The Grass Is Always Greener

How I transformed my pile of dirt, weeds, and grass into a drought-friendly landscape

I was born with a black thumb – my home is basically a plant graveyard memorialized by lifeless leaves and unconscious orchids. I’ve unfortunately killed countless cactuses, tons of tillandsias, and loads of lawns. So, the most logical thing for me to do was to purchase a home with nearly 4,000 square feet of unfinished yard, right? You see, it isn’t that I don’t care or that I haven’t tried, but I truly believe that I didn’t inherit my grandmother’s green thumb and I’ve come to terms with that. In the meantime, I was (and am still faced) with this YUUUGE yard, during a drought no less.

So, what was my solution? Artificial turf! It requires only a little water on rare occasions to rinse off those little presents left by neighborhood dogs, needs no mowing and stays green all year round. Not for the whole yard of course – that would cost thousands, and I unfortunately don’t have the kind of money burning a hole in my pocket. But, I thought maybe I could start with something small like the front yard. It’s roughly 240 square feet, which theoretically is easy enough, right?

I started by contacting local artificial turf installers and did some DIY research. It turns out that even a small front yard lawn replacement would cost roughly $3,000 if installed professionally, and unfortunately in Sacramento artificial lawns aren’t eligible for drought-tolerant rebates. So, I talked myself up and decided to do the installation myself, which would run about one-third of the professional cost. While I do have some experience with DIY home improvement projects, I have never tackled an outdoor project this size. I definitely had my work cut out for me.

Before we get started, let’s take a look at what my house looked like before I moved in. Take a look at that gorgeous, water-guzzling green grass! That freshly laid sod makes my little cottage look idyllic, but it wasn’t drought-friendly. The second photo is what a few years of my black thumb and the drought did to it. So you might be able to see why I wanted to replace it.

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I had some people suggest a little square-foot garden, or rocks, or drought-tolerant native plants, but none of those suggestions really appealed to me. I really wanted my house to look like how it did when I bought it, but without all the maintenance and water usage.

So, after some careful planning and a pep talk, I started what would turn out to be a couple-month process of digging, leveling, laying a drainage foundation, and eventually installing the turf. (Now, I don’t think this is the typical timeframe, but because I only had one friend helping at a time on certain weekends, the process did take a little longer than anticipated.) Eventually, with the help of friends, I dug up nearly 6 inches of soil as suggested by the all-knowing Google. 

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Turns out, it’s not that easy to level, and I did run into a sprinkler pipeline unexpectedly, but I did the best I could. After leveling the ground to the best of my ability, I was able to lay out a weed barrier to prevent unwanted sprouts from popping up through my shiny fake grass.

Sand and gravel was applied to help with drainage during occasional washings and rainy winter days. 

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Finally, I was able to lay down the turf. At first, I was a little uneasy, honestly. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It was so green and shiny – not like real grass – but that’s kind of what I was going for after all, right? I looked at it from all angles – the side, across the street, from the driveway and even from inside the house. I wasn’t totally sold on it, but a random neighborhood cat really appreciated it so I figured I could, too. 

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After a few days, leaves and twigs started to fall on my newly installed, incredibly low-maintenance lawn, and it started looking more authentic. And I’m in the process of getting my dog to do her business on it, but I think I was able to restore my home to the idyllic little cottage appearance it had when I bought it a few years ago. Only this time, there would be no watering, no mowing and no cats using my front lawn as a litter box. 

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In a nutshell, here’s what I learned:

  • Take your time, but hurry up!
    Neighborhood cats love using the rock and sand drainage base as their personal outdoor litterbox. If you can’t finish in one weekend, cover up the area to prevent leaves and other “gifts” from being deposited on your base.
  • Size matters
    In my personal experience, digging 4 to 6 inches is too deep. I ended up filling up my empty lawn area with more rock than I expected, so I think 2 to 3 inches would have sufficed.
  • Spring for the compactor
    I rented a compactor to squish down the rock and sand base layer, but I really didn’t pack it down enough before I had to return the equipment to Home Depot. It might be worth renting equipment for a full day (instead of 4 hours) just to allow the base layer to settle a little more overnight. Hand packers are not all that effective, but the motorized ones are.
  • Announce your plans
    Turns out friends and neighbors are more willing to help than I expected. Neighbors and friends offered tools, vehicles, and labor.
  • Feelin’ Hot, Hot, Hot
    I knew the grass would change temperature. Yes, it does get pretty hot, so test it out before you let your kids and pets walk on it. My dog doesn’t seem to mind the warmth, even when it’s in the triple digits.
  • Lastly, you’re probably wondering about the grand total. After calculating it myself, I was surprised that the total number was much smaller than I estimated. My cost was only $3.60 a square foot, totaling $864.84, which was less than the $1,000 I had saved up. Compare that to a professional job that would have run between $10 and $14 a square foot or $2,400 to $3,360. OK, my lawn took a couple of months and isn’t professional perfection, but when I pull into my driveway I know that I accomplished my goal, and that’s certainly worth more than $2,000.

Now, it’s time to tackle the rest of my yard, which resembles an untamed urban version of the American wilderness. Any volunteers?

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— TC Clark
Posted on Aug 29, 2016

Summary: Check out TC Clark's DIY artificial green lawn project. Learn her tips and tricks for saving over $2,000 by installing it herself.