Nicola Daniels has spent — as many of us have during lockdown — a lot of time in her garden.
The 32-year-old NHS physiotherapist has two sons, Zac, aged seven, and Finn, three.
‘We were enjoying the outdoor space, but the state of our lawn was driving me insane,’ she says.
Nicola’s lawn, laid by the construction company of her new-build house in Worsley, Manchester, was planted on clay soil.
‘The kids wore the grass away. It became like a mudbath, the kids were constantly dirty. It just didn’t look very good.’ When her holiday in Dubai was cancelled, she and her husband decided to splash the cash on solving the problem: an artificial lawn.
In early May, a company called Lazylawn ripped up her scruffy turf, installed seven tonnes of the stone base and then laid its ‘Wonder Yarn’ fake grass.
In total, the project to transform her 30ft x 30ft garden cost a little over £6,000. ‘Everybody who comes in can’t believe how good it looks. It is amazing. We’ve had a stripe put in it so it looks like Wembley,’ she laughs.
But she is not the only person to install an artificial lawn during the lockdown. According to Britain’s biggest suppliers, the business has been booming over the past couple of months.
‘It’s been absolutely massive,’ says Andy Driver, sales director at LazyLawn. ‘Our sales have probably gone up 300 per cent compared with last year.’
His commercial rival, Mel Wright at Wonderlawn, says sales have doubled: ‘It just went beserk in May.’
Another, Michael Williams at Forever Green Lawns, says: ‘It’s been crazy. We’re probably four times as busy as we would have been this time last year.’
ROBERT HARDMAN says: Yes it’s Chernobyl for worms, but we love it
Daily Mail writer Robert Hardman with a plastic lawn he has laid in his garden
They are to horticulture what microwaves are to haute cuisine or what Twitter is to rational debate. But I am afraid I don’t care.
It is now seven years since we opted for fake grass and we have not regretted it once.
That and the trampoline have probably been our two best investments since moving in to our current home. Both have remained in pretty much constant use ever since.
But whereas the trampoline is starting to look rusty around the edges, the evergreen lawn beneath it looks as verdant as the day it was rolled out in 2013.
Lawn snobs (family members included) have scoffed at the naffness of it. However, they have not had to live with three young children all finding different ways to amuse themselves in a small urban garden.
When we moved in, the girls were six and four and my one-year-old son was learning to walk. He now has several football kits and footballs which he likes to hoof at a portable goal for hours on end.
If this were real grass, it would be a quagmire in winter and a dirt track in summer. Instead, it is Wembley every day. And when he’s not looking, the girls stick up a badminton net or paddling pool instead. During the lockdown, it has been a case of plastic fantastic.
True, this bogus turf may be Chernobyl for worms and moles, but the trees and shrubs in the surrounding beds are in the rudest health, aided by our garden compost.
The only downside is that no grass means no need for a mower and therefore no need for the one thing I do miss — a shed where I could sit and write articles like this in peace and quiet.
Lockdown may have caused swathes of the economy to seize up. But not artificial lawns. They are spreading across Britain’s back gardens as ferociously as Japanese knotweed.
This latest spurt in sales comes after sales of artificial lawns really took off about ten years ago, when the quality and appearance of fake grass dramatically improved.
‘Prior to that it was very much short-pile stuff, which wasn’t very desirable, a bit scratchy and not very aesthetically pleasing,’ admits Driver at LazyLawn.
The trend for increasingly realistic-looking artificial lawns, incorporating brown and yellow blades, however, has emerged at the same time as another consumer trend: an awareness of the environmental damage caused by plastic. Could our fake lawns be destroying Britain’s green and pleasant land?
‘The only green thing about fake grass is its colour. I hate it,’ says Carol Klein, long-time co-presenter of BBC’s Gardeners’ World. ‘It is really awful ecologically. It’s just horrid.’
How bad are plastic lawns for the environment? Or are the fears expressed by professional gardeners driven more by snobbery than by genuine ecological concerns?
Fake grass has been around since the mid-1960s, when the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, installed a neon-green surface in its new indoor baseball stadium: ChemGrass. It soon was rebranded ‘AstroTurf’.
The hard-wearing nylon surface soon took off, especially for hockey pitches and tennis courts, but only entered consumers’ back gardens during the late 1990s, and mostly as a novelty.
The quality of fake grass slowly improved, however, and was given two significant seals of approval a decade ago.
The first was when the Chelsea Flower Show, the jewel in the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) crown, allowed artificial grass for the first time in 2010 when a brand called Easigrass was used in one of the gardens.
‘We were the black sheep of the gardening world,’ says Anthony Gallagher, managing director of Easigrass. ‘We were just so nervous about proving artificial grass has a role to play.
‘A lot of people have come to realise it’s a solution —– for shady city gardens, where you get a lot of traffic, especially if you have young children. A real lawn just can’t take the stick. It just doesn’t last.’
The second was when Wembley stadium re-laid its pitch in the same year, after complaints about it being a poor quality surface. It used a mixture of real grass and a small amount — three per cent — plastic grass, an increasingly common technique in professional football pitches.
If it’s good enough for David Beckham and Wayne Rooney — and beloved by celebrities including Denise Van Outen — it can’t be all that bad, can it?
Yes, it can, says Guy Barter, chief horticultural adviser to the RHS.
‘We did allow some in the past as a quirk, but we put our foot down,’ he says. ‘It’s not the message we want to send.
‘We don’t have artificial grass any longer at our flower shows and we’ve removed it from our gardens.’
He agrees that many gardens, especially those on balconies or those owned by people in wheelchairs, cannot support a proper lawn. But he believes artificial lawns cause two particular problems.
‘Real grass absorbs dust and carbon dioxide and puts carbon in the soil. It supports wildlife. Artificial turf doesn’t do that.’
These concerns are echoed by Paul Hetherington, director at Buglife, the insect charity. ‘Artificial grass is bad for nature, it’s bad for wildlife. A lawn supports so many creatures. This plastic alternative supports no life forms whatsoever.’
How about in my North London garden? My lawn is mostly bare earth because of teenagers playing football on it.
‘Yes, because underneath your scrappy piece of ground, you’ll find all sorts of creatures such as earthworms. You’ll certainly find some leatherjackets, which are the larvae of what we call daddy-long-legs.
‘You’ll probably have centipedes and beetles. That will mean birds will come down and eat on your lawn. There’s a whole ecosystem underneath there.’
The decline in urban butterflies and urban bees could be down, in part, to the rise of artificial lawns.
‘We know all insects are in decline at the moment; artificial lawns are one of many factors at play here,’ he says.
Manufacturers and owners of artificial lawns, however, say it’s too simplistic to claim they are an environmental disaster.
A maintenance-free artificial turf lawn features a modern synthetic grass carpet with a resin path along the centre
Mel Wright, director at Wonderlawn, based in Newcastle, says: ‘Remember, there is an environmental impact with natural grass. Natural grass does not look after itself. You have to use electricity or petrol to power your lawnmower, there’s the plastic in the lawnmower, trips back and forth to B&Q to buy weedkillers, you have to water it, weed it, to keep it in good condition.’
He claims that most people who lay fake grass end up using their garden far more. ‘When they change their lawn to artificial, we find that they spend on average £500 or so on the other parts of their garden, planting trees or shrubs because they want it to look nice. That adds much more to the environment for insects than their old lawn.’
Rob John, membership director of the Content Marketing Association, lives in St Neots, Cambridgeshire. He installed an artificial lawn last year, mostly because he didn’t like the hassle of mowing his grass and it became boggy in winter.
He says: ‘My girlfriend and I are really into wildlife. We’ve planted loads around the perimeter, we have four bird feeders, and we try to make it as bee-friendly as possible with tons of lavender.’
Possibly a bigger worry than the loss of habitat for insects, however, is what you do with a fake lawn at the end of its life.
No authoritative figures exist for how many of Britain’s lawns are now artificial. But Wright, at Wonderlawn, estimates that eight million square meters of artificial grass for domestic gardens are sold in the UK each year, which works out at about 2,000 acres or 2,000 football-pitch-size slabs of plastic.
The team of artificial grass experts at LazyLawn were handpicked by TV presenter and actress, Denise Van Outen, to complete an installation project at her new Essex residence
Considering the boom has been running for 15 years or so, that means there are at least 20,000 acres of artificial lawn that at some stage will have to be disposed of.
This is Carol Klein’s main issue with fake grass. ‘It is made from two types of plastics bonded together, so it can’t be recycled because they require different ways of recycling. Ironically, it will end up in landfill.’ Fake lawns are nearly always made up of polyethene ‘blades’ of grass, and either latex or a polyurethane backing to hold it all together. As with any complex material made up of more than one plastic, it is almost impossible to recycle.
Driver at LazyLawn acknowledges these are legitimate concerns. ‘The lack of a recycling facility was threatening the industry,’ he says, but adds that a special artificial lawn recycling centre opened in the Netherlands at the start of this year.
‘I think for people to say “Oh, it’s plastic, it must be bad” is lazy. The industry has taken steps to recycle it.’
Wright at Wonderlawn says an increasing number of lawns are made with the blades and the backing using the same plastic, to help its recyclability.
Not everyone is convinced. ‘It’s smoke and mirrors,’ says Sian Sutherland, campaigner at Plastic Planet, who believes the vast majority of lawns still end up in landfill. ‘Is anyone with a fake lawn going to bother shipping it to the Netherlands?’
She also has another worry: ‘There are massive concerns about how these plastic lawns are made. In the plastic extrusion process (forcing the molten plastic out through its mould) in order to get that very fine blade of grass, the blades are often coated with chemicals that are endocrine disruptors. These compromise our immune system.’
Wright at Wonderlawn admits that some cheaper lawns, ‘are made to a budget, so they use lead in the manufacturing — it speeds up the extrusion process’. Low levels of cadmium, benzene, nickel, chromium and arsenic have also been found in sports pitches.
These chemicals have been found in the so-called ‘rubber crumb’, often derived from ground-up old car tyres, that is brushed into the artificial lawn to help weigh it down.
Lawn manufacturers point out that back garden lawns do not use rubber crumb, they use sand.
The final worry about artificial lawns is another potential health risk: they can overheat in summer.
A study by Loughborough University in 2016 found that its newly installed artificial sports pitch often reached temperatures of above 65c (149f) on days when the air temperature hit 25c during July — almost hot enough to fry an egg.
The study found the main culprit was a black rubber crumb, which is not used in high-quality lawns. Instead, they use kiln-dried sand, which reduces most heat build-up.
Professional gardeners, however, are still not convinced. Does Carol Klein argue why have a lawn at all? ‘After all, a lawn is quite an old-fashioned idea. I don’t have one.’
Joel Ashton, who appears on BBC Springwatch and author of Wild Your Garden, says an increasing number of people are abandoning lawns in favour of planting a wildflower meadow.
‘Planting wildflower meadows are becoming far more common, certainly compared with 15 years ago,’ he says, ‘The beauty of a wildflower meadow is it takes so little maintenance and it’s so lovely to look at.’
For many, however, an artificial lawn’s convenience will win over encouraging beetles and worms.
As Nicola Daniels in Worsley says: ‘To be honest, I’m not a fan of animals and creepy crawlies. And the environmental thing isn’t something I’d really considered. The guys who fitted it said it should last 20 years, so a lot further down the line, I’d hope there would be an environmentally friendly way of getting rid of it or reusing it.’
Let’s hope so, too — for the sake of the planet, as well as the bees and butterflies.