Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Swapping Your Grass for Cash, Plant Natives Rather than Plasti-turf

Pardon the interruption from the post series I've recently undertaken, but this topic is too timely not to address. What follows is the text of a letter I hope to share with local Water District and Watershed Management leadership.

On all counts -- aesthetic, functional, environmental (including water use), practical, and personal safety -- I am opposed to the notion of encouraging use of artificial turf in residential and commercial landscapes, especially in hot, fire-prone climates of Southern California. 

After having discussed the pros and cons with many colleagues in the landscape industry, I gave the topic considerable thought. My remaining unanswered concerns include:

  • How can one expose so much surface area such as on artificial turf to harsh sunlight and not be concerned about environmental consequences of photo-degradation?*
  • As the product ages and it is subject to normal wear and tear, how might small released particles and toxic chemicals released therefrom affect watersheds and our ocean**? What about impact on air quality?
  • Although there are alternatives using natural gravel, underlayment containing ground up used tires is a popular subsurface for artificial turf. It is known that toxic chemicals are used in the manufacture of tires. As these bits of old tires break down over time, what is the expected impact on underlying soil, groundwater and watersheds in terms of toxicity?***
  • How to mitigate contribution to landfills of non-recyclable portions of artificial turf. (Even for the ones claiming to be fully recyclable, will they be? What would be the mechanism to ensure recycling takes place? Do we even yet have an effective mechanism for recycling carpeting?)
  • How does artificial turf address urban/suburban heat island effects? global climate change?
  • How will artificial turf behave during a firestorm? How will it affect a resident and their home's chance of survival? (How) will it affect air quality?

 * Believe independent studies are needed. Manufacturer studies seem to focus on product useful life, and do not address environmental impacts. We already know about human health impacts and environmental consequences of other plastic products. Why should we replace plastic bags in the environment with bits of artificial turf? 

** Article about study on plastic pollution in the ocean:

In terms of aesthetics, I feel it is always better to use a material in a way that it is not trying to look like something it is not. Have not yet found a fake grass that comes close to looking or feeling like the real thing, and I have been to a lot of trade shows and events where vendors showcase their products. Manufacturing companies' salespeople and marketing departments might be doing a very successful job of promoting their products -- convincing a lot of people that artificial turf is attractive. While it might look good on television and on websites, up-close, in person is a different matter.

Functionally and practically, it depends what one's primary use is for the surface. Frankly, I see so many superior alternatives to artificial turf that I would not even consider installing it. There are low-water-using turf species, native grasses and grass blends, playground bark mulches, and other play surfaces, to name a few. Flame or embers will melt it, so if one uses a backyard fire pit or cooking device it should not be located nearby. Where pet waste is a concern, natural surfaces (even good old dirt) seem much easier to maintain than artificial turf. If I were a mother, I would much rather my children play in dirt (better yet, a native meadow) than on artificial turf.

Aesthetics and function are of course matters of personal preference. However, whether we are landscapers, product manufacturers or suppliers, watershed managers, or managers of water districts, we are in a position to affect how people and their activities relate to the world around us. My hope is that we can work together to find ways to help people live comfortably and beautifully, in harmony with nature.

A residential garden designer, my work focuses on using principles of sustainability to create landscapes of enduring beauty. 

Thank you for this opportunity to provide input on the topic of artificial turf, especially its potential use in residential settings. If you have any questions or concerns and would like to further discuss, my contact information follows.



Janis Hatlestad
Better Earth Garden Design
Woodland Hills, CA

Monday, February 24, 2014

Seeking a Sustaining Path: Evolution of a Small (Sub)Urban Garden, Part 1

In less than two weeks, it will be 35 years since escrow closed and I embarked on garden and home ownership.

My "inherited" garden consisted of a small patch of lawn out front, surrounded by "freeway daises" near the front porch and juniper tams toward the street; bermuda grass lawn in back almost to the fence; several large rose bushes; reseeding annuals, such as johnny-jump-ups and California poppies; tulips planted in a "cold spot" that pushed through heavy soil to rebloom each year; a cluster of bearded iris*; three ubiquitous clumps of bird-of-paradise; three multi-trunked flowering pomegranates stuffed into one corner, underplanted with white belladonna or "naked lady" lilies; one for-the-birds-fruit-bearing tiny 'Nana' pomegranate*; a small flowering plum; one gumdrop-shaped privet; and hedge-trimmed algerian ivy in the narrow parking strip. Other than two towering street trees, the only real tree was a rather large crape myrtle* near one corner of the garage, underplanted with creeping vinca.

*All that remains of the original garden, bearded iris having been dug up, divided, moved and replanted numerous times.

In the first several years, I was in a career that found me working long hours, commuting 27 miles, van-pooling when schedules allowed, then transferring out-of-state. Consequently, other than weekend raking, sweeping, weeding, watering with various hose-end contraptions, and pushing either a me-powered or later an electric-powered lawnmower around, my "garden" received little attention. However, I do recall those activities taking me on average about 7 precious daylight hours per week to accomplish. A few big jobs were saved for my dear father, such as removing the pathetic "gum-drop tree" that quickly became even more unsightly because I refused even to trim it. I never did play a round of croquet, which is what I had thought you were supposed to do with a lawn.

While I lived out-of-state, my sister, Faith and her family moved into my home and garden. The four of them made much better use of it, especially the backyard.

For a few years when her twin girls were small, Faith did not work outside the home. Her husband, Tom, however did take on a second job during that time. On weekends, Tom built or assembled play equipment. A cabinet-maker by trade, he was quite handy. Faith put in a small vegetable garden, did the weekly gardening chores, and mulched around the rose beds. Between the two of them, they turned my pitiful "yard" into a perfect playland for preschoolers. At least that is the way it looked when I would come home a couple of times a year to visit. And especially at their garden party when my nieces, Kari and Sarah, turned 3!

Far right above, is the result of my later having hired a gardener to install new sod and an irrigation system -- greener lawn, but run-off onto patio and not sustainable, especially in drought years. Still, I must admit to having been taken in by the lure of green envy.

As the years -- both drought and wet ones -- came and went, I became interested in growing food. Initially, fruit trees -- thinking, why not gain at least three benefits from planting a tree? Food, privacy, and shade in one package. The first we planted was a grapefruit tree, which my father had started from seed about 12 years prior. It is the only citrus I believe that will produce good fruit without being grafted. Of course, because I also wanted shade and privacy, much of the fruit is now out of reach for easy picking. One of many lessons learned the hard way. Still, to me the rewards outweigh.

While my father was alive, I had a ready "market" for the grapefruit. Also, help with picking! And, I swapped grapefruit with my neighbor's brother who lived a couple of miles away, for fresh figs from his five trees.

Lately, I have chosen to give the fruit I cannot use to a couple of local food pantries. They are always happy to receive fresh produce.

Through the 1990s, still not having a lot of time to devote to gardening but wanting to learn more about it, I planted small beds of flowers around the lawn. Roses were popular. Eventually, there were way too many of them!

And, there were gerbera daisies…

And day lilies, too!

One rose I plan to always keep, because it came from my grandmother's garden...

I loaded up a little raised planter with daffodil bulbs. (In the background -- a dwarf valencia orange.)

Then, when blooms were spent and waning leaves became an unsightly mess, I did to them what I did to my hair when it was unruly. I braided them!
One day in the early years, I had the not-so-bright idea to plant a couple of what turned out to be Monterey pine trees. My dear daddy had obliged me with the two cute, fluffy little saplings, and helped me plant them, too! One, right under the power lines in back met its demise shortly after the Department of Water and Power whacked the top off. The other finally dwarfed my house and had been planted so the trunk eventually grew to less than two feet from my roof. Branches extended dangerously close to my neighbor's chimney.

Above photo (taken the day before tree removal): Rick Ranney.

That sums up the first two decades in my garden. Stay tuned for what has evolved since the turn of this century!

Above "teaser" photo: Barbara Eisenstein, All other photos (unless noted): Janis Hatlestad, Better Earth Garden Design,