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Fake grass business is growing greener

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Bob Moon: A stubborn drought is leaving a lot of people here in the West between a rock garden and a hard place. What’s the alternative when it comes to taking care of a water-hungry lawn?

Officials across the region have been experimenting with ways to reduce water demand and some local governments are offering incentives to homeowners to cut the grass — completely.

That, coupled with growing awareness about conserving water, has been a boon for businesses that offer alternatives to traditional lawns.

As Lenora Chu reports from Los Angeles, they aren’t limited to planting cactuses.

Lenora Chu: When Denise Maynard and her husband Steve moved into their new home in El Segundo, California, they decided to redo the landscaping. He wanted a putting green. She wanted a low maintenance yard.

When they started shopping for options, they kept coming back to the same solution: a synthetic lawn.

Denise Maynard: We liked what we saw. In fact, we liked it so much we ended up putting it in the backyard and the front yard.

They installed 3,500 square feet of artificial grass with a 300 square-foot putting green by the pool. They also got a lawn able to withstand abuse from their two dogs — no more brown and yellow patches that often mar the grass of dog owners. Their lawn stays green all the time.

Maynard: I’ve heard through a friend of a friend that one of our neighbors actually was very upset when we put the synthetic lawn in because it made her grass look so bad.

But out-greening the Joneses is not cheap. Duane Ruth of SynLawn, the country’s largest maker of artificial grass, installed the Maynards’ lawn.

Duane Ruth: For the front and back lawn with a putting green, it was about $30-35,000.

That’s $7-12 a square foot for a standard polyethylene and nylon blend that from 10 feet away looks like the real thing. It costs about four times as much as planting natural grass. Despite the price tag, Ruth says business is booming.

Ruth: Three years ago, we were probably installing two jobs a day. Now we’re probably installing 10 jobs a day and sometimes more.

Why? First, there’s the feel-good aspect of not having to use precious water on your lawn, especially in drought-stricken parts of the country. Then there’s the convenience factor — no mowing.

Annie Costa is with the Association of Synthetic Grass Installers.

Annie Costa: As people switch to low maintenance products they’re saving time, they’re saving money, they’re saving water.

Costa says since 2000, the industry has grown nationwide by at least 30 percent a year.

But synthetic grass does face a few hurdles. First of all, water is still relatively cheap, even in the West, so even though the average natural lawn drinks about 10 swimming pools full of water a year, there’s little incentive to switch.

Then there’s the challenge of busting those myths about fake grass. That’s where marketing consultant Hamilton Wallace comes in. He helps an Arizona synthetic grass company with its outreach strategy.

Hamilton Wallace: If you say “artificial grass” to a lot of people, the picture that they have in their mind is old indoor-outdoor carpet; It’s real thin, it’s ugly and it’s just not a really high quality product at all.

So as a marketer, part of his job is putting potential customers in touch with satisfied ones.

Wallace: Allowing their prospects to see and hear other people who had their same concerns talk about the process that they went through.

And when they hear that the average fake lawn pays for itself in four years, many get over the sticker shock.

Back in Southern California, homeowner Charles Walsh watches workers hammer sheets of fake grass into a base of crushed rock. Walsh is a busy family man with a couple of dogs, a baby girl and another one on the way.

As workers fluff up his lawn with a power broom, a smile creeps across his face. On weekends, he’ll be relaxing at the beach, not revving up a lawnmower.

Charles Walsh: Never owned one, never want to. Never have to pay another gardener or anything. It’s great.

And that, he says, he can take to the bank.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lenora Chu for Marketplace.

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