GARDENING; No mower bother

Could fake grass confound the mockers and become fashionable, asks Helen Chappell
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The Independent Culture
ONE of the greatest gardening mysteries of all time is why the British are so passionately attached to their lawns. Ever since we stopped grazing sheep on them, lawns have been an unnatural phenomenon, a vulnerable monoculture prone to baldness, disease and death. Like a sickly Victorian maiden, the average domestic lawn hovers between lushness and decay. Blights afflict it from all directions: if we are not drenching it in chemicals to poison moss, daisies and clover, we are raking off a harvest of mushroom rings, mole hills, worm casts and the lookout towers of ants nests.

In periods of drought we rush outside to soak it with water every other day, raise the lawnmower blades and dance about on it wearing ridiculous spiked shoes. The following week, we brave torrential rain to lower the mower blades, rake off the mouldy clippings we left on last week as a mulch, re-seed bald patches, top dress and bottom feed.

Most lawns reward this ceaseless toil by growing to resemble the pelt of a mangy dog. If small children share the household, this degenerates further into the muddy chaos of a football pitch-cum-battlefield. Even the most passionate lawn lover may rebel under these circumstances and offer up a prayer: if only someone would manufacture an instant, tough, no-maintenance lawn that you could just hose down or run the Hoover over.

Sam Abel Smith of Greensward Co Ltd claims to have done exactly that. An ex-merchant banker with a missionary zeal to transform the back gardens of the nation, he makes and sells a product enticingly named Lazylawn. "More and more people are finding grass time-consuming," he insists. "They'd rather use that time for growing plants." Lazylawn, it seems, is the (100 per cent polypropylene) answer to their prayers. It is water resistant, stain resistant, mud-proof, frost-proof, fade-proof and (for all we know) bomb-proof as well. As long as you have a suitable surface underneath you can buy it on a roll and cut it to fit, lay it loose and anchor it with pots and things, nail it to battens or glue it down permanently. Enough people have been persuaded of its virtues to provide Mr Sam (and the Hon Mrs Elizabeth) Abel Smith with a comfortable pounds 250,000 annual turnover.

There's nothing new about the idea of fake grass. The much-mocked Astroturf was invented in the Sixties in the USA, and takes its name from its first major use, as a sports pitch in Astrodome in Houston, Texas. The original idea was to create a cheap portable substitute for grass in response to a social survey by the philanthropic Ford Found-ation. This report recommended that inner-city youths should embrace sports to raise their levels of health to that of fitter rural teenagers. The question was - how to create enough grass pitches in the middle of the concrete jungle? The chemical giant Monsanto conjured up Astroturf: nylon polymer spun and crimped into "blades" and woven on to a fabric backing. Since then, generations of sporty youths have played on it, not to mention ageing crazy-golfers. No one would suggest, though, that this tough, wiry (even painful) surface was suitable for sunbathing on in the back garden.

Which is where the new breed of user-friendly polypropylene grasses comes in. But isn't there just one tiny problem? Doesn't fake grass still evoke thoughts of Astroturf in its popular non-sporty uses in butchers' shop windows, Santa's department-store grottoes and drive-thru wedding chapels in Las Vegas? "People do tend to have the wrong image of it," admits Mr Abel Smith, "but that's mostly because they imagine it has to be bright green in colour. Our olive green is very subtle; you hardly notice it so you assume it's the real thing."

His rival retailers of artificial grass also admit to this image problem. "People still expect our grass to look plasticky," says Peter Ibbotson, the managing director of Matchmaker Sports Surfaces of Worcester. "People's tastes are a difficult area. When they see it in situ a lot of them will say, 'That looks good, better than we expected.' But some traditional gardeners will never accept anything that isn't real." John Collins, senior partner of Artificial Lawns and Sportsfields (London) makes bolder claims. "I don't think our product is seen as naff any more," he says. "In the last three years we've noticed a big change. Artificial grass is especially popular in Europe. British people go on continental holidays and find themselves sitting outside a pavement cafe on top of a carpet of it. They come home and want the same thing on their own patio."

The notion of an army of sun-tanned sophisticates besieging British garden centres demanding artificial lawns may sound a touch surreal, but let that pass. Mr Abel Smith successfully sells a range called Fungrass, which includes some finishes that bear no resemblance to the real thing. Depending on how surreal you feel, you could also lay a Lazylawn in any colour from burgundy red to turquoise and emerald. As for textures, these vary from lush'n'shaggy for the grass-like "Starturf", to scrubbing brush ("Summertime"), pot scourer (ungrassy "Spring") and puppy fur ("Deco").

College lecturers Robert and Caroline Harper have solved their personal lawn problem by laying a Greensward product called Fungrass in their south London garden. "Our three small kids kept the old lawn permanently churned up," reports Caroline. "So we had this stuff fixed on top of asphalt for them to play on. They seem to love rolling around on it." Have they had any stick from friends and neighbours who regard artificial turf as the height of bad taste? "We had one or two jokes about putting greens and second-hand car showrooms," admits Robert, "but when people see how it actually looks they tend to be converted. I think we're starting a bit of a craze for the alternative lawn."

Helicopter pilot Roger Emmett isn't too bothered by neighbours in his roof garden atop a mansion block. "I don't give a damn if anyone thinks it's naff to have fake grass," he says. "Everything up here is artificial anyway. You need good drainage for real grass and that's impossible." He has opted for the naturalistic effect of Fungrass Olive.

Sam Abel Smith would advise him to stand some pot plants on his Fungrass and grow moss and sedum directly in its pile. "I do that in my own garden and it looks very natural," he says. "Shallow-rooted plants grow in it quite happily." If only gardeners weren't so conservative, he feels they would see the endless possibilities of these products. Conservatories, swimming pool areas, balconies, lawns - his mission is to carpet them all in the best possible taste. "I'd like to see garden designers using artificial lawn in garden shows," he adds.

Peter Ibbotson would agree. "It would be fabulous to use one in a Japanese- style garden with all those artistic rocks and gravel," he muses. John Collins's customers have used his fake grass to construct a pathway for ducks, a miniature village and even an avant-garde sculpture in their back gardens. In the campaign against lawn tyranny, polypropylene grass is winning more converts among British gardeners than you might expect. If it has really broken through the good taste barrier, is it today the patio, tomorrow the world?

SUPPLIERS Greensward: 01572 722923/756031/ 723491; Artificial Lawns and Sportsfields (London): 0181-656 4151/2114; En-Tout-Cas Plc: 01664 411711; Matchmaker Sports Surfaces: 01386 45066