By Suzanne Ziegler Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
MINNEAPOLIS — Everyone else’s lawn may be a mushy yellow-brown in early spring, but Larry Lee’s southwest Minneapolis yard is a vibrant, glorious green. In the summer, the only dandelions are in his neighbors’ yards.
His lawn is so perfectly green that people who drive by slow down to stare. Passers-by stop to touch it.
A self-proclaimed hater of yard work, Lee has found the perfect solution to the rigors and expense of mowing, watering and fertilizing: artificial turf.
“For a smaller lot in the city and for someone like myself who hates to do yard work, it’s a great solution,” said Lee. “It looks great, even after five years.”
His quest began after he and his wife moved into their new house in early 2006. By spring, Lee realized that keeping his lawn looking decent was going to be an uphill battle.
Among the challenges: direct sun exposure, a graded slope that caused water to run off and poor soil. The corner lot was also inundated with road salt and what he called “toxic” conifer needles from two spruce trees (which have since died).
Lee hired lawn-care pros who aerated the lawn, watered it and dumped “loads of fertilizers and chemicals” on it. Still, he said, the lawn was full of weeds and bare spots.
“Over several years we replaced the worst looking areas with landscaped borders, mulch, and shrubs,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of square footage of grass lawn left. What was left still looked terrible.”
He thought about tearing up the grass, replacing the topsoil, putting in sod and adding a sprinkler system, but he wasn’t convinced that would do the trick.
“I knew that over time the same factors that doomed my old lawn would eventually harm a new lawn,” he said.
After doing some research, he found Synthetic Turf Solutions of Minnesota and went to see some of the company’s residential turf lawns.
Lee said he realized that other people shared the same environmental concerns he did and struggled with conditions that made real grass unsustainable. “I was convinced that turf was right for me,” he said.
Still, artificial turf came with its own challenges.
Lee needed to get permission of his neighbor, in part because he needed to build a stone border between the two yards to “help the visual transition.” He also had to work with his homeowners insurance company. Plus, he and Mark Prince, owner of Turf Solutions, had to meet with the city’s Department of Public Works to get permission to install the turf on the boulevards.
Clean, but how ‘green’?
Prince said most of his residential customers want low maintenance and something “clean and green.”
“They have two kids, two dogs and a shade tree and they’re sick of the mud,” he said.
But not everyone is sold on artificial turf as a “green” solution.
Sam Bauer, a turfgrass expert with the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service, said the environmental benefits of natural grass far outweigh those of artificial.
“Grass can actually filter a lot of pollutants out of the water before it reaches the groundwater table,” he said.
Natural lawns also have a cooling effect, particularly in urban areas, and help get rid of excess carbon dioxide, much like trees do.
“There are lots of opportunities for using the right turf grasses that you don’t have to water or fertilize as much,” he said. “The opportunity to reap the environmental benefits of a lawn is really, really great.”
For his part, Prince makes the case that the artificial lawns are better because they involve “no watering, no herbicides, no chemicals, no mowing.”
And they can be installed where real grass easily can’t: playgrounds, doggy day cares, putting greens, rooftops and assorted sport surfaces, indoor and outdoor.
Keeping up with the Lees
Lee said he knew the artificial turf would “raise eyebrows” in his neighborhood, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. But he said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again: He uses a rake and leaf blower to keep it tidy and Turf Solutions comes out once a year to make sure the edges stay tacked down, level out the filler and do some extra cleaning.
Ellen Portnoy, who lives next to the Lees, considers their lawn “a landmark in our neighborhood. When I introduce myself, I say: I’m next to the turf house on the corner and everyone knows what I’m talking about.”
Besides, having the perfect lawn right next door has twofold benefits.
“It’s funny and I think it helps motivate us to keep our lawn up a little better,” she said.
When the turf was installed at the Lee’s in 2013, Turf Solutions excavated down about 6 inches, laid a gravel base, installed anchors, and “basically rolled out the turf and attached it like carpet,” Lee said. Silica granules were added to the turf as infill.
The cost was $13,000, with a $500 stone border.
“From a pure cost perspective, I think it’s about a break-even,” Lee said. “But for enjoyment, satisfaction and convenience, it’s a huge plus.”
Two neighbors liked his artificial turf so much that they have also added it.
“Passersby have asked me for details, including cost and logistics. I’ve seen couples turn to one another and say something to the effect of, ‘We have to do something like this,’” he said.
When curious drivers stop and get out to touch the grass, Lee said they almost always break into a grin.
“It was usually a male, who I suppose appreciated in that moment all of the lawn care that the lucky owner would never again need to do,” he said.