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Design

All The “Hows”, “Whys” And “How Much’s” Of The Turf At The Mountain House + Introducing My Landscape Designer – Brian Henderson

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Few debates have run so all-consuming and lengthy as the “should we have bark, sod, or turf in the backyard” at the mountain house. It’s right up there with other compelling debates, like “The 2019 almost marriage altering wood ceiling argument” and “Where the heck do we put the TV and can I please have one in our bedroom?”. Ah … oldies but goodies. These debates usually run a year long and we get SO SICK of talking about them, changing our mind, weighing cost, function, practicality, and yes style, in hopes that there would be a clear winner.

Wanna watch a little video about the whole backyard plan before we dig into the post?? Me too. (Just wait until the ad plays)

The Debate Between Real Sod And Artificial Grass/Turf

Before we moved up here full time we were fine with the bark. We didn’t love it, but it was appropriate and easy and pre-dogs it didn’t bother us. But that’s changed. Besides the bark we had these two options:

Real Sod:

The Pros: Real grass – when healthy – is prettier than fake. It’s a lot cheaper upfront (we already had irrigation as the family that lived here a decade ago had real grass). It is soft and comfy for falls.

The Cons: It’s illegal to put in real sod up here due to water usage (we would be criminals!), it freezes in the winter so we worried that we would be able to maintain it well and we had a lot of shade in the summer so we were worried about it thriving without enough sun.

Artificial Turf:

The Pros: Very little maintenance, year-round green, little mess/dirt for kids especially when it rains/snows. Practical AF.

The Cons: It’s expensive up front (anywhere between $6 – $15 a square foot installed), it can look fake and bad if not done right. It can get hot in the sun.

Neither was a clear choice…

Enter The Dogs – The Ultimate Deciders

Enter the dogs – the final turf decision-makers. When the dogs arrived, we had bark out in the back – a typical and very affordable mountain landscape choice. They “enjoyed” this bark a lot and spent most of their unsupervised time jumping in the pond, then chasing each other back and forth only to end up digging up dirt around the perimeter, bathing in mud and bark. Meanwhile, all the dust from the bark floated its way into our home, permeating every room. We knew that we had to get rid of the bark within days of having these dirty little pups. But do we install real sod? Well like the grass gods answering our prayers (wouldn’t it be awesome it if were always this easy?), the next week we brought down the dogs to LA to stage the house and those little mothers started digging holes in the middle of the grass in our backyard. We couldn’t stop them. The second they were let outside they would dig up everything! We were going to replace the sod anyway there (and we did) but it made it clear that these two mud pups will abuse any future grass. DONE. TURF. IT. IS.

So we did what any designer + husband team would do – we rushed the process because we were going mentally a little cuckoo dealing with muddy pups every day destroying our house. We knew that we wanted a fire pit area and a hot tub (this is a mountain house and both feel like long term investments for winter – and if we ever Airbnb it, it obviously adds a lot of value). But I was being a perfectionist and “cared about the design too much” so Brian took this project over to speed it up. I agreed that this wasn’t where we should spend a ton of money or be too precious. We are up here for at least a year but after that who knows? And if we didn’t do it quickly we wouldn’t get it done until after winter as a lot of the exterior construction stops late November – April. WE HAD TO HURRY.

We Got Multiple Quotes

So our first quote from a landscape contractor included turf for most of the yard (around 1700 square feet), plus a stone path to a stone patio where the two boulders are, creating a natural gas fire pit area. This quote came in at $56k, which we thought was incredibly high and frankly shocked us. He thought maybe he could get it down to $45k and this did NOT include digging the trench for the gas, hooking up the gas (done by a plumber), or laying the slab for the hot tub. We knew that landscaping your house is almost as expensive as renovating the inside – mostly because of labor, but we had not predicted this.

So we got another quote, slowing down the process (but still rushing too fast, don’t worry!). This time we called Save Pro Turf and we had an amazing experience (not gifted or given a press discount – just super impressed with the product and service). We decided to not spend the money on a stone patio and instead just put down pebbles and we nixed a path I wanted since we didn’t really NEED it after all. By doing this we got the quote for $16k. Now, this didn’t include bark removal, tree trunk removal, some grading, trenching the gas line, installing the gas line ($850), and lastly pouring the slab for the future hot tub. These things will add up to a few thousands of dollars, but they were still FAR under that $56k quote. Plus, the turf was in stock and they were available to do it 3 weeks later (many of the other companies we called were booked through November, and then depending on weather they might not have been able to do it til spring – NOOOOOOO!!!). We could NOT live with that bark. It was making our house DISGUSTING, the dust, the mud, the chewing of the bark all over the house, NOOO.

The Scramble To Find Sub-Contractors

I don’t know how it is where you live but up here, all contractors and subs are SLAMMED with work. It’s great for them, but as a homeowner, it was almost impossible to book any subs for these jobs (and no one really cares about my Instagram following which I only reluctantly mention as a hail mary JUST IN CASE). I reached out to our GC Jeff Malcom (who did the mountain house) and asked for him to ask his subs for us, and while he tried to help he reminded me that “subs will always prioritize working for general contractors over homeowners because they’ll get consistent long term work from them, whereas with a homeowner it’s just a one-time thing”. Fine.

So we were scrambling to find crews to de-bark, trench for gas pipe, grade the earth, and then get a plumber to install the pipe for the gas. It was also labor day weekend and no one wanted to work overtime, understandably… without a pretty penny at least. So we ended up paying far more to get crews to come on the weekend or after hours. The turf was coming on September 8th and if we didn’t have the yard ready by then they couldn’t do it for another month after that. But by rushing it we paid about 30% more for labor to get it all ready in time. FUN!

We lived with the de-barked – full dirt backyard for over a week which wasn’t ideal (remember dogs and kids), but also fun for the kids as we had some great mud-ball fights that horrified Brian and admittedly took days to get out of my hair.

INSTALL TIME

Here’s what I can’t recommend enough: hire a very experienced turf company that specializes in turf to install. There are many ways to mess this up and make it A. look terrible or B. not last as long as it should (pull up on the edges, not prepped properly underneath, etc). Save Pro Turf knew exactly what they were doing. They came out twice to do drawings and measurements and mapped it all out.

The day of the install they arrived with close to 10 guys – all so pleasant and genuinely seemed like they loved their job. I mention that as a huge compliment to Jeff who runs the company – that he clearly takes care of his team (some have been with him for 10 years). They did some additional grading and started prepping the earth. This included spreading out a recycled concrete layer to compact and act as a weed barrier.

Brian and I had to go to LA to shoot something so while we were gone his parents kept sending me photos and videos of the process and it was INTENSE. They arrived at 8 am on Wednesday and they were totally done by Thursday afternoon! I do think that this is unusual and they said they had double the crews to make sure they finished before a massive job the following week (so I wouldn’t typically expect it to take such a short time).

Do We Love It???

OH, DO WE. It instantly changed our backyard and lives. The kids can actually use it, play on it, lay on it. The pups can run around and if they avoid the pond/dirt they remain clean! If they are unsupervised and they DO get in the pod and dirt then the faux grass almost acts as a big doormat and brushes it off of them if they stay out there long enough.

Does It Look Real??

Artificial grass rarely fools you completely. But in my opinion, there are five factors that help it look more real:

  1. Get high-quality turf that has multiple shades of green and brown in it. We chose Pro80 that was sourced through the turf company (it doesn’t sell direct to consumer as far as I can see and that is because they don’t want consumers to order and try to install it on their own). It’s a darker green which is more appropriate for the mountains (as opposed to a brighter that might be more “Palm Springs-y”). It has some brown on the inside which gives it some dimension.

    FUN FACT: Most turf is only $2-4 per square foot, it’s the install that makes it between $7 – $15 (ours was $8/square foot with install)
  2. Get professional turf installers to install. After watching them do it, it is an art form that requires experience. Like installing expensive wallpaper, if you aren’t going to have someone good do it, you might just be wasting your money.
  3. Don’t totally flatten your yard. A perfectly flat rectangle of a yard with turf definitely looks more like a putting green and a little fake. It’s OK if this is what you have, It’s not like you should “add hills” but if you have some sloping or some movement, keep it – it looks more real.
  4. Break it up. Like tip #3, the more you break it up the more real it looks mostly because it’s so bright and green (and perfect) that your eye doesn’t believe it’s real if it’s just a huge field of perfect primary green. Broken up with pathways, fire pits, boulders, decking, etc will help it look less fake.
  5. Shade and dappling are your friends. It’s my opinion that a dapple or shade makes it look more real than full sun. It just creates movement and a natural element. Not that you can add shade that easily, but if you are worried about it looking fake and you have a lot of shade know that the shade helps.

Now I know that many of you will never be on board with faux, but admittedly the second that the decision was “forced upon us” and more importantly the night that it was installed I was SO RELIEVED and secretly SO happy that this is our future. It would be like a doctor telling you to only wear Uggs or to start eating more french fries. The lack of maintenance of this grass really checks a huge box for us permanently despite it not always being my first style choice.

But We Still Rushed Some Things…

Jeff (our contractor) told us after we had booked everything that we were being hasty putting in artificial turf FIRST, that it’s like installing the carpet before you’ve painted the walls. Oh Jeff, don’t be so boring. I knew he was right but desperation for turf NOW was leading the hasty machine. So here is what we kinda rushed:

  1. We still need to do some construction – like a new fence (Brian doesn’t agree but I want a pretty painted wood fence). So that will be a decent amount of construction near our pretty new grass. Whoops.
  2. We forgot about the trampoline. The Saturday after we installed the grass and our fire pit (how pretty is that fire pit!!) my workout tramp arrived. The kids jumped on it, so happy, and Brian and I looked at each other at the EXACT same time and said “oh shoooooooot”. The only place we could have put an in-ground tramp is where the firepit is – fully installed with natural gas. That was the original plan that we honestly just FORGOT about!!! So what I’d love from you is for you guys to say things like “our kids never use our tramp” or “it’s a waste of money and dangerous”‘. We might be able to put in an above-ground one (with the safety net) outside the guest room door but we ruined our chance to put it here. And you can’t really do it now because trying to patch the turf where the boulders are would look silly. WHOOPS.
  3. The design of the hot tub area was barely even thought about because we were so busy trying to coordinate the subcontractors and now we are locked into having the grass stop where it is, in a straight line. We’ll make it work, but it might not be the prettiest hot tub area ever. **Update: we found the last hot tub on sale in a 100-mile radius (like the last one left for MONTHS, none were arriving till late November) so we snagged it. Is it a pretty round cedar tub? HA NO. Brian Henderson would die without the ability to sit on faux marbled moulded plastic with hydrotherapy jets going into his armpits. But after researching I realized that the only BEAUTIFUL spas are custom/site-specific spas (built into a pool area with custom surrounds + very expensive) or are round cedar ones that you have to sit vertically in (Brian shakes his head in horror). So since I have to give up on “beautiful”, I’m opting for “affordable”, “fast” and “Not visually offensive??”. Cheers to low expectations!
  4. The fire pit area is pretty darn big and could have been smaller. There was some miscommunication and then boom, it was done. 🙂

Part of me is disappointed in myself for not having a fully fleshed out design plan, executed properly, step by step in perfect chronological order with the appropriate elements where they make the most sense. In a perfect world, we would have a contractor manage, draw it out, grade it all, MAKE A PLAN, do all the dirty construction (deck, additional landscaping, lay slab, demo out the fence, install new fence) THEN do the grass. But we didn’t. And I’m not sad about it because that plan would have taken MONTHS that we just didn’t have. I just hate disappointing you guys (FINE AND ME) with a less than perfect design. But don’t worry, we aren’t done and I can work magic with some plants and styling…

Which is why Brian is taking credit for this backyard design. When we were “debating” (cough cough) the rush, he was like “just tell them that I’m handling this project – that I’m the designer”. Once I let go of owning the design it was SO EASY and happened so fast. He employed the “done is better than perfect” philosophy, which is typically hard for me. But I’m so relieved that we don’t have to wait until spring to enjoy this backyard. Then in spring, it will look even better when I’m done with it…

What Do We Have Left???

HOT TUB. We are laying the slab next week and it comes after that. Surrounding it will have pea gravel, stepping stones, and some boulders. Again, this will likely never be too Pinterest worthy, but what I’ve heard from friends is that the kids will get in this hot tub every night so it will be worth it (and the reason we put it here (see above) instead of in the “dog run” area is because over there we would have had to remove the trees or make it really high, and also we liked the idea of it being further from the street and visible from the outdoor dining table. It feels more accessible here to where we’ll use it more.

DOG RUN TURNED. What????? They are going to grade the former dog run (the area on the guest bedroom side of the house) and make it flat enough (but not super flat) that if we wanted to have a seating area or an above ground tramp (with safety net) we could. We also might put a shed there, dunno. Either way, we’ll have stepping stones to the door with the hopes that the kids will go straight from the hot tub to the shower in that bathroom. Speaking of shower…

OUTDOOR SHOWER. Now Jeff and Brian (since when did Jeff get 30% say on this??) think an outdoor shower is stupid. I’ve spoken to Sherry (Young House Love) enough to know that it’s something that once you have you can never go back. You know when two cis males look at you like you are crazy so you give up on a dream? I know it seems silly and there isn’t the perfect place for it (nor is it easy to tap into the plumbing and we might have to rip open the exterior wall to do so) but I want one. For the record, I asked for the hot water hookup during the renovation and it got overlooked so…

FENCE. I’m still on the fence (I’m genuinely sorry about that) about replacing it or not. The only fence we’ve ever put in was in LA with a fancy pedestrian gate and an electrified driveway gate and it was a lot. For something basic (horizontal wood, painted the same color as the house) how much would it actually cost? Time to get a quote. Brian is against this because he feels like this one “goes away”, but I feel like the backyard will be SO much prettier with a nice wood fence surrounding it.

MORE PRIVACY THROUGH BETTER LANDSCAPING. I’m not very private, but near the fire pit and the hot tub we might just add a few taller shrubs on the perimeter for privacy from our lovely neighbors, and to shake it up so it’s not just laurels. It’s more so they don’t have to see/hear us if their windows are open, less about us not wanting them to hear our riveting s’mores conversations.

FURNITURE. Now that the fire pit area is bigger than just 6 chairs (with the fire pit not being centered) I’m thinking let’s make that a full-on living room over there, not just the 6 Adirondack chairs I had planned. We even have room for a sectional and two club chairs. I’m not going to do this until spring (hoping to get the Standish sectional that Target has that isn’t unavailable till January). We also need a metal 10 person dining table that can withstand snow and a lot of water dripping from the upper deck when snow melts. And yes I know that I could get a pretty wood one and just cover it but I think that we all know we won’t, and besides it’s right outside our family room window and I don’t want to stare at a cover.

VEGETABLE GARDEN. If you are wondering where that amazing vegetable Victory garden that I was going to plant, ME TOO! We ordered a ton of pots that just never arrived due to COVID. The 2×8 above-ground beds arrived in July, almost too late to plant. But that is when I realized that we have WAY less sun once the trees have leaves than I thought. So we are going to utilize the upper deck and pots way more than originally thought. (Fun Fact: Our neighbor has the most amazing veggie garden ever, with the most delicious produce I’ve ever eaten. So the kids and I are going to help him with his garden, put in a new big above-ground bed, and be able to harvest in addition to our pots and planters).

PEBBLES… OVER EVERY SPEC OF DIRT. Now, this is Brian’s idea that I don’t think will work but thought you guys would know. The dogs are STILL digging. We are going to try using Cayenne pepper because they don’t like the smell of it so they won’t dig there. But if they do, we are thinking just spreading pea gravel around all the bushes. I think give them a month and this will be holes of dirt again, but if any of you have solutions to stop pups from digging in dirt, please…

Back to the turf. Again, I can’t recommend Safe Pro Turf enough. They were awesome. We are SO DANG HAPPY. This is kinda like how I felt turning on my first indoor gas fireplace with a switch (as opposed to gathering and lighting wood). The ease that it brings our life is worth the sacrifice in style. Not everything that is fake is BAD if it adds so much more function and practicality to your life (engineered countertops, engineered wood flooring, faux candles at Christmas… I could go on and on).

I think I need to recap my questions for you all: 1. Above ground tramp or no tramp at all? 2. Can you put pea gravel around the roots of plants without killing them and will that even prevent the dogs from digging them up? 3. Are you pro or anti fake grass????? I know that when we move to Oregon I’ll be pro real grass (what with the rain and all), but as right now I’m in LOVE.

Fin Mark

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Allie

Where did all the previous comments on this post go??

Jenny

Excellent question!

Audra

Yes, there were over 150 comments, many critical of the use of a sheet of green plastic being used so extensively, and many critical of having a trampoline. Guess it got too hot to handle?

it was actually a server issue on tuesday — we lost everything we had posted (and all the comments!) from friday to monday. we’re always happy to learn more 🙂

Erin Kinney-Fields

Very hard to believe it was a server error given the many negative comments, none of which were responded to by EHD, but I am super cynical these days. I would really really really like to see Emily write a response post. I’m heartbroken over this and have definitely contemplated no longer reading this blog due to the incredible lack of: foresight, understanding of ecosystems, thought and work around environmental impact, and understanding of what dogs and children need (hint, it’s exercise and dirt, even if that makes your home messy).

Melanie

Yes, where are the comments? I was super disappointed that Emily is rather part of the problem than of the solution. Now even more disappointed because all those negative comments are lost…

Sam

My friend swears by putting the dog poop in the current hole. They won‘t dig there again but will move elsewhere to dig so I‘m not sure how sustainable that is longterm…

Aileen

This post makes me so sad. That green plastic is going to turn into trash that future generations, our children included, will have to live with. Looks and convenience cannot trump everything, and nothing truly can be thrown away from us. If you think that the only alternatives for landscaping are sod vs. artificial turf vs. mulch alone vs. cactus and gravel, please do more research, starting with the native plant society in your area. There are a plethora of organizations and nurseries, especially here in California, devoted to native plant landscaping that can look attractive AND be tough enough to withstand abuse from kids and pets AND attract pollinators AND support wildlife. For example, there is Calscape, Las Pilitas Nursery, California Botanic Garden, California Native Plant Society, Tree of Life Nursery, and the Theodore Payne Foundation to name a few that have tons of information on their websites about native plants and what would best be suited for your area and where to purchase them. The Theodore Payne Foundation even hosts garden tours every spring to showcase homes with native plant gardens. This is such a missed opportunity to show how one SHOULD be landscaping in this era of… Read more »

Aileen

Emily, I vividly remember a post where you wept over your trees when the gardener pruned off too many branches. Luckily, the trees recovered. This situation is actually much worse. Not only will the green plastic suffocate every living thing directly beneath it, it will disrupt the entire system of mycorrhizal fungi which carries water and nutrients to your trees, and even those far beyond the boundaries of your property. Nature is connected in ways we are just beginning to unravel. Just because it is our property that we “own”, does not mean we can isolate it from the wider ecosystem. The placement of green plastic on your property has made the problem of climate change worse and will lead to the slow death of your trees and beyond. We need to dispense with the whole notion that “it’s my property and I can do whatever I want.” As much as you have been woke to the issues of racism in the past months, it seems you need to do some serious research into climate change and what you can do in your own yard and beyond to combat it. My children are demanding it, and guess what?! So are… Read more »

Bri

My sister’s rescue doodle was a serious digger until she finally found something that works. Fill and tape up an empty beverage can with loose change and shake it at the dogs every time they start digging. They quickly learn to associate the unpleasant sound with digging. My sister did have to chuck the can towards her dog a few times, always making sure the can hit the ground near the dog rather than the dog himself. Good luck! I have two rescue poodles myself. Dogs add so much to the family!

elizabeth

Beyond environmental impacts, are you concerned about playing/laying on the turf and chemical exposure? I know there have been a number of studies linking cancer in women soccer players and the turf they played on. I would be very worried about having my son and pets roll around on that stuff…

Aileen

Yet another reason to not use artificial turf. Here’s a link to an article from a few years ago: https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2017/01/27/health/artificial-turf-cancer-study-profile/index.html

Alex

Wondering if you considered the environmental impact of turf in your decision. Emily presents as self-reflective, and also as someone who cares about environmental sustainability. How does that fit with this turf choice? I’d love to see environmental impact discussed in more design posts. You could educate us as consumers and be more accountable for the longterm effects of design choices. As we all should be. Thank you!

Carrie

I have a humongous golden retriever that loves to dig. Best solution I’ve found is laying chicken wire down (use landscaping pins to secure it) then covering it with mulch.

Tracy

Can you please tell me where you bought the fire pit from? I love it and I think the backyard looks great!

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