grass” because they are so low maintenance. In fact, they are so care-free that you hardly ever need to fertilize them or apply lime. The mowing needs are the least frequent at every 12 to 14 days, rather than once a week like the others.
- Warm season lawns such as Bermudagrass, Centipedegrass, and Zoysiagrass all survive drought by going dormant and turning tan-brown (like they do in winter). When the rains come again, they turn green again. Droughts are hard on everyone, but with a little trust in your warm season lawn, you can save a lot on water bills by letting your lawn naturally go dormant during a drought.
2) Care for your lawn on your terms
- You’re in complete control of your natural lawn: you can fertilize less, water less (see bullet point above), plus you can weed by hand.
- There are plenty of environmentally friendly fertilization methods. We recommend topdressing with Soil³ compost because it will improve your soil while adding a dose of natural nutrients.
- You can completely hold off mowing if your HOA and your design sensibilities allow. My boss, Ben, let a section of his TifTuf Bermuda go unmowed to contrast with the mowed section and the impact was high. I liked this Asian aesthetic so much that I refrained from mowing a section of my Zeon Zoysia lawn that’s in full shade on a steep slope. Even the neighbors like the “look.”
Ben's TifTuf Bermuda Lawn: The center is maintained by a robotic mower, while he lets the sides grow wild and unmowed, providing an interesting texture contrast. Photo by Ben Copeland, Jr.
3) Choose the Right Tech
Here are four common tech solutions. I'm sure there will be more in the future!
- Electric mowers – Cordless, battery-powered mowers are accessible and affordable. They are easy to start, have no cumbersome cord to manage, and easy to set the mow height. They are quieter than two stroke engines and there's no bursts of fumes from their clean engines.
- Robotic mowers – These toy-like mowers are revolutionizing lawn care. They are moving from boundary wire guidance and soon will all be guided by GPS. Instead of large machete-like blades, they cut with razors that provide a precise, clean cut so there's less ragged ends and water loss from the grass. They are silent, autonomous lawn pets that endear themselves to their owners.
- Robotic weeders - There are robot weeders for garden beds and one day I am certain there will be precision herbicide applicators and laser weeders for lawns.
- Smart Irrigation Controllers - B-hyve is the smartest irrigation controller I know that's accessible for a DIY homeowner to install directly on spigots. You control the unit from an app on your phone.
Thanks for spending your time reading about turf, artificial and real. We hope this article helps you make a decision that's best for you and your community and that you like our cleaner tech solutions and alternative care methods.
If you need a blurb to send to a committee or your partner, here's a nutshell: Not only does natural sod provide environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits, but it also offers superior durability and helps to cool the air around it. Installing real sod is a better choice than artificial turf in terms of both health and environmental considerations. Plus, it looks more attractive!
Please let us know if you have any questions by posting a comment below.
Most photos are purchased, stock photos, unless otherwise noted. The header photo is by an AI robot, when prompted for a park with artificial turf showing children playing.