When Sally Cushman thinks about synthetic grass, she pictures a green —clearly fake — miniature golf course.
That all changed this spring when she was introduced to EcoLawn SB, a local startup that replaces brown, rain-deprived residential and commercial lawns with artificial turf.
Cushman put a sample of the stuff in her backyard, letting her two dogs sniff and play on the turf EcoLawn procures from fellow locals at Aqua-Flo Supply.
The grass looked real and her drought-stricken lawn was in dire need of a makeover.
“I never realized it was as nice looking as this,” Cushman said this month as an EcoLawn crew used nails to hammer custom-cut plastic pieces of All Natural 75 into her grass-free front yard. “These guys have been wonderful. I’m thrilled.”
EcoLawn SB launched last November when co-founders Jessica Girard and Beau Lee Schmidt brainstormed how to inspire change and help conserve water in a fourth year of drought.
Schmidt, a Santa Barbara native, was finishing up some green building projects as a local contractor. His longtime girlfriend, Girard, had just graduated from Antioch University with a liberal arts/business management degree and finished a stint as team leader with the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians.
“It was sort of a perfect storm,” Girard said. “What can we do to make a difference in this town and in this world?”
They stopped for a picnic on a drive up north, laying the spread on surprisingly comfortable synthetic grass. After calling around, they discovered a niche in the industry, since several companies already installing fake turf locally hailed from out of town.
Since then, EcoLawn has installed more than 65 synthetic lawns on the South Coast — equaling more than 50,000 square footage and helping to save more than 1 million gallons of water, according to Girard.
No more mowing, fertilizing or aerating required.
Girard said the turf is pet and kid friendly, with an infill made by ZeoFill that’s 100 percent organic. The infill slowly releases water to cool turf and captures ammonia in urine to help offset smell. How much infill you need depends on the number and size of pets, and people rake or pick up poop like they would from a normal lawn.
“All of these little things are seriously adding up,” Girard said. “They can do their part.”
EcoLawn doesn’t do advertising, mostly because the signs they put up in yards of customers help spread the word.
Cushman said she was especially motivated to install synthetic turf because the cost is covered by city Water Wise rebate programs.
The city of Santa Barbara’s rebate program, which started in 2009 to encourage water conservation, expanded its qualifying projects in May 2014 to include synthetic turf as a way to save water during drought, said Madeline Ward, Santa Barbara’s acting water conservation coordinator.
Other water savers include manipulating a sprinkler system, mulching or replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants.
Of the total rebates in the past year, 68, or 19 percent, were for synthetic turf, Ward said, noting the city could decide to remove turf from the list depending on rain received between now and next October, when grant funds run out.
“Synthetic turf could handle more foot traffic,” Ward said. “It really depends on what (residents) are looking for. That’s why we have such a wide variety of options. There’s definitely a portion of the community that wants a fake surface without having to water it.”
Rebates cover 50 percent of the installation cost, up to $1,000. Although EcoLawn does any size of surface, Girard said an average lawn install is 1,000 square feet — at $7-9 per square foot, depending on which of 20 varieties used — and the company’s eight-person team can install 500 square feet per day.
Synthetic grass is becoming more popular, but some challenges remain. The turf heats up in the sun and disposing of your pet’s business can be difficult without proper infill.
Girard said EcoLawn is working to create a recycling program for the turf once it’s past a 20-year life expectancy. They’ve installed lawns as far south as Carpinteria all the way up to Ballard in the Santa Ynez Valley, but Girard said they’re willing to travel further.
She isn’t worried about the drought ending — she welcomes it actually — because EcoLawn is being both reactive and proactive in dealing with the environment. She’s confident folks will be water wise even without a drought, knowing another will come along.
“Traditional grass is a thing of the past,” she said.