Artificial grass has become more popular in recent years. Image © red mango/Shutterstock Garden Grass
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Debate over the use of artificial and natural lawns has been rekindled in recent weeks as temperatures surge across the UK.
Small changes to how lawns are looked after can help provide low maintenance but biodiverse habitats for wildlife.
Campaigners have called for a crackdown on artificial lawns and turf as sales of the products surge.
Opponents of the lawns, made from plastic fibres, have called for them to be taxed or even banned amid fears over their effect on the environment. Concerns over their safety and health impacts have also been raised.
Dr Mark Gush, Head of Environmental Horticulture for the Royal Horticultural Society, told Channel 4 News, 'Artificial grass is fundamentally bad for the environment because it results in loss of habitat in gardens.'
'We need all the habitat we can get to support biodiversity and combat the climate crisis, and by putting down plastic grass you are removing the potential of that garden space to deliver other beneficial environmental services.'
Proponents of artificial grass, however, argue that it has a number of environmental benefits over natural lawns.
A statement on the website of the European Synthetic Turf Council, which represents the artificial grass industry, reads, 'Synthetic turf can have a measurable, positive impact on the environment.'
'A typical grass sports field can require up to a 4.5 million litres of water each year in drier climates, and this water use can be saved when synthetic turf is installed.'
'When used for landscaping, synthetic turf helps reduce noxious emissions from lawn movers and reduces grass clippings, which are reported as the third largest component of municipal solid waste in landfills.'
While noting that artificial grass has 'no value for wildlife in itself' and 'can have negative impacts on both biodiversity and drainage for flood prevention,' the UK government has said it currently has 'no plans' to ban the use of artificial grass or introduce a tax upon it.
Strictly regimented formal gardens, like those at Hampton Court Palace, have generally been replaced by lawns since the eighteenth century. Image © Rachelle Burnside/Shutterstock
Changes in garden fashions are nothing new. Over the centuries, gardens have moved from places to grow food to expressions of an individual's style. As the popularity of formal gardens faded in the eighteenth century, natural landscaping with lawns became more prominent in Europe.
This style of gardening was then exported around the world, including to areas where lush grasses are less suitable. The arid climate across much of the USA, for instance, is not well suited to grasses, but demand for the picture-perfect lawns remained strong.
In the 1960s, this demand led to the invention of the first artificial turfs, which have rapidly become more widespread. In recent years, artificial grass has moved beyond sports pitches and into homes, with reports of a 185% increase in searches for the material in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Proponents of artificial lawns link the demand to the use of artificial lawns in shaded areas where grass can't be grown, as well as the lower amount of maintenance, such as mowing and watering, required for non-natural grass.
However, artificial grass is not maintenance free, as it needs to be cleaned regularly and wears out after eight to 15 years. When it is replaced, disposing of the material sustainably can be difficult as recycling technologies are still relatively new and not common worldwide.
There are several other environmental concerns associated with the material. Artificial grass is a barrier to earthworms and insects which lay their eggs in soil, while the leaching of microplastics can harm wildlife.
There may also be effects of human health, with research from New York's Department of Environmental Conservation suggesting that areas of artificial grass in direct sunlight can be as much as 15 to 20⁰C hotter than natural grass.
Some studies have also raised concerns over the use of crumb rubber infill in some types of artificial grass, as this can contain heavy metals and harmful chemicals. The European Chemicals Agency, however, says there is currently a 'very low level of concern' that these will negatively impact human health.
The biodiversity of lawns can be improved while reducing the amount of maintenance they need. Image © 1000 Words/Shutterstock
While natural lawns support more biodiversity than plastic lawns, they can still be resource intensive if they are heavily managed. In addition to their use of water, the use of nutrient mixtures and weedkillers by some gardeners can also take their toll on the environment.
However, natural lawns can be transformed to support greater biodiversity, as well as use less resources, with a few small changes. One of the easiest ways is to mow less and encourage grass to grow longer, which can provide shelter for wildlife and help maintain moisture.
Becky Clover, the Museum's Urban Biodiversity Officer, says, 'Cutting your grass less can be one way to encourage wildlife into your garden by allowing the grasses and herbaceous plants in the lawn to flower. These provide nectar, pollen and seeds to support invertebrates and birds, as well as somewhere for a range of animals to forage and shelter.'
'Taller grass also stays green for a longer period in the summer as it helps maintain humidity and soil moisture during dry periods.'
Becky recommends having a variety of different habitats in a garden, such as long grass and wildflower areas, to provide a range of resources throughout the year. Choosing a mixture of flowers which bloom at different times from spring through to late autumn ensures that wildlife can thrive all year around.
'If you have limited space, planting for pollinators can be a good use of your garden or outside space,' Becky adds. 'Even if you only have plant containers or pots on a balcony, providing flowers can be invaluable to bees, butterflies, beetles and other pollinators.'
'Try to plant flowers with a variety of shapes, sizes, colours and fragrances to attract a range of species. However, try to avoid modified horticultural forms, such as those with double flowers, as these do not always provide accessible nectar and pollen.'
Creating log piles and other sheltered areas, such as compost heaps, provides respite for a range of wildlife. Leave features like log piles in-situ during the winter, as animals like toads may be hibernating under them and won’t want to be disturbed.
If you have the space and time to spare, planting bushes, hedges and climbing plants can add complexity to the garden environment and provide nesting and foraging opportunities. These should ideally include plants which produce fruits, berries and seeds which can support vertebrates and invertebrates alike.
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Football Grass © The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London