The Truth About Turf

The grass can always be greener, but should it be real or faux?

In the not too distant past, the arrival of summer could be defined by the growl of the lawn mower and the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. Later in the year, the scent of manure used in installing a winter lawn was a harbinger of the change of seasons. Nowadays—especially in the arid Southwest— many verdant yards have given way to xeriscape or rock. But plenty of homeowners harbor a love affair with lawns and still want a grassy patch in the yard, whether for aesthetics, for kids to play on or for pets to enjoy.

Faux Turf
A backyard remodel included switching out real grass for artificial, which in this case, saved water.

The question is simple enough. Be real or go with the faux? The answer is a bit more complicated. There is no one best choice—both options have good points and drawbacks.

On one hand, who can resist walking on fresh green grass in bare feet? It smells good; feels sublime between the toes; gives off oxygen, which acts as a natural air conditioner; and is organic and, well, real. On the other hand, a grass lawn (also called biological or natural turf) can be expensive to install and requires a fair amount of upkeep. It must be mowed and watered on a regular basis and fertilized periodically; some types even need to be dethatched seasonally for aeration. Unless you are using a manual push mower, lawn care equipment requires maintenance and uses gasoline or electricity, which contribute to air and noise pollution. Clinical fertilization can be harmful to groundwater, and in drought-prone areas such as Arizona, the water used to keep the lawn healthy and green can be considered environmentally wasteful. Real grass can also harbor pests, such as ants and ticks, and grass pollen can trigger a host of allergies and asthma.

Alternatively, faux grass (also called synthetic turf or artificial grass) does not require the continual upkeep of mowing, watering or fertilization. It is weed-, pest- and pollen-free, can be hosed down or blown off when necessary, and it can be brushed upright when flattened. It also keeps 20 million rubber tires out of landfills every year.

Artificial grass has come a long way since buzz-cut AstroTurf, which made its debut in the early 1960s. Visually, today’s faux lawns can be virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. Like carpet, it is available in a range of colors, pile heights and densities. Most are made with UV-resistant materials, making them impervious to discoloration from the sun. Faux turf can bring green to areas where real grass would be impractical, such as rooftops, enclosed courtyards and patios.

While the cost of installation can be high compared with real sod, the initial investment is generally recouped within 8 years. High-quality synthetic turf has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

Despite the ecological benefits, synthetic turf has its disadvantages. The green color is derived from chemicals and dyes, and as a petroleum-based product, pollution and waste are created in the manufacturing process. It is non-biodegradable, so at the end of its lifespan it cannot be recycled. And no matter how beautiful it is to look at, faux turf can never replicate the tactile sensation of real grass. It will absorb the heat of the direct sun and feel hot to the touch.

When shopping for artificial grass, look at sample swatches with varying blade counts and see how they look where you intend to install. Inquire about drainage and warranties and ask to see actual installations, where you can look for seams, gaps and ripples. As with any investment, it pays to shop around.

The perfectly manicured lawn is attainable, whether you decide to go natural or “fake it.”

Cathy Babcock is the director of horticulture for Boyce Thompson Arboretum, located in Superior.

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Trees To Avoid In Landscaping Entries

Willow Acacia

Pictured below are a few Acacia Salicina, AKA “Willow Acacia”. I took these particular pictures in Gilbert, but it is not unusual to see them used throughout newer (1-20 years old) developments in Mesa, Chandler, Scottsdale, and others, both residential and commercial. Very often, I would say 1/3, or more, they look like the ones above. For some reason they are used as parking lot and street trees a lot. I just don’t get it.

Willow Acacia

OK, so before I go on breaking down just how bad of a choice planting these Willow Acacia trees in Arizona Landscapes can be -especially in above mentioned situations- let me say that every tree has it’s place and I am not knocking the tree, the way in which it is used. The trees don’t choose where and by whom they are planted !

Willow Acacia

Cons to Acacia Salicina for city use:

1. Require a lot of trimming/maintenance (which also means lots of man-power, dump trips, etc)
2. Branches are quite likely to break in the wind because of rapid, erratic growth
3. VERY shallow (and invasive) root system (you can see the surface root top left, just waiting for a combination of rain and wind – hmmm… Arizona Monsoons? This is one of the most common trees you see blown over during “micro bursts” or even moderate storms)
4. Inconsistent growth rates, inconsistent structures in general. Not a plus for a city street tree or providing shade.
5. Consistently produce pollen, pods, cycle through leaves, creating a need for more maintenance, clean-up, gas blowers, dump trips, etc. (mess level – 8.5/10)

So after all this hard work, keeping it in line, cleaning up, dealing with emergency service bills ($) for broken branches and fallen trees, here is the toughest part to swallow…….drum roll……
A lot of these trees, after all the investment our tax dollars (or personal dollars) and the energy of the maintenance crews put in….. A very large amount of them will have to be replaced, thus requiring costs of removal -labor, hauling, dump again, costs of buying a new tree, labor to plant it. And finally our city’s or our neighborhood’s maturity and character (which is SO essential, especially in the rapidly growing, culture struggling to keep up Valley we live in) starts all over after all this work ! And it’s quite possible the replacement could be another Salicina !

Now I am feeling bad for harping on the tree. It didn’t decide to come from Australia to Arizona. Somebody realized they were easy to grow, fast growing, and inexpensive. ($$) This is similar to what seems to have been a Eucalyptus craze in the eighties. And the more current Sissoo over-use 🙂

I will end with some pro’s: fast growing, beautiful weeping look, great for farms or riversides, especially in Australia 🙂 See, isn’t that better !

Adam Bruce

PS – I don’t want to be cynical often in this blog, but this has been bothering me for about a decade. Please hire a professional to help you select trees and locations, it makes a big difference for all of our futures.

PSS – Another culprit with strikingly similar issues is the Chilean Mesquite (there are many types of Mesquites that grow well here and are reliable, it’s just this particular one and it’s over-use that is many times a true waste of resources)

 

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“Cereus” -Two Interesting Arizona Cacti

"Cereus" -Two Interesting Arizona Cacti

Pictured below are two of my favorite cacti for Arizona landscape design. To left is a Mexican Fence Post Cactus – Pachycereus, marginatus – and to the right is a Totem Pole Cactus – Pachycereus schottii f. monstrosus. They are columnar cacti which means they grow vertically, and have “spears” as you can plainly see. Cereus is the genus of both and any cacti with that the genus are generally going to be columnar and upright growing.

Cereus'
The Mexican Fence Post pictured at left was planted as part of a xeriscape design in Scottsdale.  These columnar cacti are great for those people who may not “love” cacti as much as I do. They are not very thorny, (only small spines on the edges but I can grab them with my bare hands easily) they are usually quite symmetrical and balanced, and they have a darker green color with an interesting white stripe. Definitely unique and great for a focal point or as a tree substitute in a smaller landscape. I really love to cluster boulders around them along with some Angelita Daisy or other small flowering plant.

Cereus

The Totem Pole pictured at right was planted as part of a desert landscape design in Fountain Hills, Arizona. This “cereus” cacti is great for the quirkier of folks. Its is thornless, which is a plus for those that are just starting to appreciate cacti. It has very random shapes and really no two ever look alike. Totem Pole are also a great focal point, great near the house, and again I like to surround them with boulders and small flowering plants.

Both of these cacti are so useful in Arizona landscapes. They give character, size, and a really unique shape to work with. Both are very low water use and can also be maintained easily by removing “spears” as they get too tall or wide. Cuttings of these cacti are easily harvested and transplanted around the yard or given to friends and neighbors. Cereusly, try them out.

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The Acacia Anuera

The-Acacia-Anuera

The Acacia Anuera the tree from Australia

The Acacia Anuera, also called Mulga Acacia, is truly one of the most functional and reliable trees to use in arid landscapes.   Native to the the dry outbacks of Australia, it is no stranger to rocky soil, long droughts, below freezing temperatures and extreme heat. For most homeowners, the heat of the Arizona summer is generally the main concern for plant choice- while the cold winters are overlooked.  Rightfully so, we all dread the summer and 115 degree temperatures !  Many plants, however, tend to have more issues with the cold that the heat here in the desert.  A few nights of of freezing temperatures and the Phoenix Valley Landscaping  phones are ringing off the hook with calls about “coastal” trees like Ficus, Jacaranda, Orchid and many more.  They die back considerably (sometimes 50-75%), losing many years of growth, water and resources in one night.  The sanity of the homeowner is also at stake; trying to rig up lights, blankets, small fires to combat the frost.  I have seen many methods of protecting trees, mostly Ficus.

The-Acacia-Anuera
Now, moving on to the Acacia Anuera.  This tree is fearless to both extremes.  In below freezing temperatures  every leaf remains in tact, on the tree, and with no frost damage.  In 115 temperatures, it’s the same story.  It is very rare for a true evergreen tree to remain in tact throughout the season.  In fact, there really are only a handful of them.  So to add to that, this Acacia is also clean, virtually maintenance free, very drought tolerant, and can provide some nice shade without a very invasive root system.  They also add a nice contrast to a design, both in color and texture.

This tree is perfect for residential use or commercial use.  Whether in a parking lot or shading a driveway, they perform consistently for us time and time again.

 

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