The lure of the no-maintenance lawn

It was the teamwork that was really annoying. As Melanie Locke watched, raccoons worked in pairs to rip up the freshly laid sod in a portion of her backyard. They rolled back the strips of grass, and then took a break while the automatic sprinkler moistened the exposed earth, bringing out their favourite snack.

"They … would come back and eat worms to their hearts' content," she says.

But Dr. Locke and her husband, Dave Seymour, have had the last laugh: The shaded patch of backyard is now covered with the latest in artificial grass and used as a putting green. It's perfectly even, green, maintenance-free and raccoon-proof.

The couple, who live with their three young children near Taylor Creek Park in East York, are among a growing number of homeowners who find maintaining perfectly green, healthy grass too labour-intensive, and are turning to the artificial kind for putting greens, play areas, pool surrounds, rooftops and full lawns.

"People are so frustrated with trying to grow lawns that artificial grass now makes up 80 per cent of our total sales," says Jerome Keays of Toronto-based Design Turf. It's one of several companies that sell and install the product, whose look and feel is much more realistic that it was a decade ago.

Mary and Jeff Kopman are also among the converted. They turned to Mr. Keays in the summer of 2005 after raccoons completely destroyed new sod they had laid in the backyard of their North Toronto home.

"My husband's mother, Ruth, came by to keep tabs on things … while we were on vacation in Muskoka, and was horrified," Ms. Kopman recalls. "By the time we came home, the back garden was a sod graveyard."

The couple had Design Turf install synthetic lawn in their backyard garden, which also includes stone benches, sculpted planting beds with flowering shrubs, and a slide and playhouse for their two young sons.

"Many of our clients have small children and they are desperate to provide an area, like a lawn, where they can play," Mr. Keays notes. "They have sometimes had to replace their lawns every year, and in some cases, they just want something that is maintenance-free. We consider the artificial grass as adding extra space to a home, in the same way as a deck. Several of our clients flood the space in the winter and let it freeze for a skating rink."

The Kopmans say they are thrilled with the artificial grass, especially because it doesn't require maintenance — there's no cutting, pulling weeds, fertilizing, seeding or watering.

A pine tree that towers over the rooftops and shades the area, but the artificial turf — unlike real grass, which tends to die out in such locations — is as green as ever, and any needles or pinecones from the tree can be swept, hosed or raked away. Promoters of the product also say it can be ideal for areas that are excessively wet or dry.

Meredyth Hilton of the Toronto-based garden design/build firm Artistic Gardens, says that for some people, successfully growing grass is not an option. "Because of the shade produced by the number of very mature trees in Toronto, grass is often hard to grow," she explains.

"It's also fairly high maintenance. You can't just leave it for a few weeks; it has to be tended to regularly and often. When you see artificial grass, it's surprising how realistic it looks."

In the spring of 2006, the Kopmans decided to have the same thing done in the front garden. "We were nervous," Ms. Kopman recalls. "We wondered how it would look next to the real grass of our neighbours. But we were cutting, watering and fertilizing [the natural lawn], and that care is not something either Jeff or I enjoy."

The artificial grass at the Kopman home is very uniform, very green, and you wouldn't necessarily notice it wasn't real unless you knew.

Installation of artificial grass takes only a couple of days. Design Turf's process includes taking out any existing vegetation and adding two inches of either crushed limestone or an aggregate sand mixture, which is smoothed and levelled. The artificial turf, which comes in 15-foot-wide strips, is held down with five-inch lawn staples.

The cost is between $6 and $8 a square foot (actual sod runs about $4 a square foot), and there are several options in terms of colour and blade length. "The [artificial grass] is made of polyethylene and nylon, with a guaranty of eight years," Mr. Keays explains.

He notes that putting greens cost a bit more than $13 a square foot because "the installation process is more rigorous and requires a more substantial sub base."

The thought of artificial grass is bound to bring to mind similar products made years ago largely for athletic fields. Greg Woolvett of Pro Putt (, a company that installs artificial grass in a number North American cities, including Toronto, says that with the old product, the surface was hard and resulted in injuries to athletes." Things changed when manufacturers turned to machines that had been used to make shag carpets, he says. "The process and the products are a lot more sophisticated today."

Real estate agent Jan Scott-Charles of Toronto-based Guild Manor Realty Ltd. says that although landscaping with artificial grass may not add to a home's value on a dollar for dollar basis, it will likely add curb appeal, an intangible and invaluable asset.

"When a home is for sale, it doesn't matter how nice it looks inside if it looks so bad from the outside that people refuse to even go in," she points out.