Sonoma County homeowners ditching lawns for drought-friendly options

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Like a rapidly growing number of people in the North Bay, Jacquie Coyne decided that her lawn had to go.

Maintaining all that turf was too much work for a woman in her 80s. And the amount of water needed to keep it green was increasingly hard to justify, particularly during a drought. But with a dog who loved to play in the grass, Coyne needed a surface material where they both could play.

So Coyne broke down and replaced her lawn with artificial turf.

“It looks like grass,” she said. “The only thing I have to do every once in a while is take a leaf blower and blow off the leaves and debris. That’s about it.”

And she didn’t have to give up her good times playing on the lawn with her Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever.

“I throw balls at her and keep her busy. She’s high-energy,” said Coyne, whose home is in a subdivision in east Petaluma. And she can still sit down on the “lawn” and wrestle with her dog.

Artificial turf has come a long way since the Astroturf of an earlier era.

“From that first generation of synthetic products to now is just like night and day,” said Patty Lang, co-owner of Wine Country Greens, which specializes in realistic-looking synthetic lawns that people are buying for pets, play and appearance.

And lawn, whether real or synthetic, is not the only surface safe for play. As homeowners turn away from water-guzzling, time-sucking lawns, they’re looking at other grounds materials, from decomposed granite and bark to shredded tires.

One of the most trendy is, in fact, artificial turf, which has evolved into something that looks closer to real grass, including a more natural, two-tone color in a muted green. The materials also are different — either a nylon or polyethylene blend. You can choose how long you want it to be, from 3/4 of an inch up to 2 inches.

“A pet play area, for instance, may be short and dense if you want dogs romping on it, whereas for visually aesthetic reasons, you might want it tall and lush-looking,” Lang said.

The better artificial turfs are permeable with punctures between the stitch rows. This not only keeps Mother Nature happy, but is good for pets.

“Pet urine drains through it. It doesn’t support any stain or odor. And it’s resistant to mold and mildew,” Lang said of the turfs she carries from Synthetic Turf International.

The water savings on an average lawn of 1,800 square feet would be 99,000 gallons each year.

Artificial turf is widely available now at major home improvement stores and landscape suppliers. Tony Damico, vice president of Wheeler-Zamaroni in Santa Rosa, said high-end homeowners are using synthetic turf for putting greens.

Some people do question how environmentally friendly the turfs are, considering they are a petroleum-based product.

“I think of the big picture. If you’re going to buy one and it lasts 10 to 15 years, the water savings will far outweigh any issues with the manufacturing of the product,” Damico said.

But it’s not cheap. Lang said her lawns range from $2.50 to $5.50 per square foot for do-it-yourselfers and $10.50 to $15.50 installed. It comes in 15-foot-wide rolls of varying lengths. Lang said installation includes removing the old lawn, excavating 3 to 4 inches and bringing in a road-base material that is compacted in 1-inch layers, which becomes the foundation for the turf.

While rain usually is sufficient to clean artificial turf, you may want to hose it down periodically and sanitize it with a cleaning product like Nature’s Miracle or Kids & Pets. Artificial turf can also become flattened. If so, it can be fluffed up with a plastic shag-carpet rake or medium-stiff brush.

There are other alternative surfaces that homeowners are using.

Sandy Metzger, a master gardener who teaches classes in lawn replacement, said some people are replacing their front lawns with native or low-water-use plants. But in the backyard, they may just extend out their patio or hardscape and reduce the lawn, without getting rid of it altogether.

“Lawns are so comfortable. And they’re safe,” Metzger said. “They give your surface padding, where little babies and dogs and all ages of people can walk and feel safe.”

If you have kiddie climbing structures, it’s particularly important to have something to cushion falls. And with lawns receding out of favor, parents are looking for alternatives.

Most popular are playground chips, which come in a range of sizes, the longest about an inch.

“It’s a great material,” Damico said, “and it gives.”

Losing favor, however, is sand. While kids love sandboxes, alas, so do neighborhood cats.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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