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Consumer Reports

This gives new meaning to 'home turf' | (KRT) MESA, Ariz. - The kidney-shaped lawn in front of this two-story suburban house stands out. It's a perfectly consistent green, perfectly mowed, it seems. On either side, the neighbors' yards have patches of brown and yellow, a common occurrence in this dry desert clime.

This lawn looks artificial - and it is.

This is what a multiyear drought has led to in the arid West: homeowners installing synthetic turf in yards they're tired of watering, fertilizing, mowing, weeding and resodding year in and out.

Although it is a new phenomenon, anecdotal evidence points to a rise in weekend yard warriors shutting down their mowers, turning off sprinkler systems and padding out to pick up their morning newspapers in a field of plastic.

"It's really taken off," said David Gille, owner of Legacy True Turf in Phoenix, who estimates he will install at least 400 synthetic lawns in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada this year, four times last year's number.

The calls started coming in months ago and they keep on coming, said Kirk Konecny, a landscaper who put in the Mesa front yard and is building a 1,700-square-foot synthetic-grass putting green behind his own custom-built house.

"It's been seven years of drought here, and there's a lot of people who are tired of fooling around with their lawns," he said.

Admittedly, this man-made mock grass is expensive: $3 to $8 a square yard, compared with $1.50 for an equal amount of natural Kentucky blue grass. And the artificial stuff can get decidedly hot in the burning Arizona summers.

Higher north, the never-changing green can look out of place in the winter, when everyone else's yard has browned and been dusted lightly by snow. To some, the sheer unnaturalness of the ersatz groundcover is offensive.

"It's not a part of the earth. There are no earthworms. There's nothing living in the soil - no green shoots creating oxygen," said Rob Proctor, artistic director of the Denver Botanic Gardens. "I think it's a shame. What's next, artificial trees?"

But this isn't the same hard, scratchy AstroTurf that introduced synthetic grass to sports stadiums of America nearly 40 years ago, manufacturers say.

"Soft, bouncier underfoot, with a nice feel," is how Robert Hale, corporate brand manager for AstroLawn, describes it.

This turf is made by the same company that makes AstroTurf, which is targeting the residential market as a new niche with high growth potential. This year, AstroLawn expects to install its 2-year-old product at nearly 1,800 homes, Hale said.

All together, up to 5,000 homeowners in the United States have yards covered by artificial turf, and that's doubling or tripling annually, said John Gilman, chief executive of FieldTurf, a Montreal company that's also aggressively pursuing residential customers.

Jonathan Huard, who recently became FieldTurf's Midwest distributor, ticked off the jobs he has under way in Illinois, including a back yard in Barrington and a putting green at a Lake Forest estate.

"No one wants to be the first in their neighborhood to do it," Huard said. "But once the neighbors see it, they want it too."

Tom Smith, whose home on a three-quarter acre lot in Chandler, Ariz., is landscaped with FieldTurf, was an early user.

"All my neighbors are watering, mowing, trimming, trying to fix up the dead spots. My lawn is pretty all the time, and I don't do much of anything. It's worth every nickel," he said.

His only caution: Those with dogs should leave a bit of grass for them to dig or the animals will tear up the plastic.

For all its hassle-free promise, though, some people are finding the grass isn't always greener when the artificial lawns go in.

Deon Jachetta of Thornton, Colo., thought he had solved his yard problems when he installed AstroLawn in front of his two-story house in February. For years, Jachetta's golden retriever had been using the lawn as a bathroom and tearing it up, leaving it patched and brown.

Little did Jachetta realize that Thornton had an ordinance prohibiting artificial trees, shrubs, vines or turf in landscaping. Someone complained about the turf, a city worker came out and Jachetta was told the $9,000 lawn would have to go.

"I'm saving on water consumption during a drought, and they want me to take this out? It doesn't make any sense," said Jachetta, who reports his April water usage was 34 percent of average because he didn't have to water the grass.

"I'm going to fight this."

For their part, city officials in Thornton decided to take another look at their ordinance after finding four homeowners in the north Denver suburb had installed artificial lawns this year.

Among their many questions: How does synthetic turf handle runoff when it rains? (FieldTurf and others say little holes in the backing let water run through.) How do you keep it clean? (With a broom or a leaf blower.) Are any of the materials used to make the grass or help keep it in place toxic? (The companies say no.)

After hearing from residents who don't like the aesthetics of fake grass and surveying distributors, "we had more unanswered questions than we felt comfortable with," and the city reaffirmed its ban two weeks ago, said Thornton spokeswoman Jan Dexter-Blunt.

Other areas are taking a closer look. Aurora, Colo., east of Denver, was caught by surprise when homeowners started asking officials if they could install artificial turf after the Denver Home and Garden show in February. Several manufacturers had booths at the show.

"We began to get a deluge of calls from people saying, `I'm worried about the drought; I'm losing the grass in my yard; maybe this is a better way to go,' " said Don Fecko, Aurora's principal planner and landscape architect.

Aurora also has a ban on artificial landscaping. But it has decided to allow three test plots - at a home, a park and a roadway median - this year, so it can examine how synthetic turf absorbs water and other issues before reconsidering its policy.

The first test site went up last week at Helen Patten's house not far from where the Aurora city line meets the dry eastern Colorado prairie.

Patten, an avid gardener who is on Aurora's advisory committee on drought, plans to keep a daily log about her plastic lawn: how her three dogs like it, what happens when it storms, whether her trees seem to be getting enough water, and other matters.

"It's a little too perfect, isn't it? It needs some dandelions," joked Melissa Elliott, spokeswoman for the city of Aurora, who visited Patten's home to check out the scene.

Nonsense, said Patten, who insists her lawn was always the greenest on the block. "You go around this neighborhood and all you see are lawns going to pot. By July, if we have another summer like last summer, I'm going to have the only green yard out here and I'm not going to be wasting water," she predicted, surveying two men brushing sand and crushed rubber on her turf to help straighten it.

"Even better, this will give me more time for my flowers. There are no earthworms. There's nothing living in the soil - no green shoots creating oxygen. I think it's a shame. What's next, artificial trees?"

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services