Tips for Installing Artificial Turf Grass

Updated: Oct. 27, 2023

Installing artificial turf grass is a lot like laying carpet. Artificial turf works best on a flat, compacted, well-draining substrate.

Artificial turf grass, invented and patented by Monsanto, made its first appearance at a Providence, R.I. high school in 1964. Originally known as ChemGrass, it was later rebranded AstroTurf after it replaced a burned-out natural grass field in the Houston Astrodome in 1966. Other manufacturers eventually produced their own products, and today you’ll find artificial turf in professional, college and high school stadiums coast to coast.

Artificial turf grass didn’t become a viable option for homeowners until less rugged, more decorative versions became available in the 1990s. And while it hasn’t exactly gone viral, it’s definitely on the upswing. The New York Times reports a 15 percent increase in artificial turf installations since 2017.

Some people believe modern versions look more realistic than they used to. One landscaper in Marin County, California claims it took him two years to discover a neighboring lawn, impressively green and well-manicured, was artificial. A friend of mine in nearby Santa Cruz County installed artificial turf in a part of her yard too shaded by redwoods to support a natural lawn. After 10 years, it still looks great.

If you’re interested in an artificial lawn, research the pros and cons— there are plenty of both. If you’ve done that and you’re ready to install, these tips can help you achieve the best of the low-maintenance realism that artificial turf offers.

Choose Turf and Infill Based on the Expected Use

Artificial turf is made of nylon, polypropylene or polyethylene. Nylon is the softest and most realistic, but it’s also the least durable. Polypropylene is essentially the opposite: durable, but not realistic. Polyethylene strikes a good balance, and because it’s easy to clean and deodorize, it’s the best choice if you own pets.

Pile height is another important consideration. Two to three inches is best for high-traffic areas, increasing the product’s durability and making it more comfortable for walking and playing. A shorter pile height, from 1/2- to 1-1/2-inches, is easier to maintain and a better choice for low-traffic areas like courtyards and apartment balconies.

Infill is the material you spread on the turf immediately after installation to hold it down and help mitigate the heat retention of the plastic grass blades.

Crumb rubber, manufactured from recycled car tires, is one of the most common infills. But it’s lightweight, doesn’t hold well in high winds and amplifies the synthetic odors of the turf. Plus, it’s an environmental concern; that recycled car rubber contains toxic chemicals that can leach into the ground.

Acrylic coated sand and silica sand are safer choices. Zeolite, also eco-friendly, is a fourth option with deodorizing properties that can benefit households with pets.

Kill Existing Grass Safely

If you’re replacing a lawn that’s gone brown or been struggling for years, make sure the entire lawn is dead before covering it with porous turf. The safest way to do this is to solarize. That means covering it with black plastic and letting the sun bake it to death, along with any weeds still growing. The process takes a few months.

You can also simply dig out the old grass. You’ll need to remove at least four inches of topsoil to make sure you get all the roots. That’s a lot of dirt, so make sure you have a plan for disposal.

Prepare a Solid Substrate

It’s possible to install artificial turf directly on the ground. But it won’t look like a lawn because all the small bumps and depressions will be visible and distracting. Pros recommend installing a four-inch base of class-2 road base rock or something similar, then compacting it to a solid surface.

It’s a good idea to follow this up with a 1/2- to one-inch layer of compacted sand or decomposed granite to provide a smooth underlay for the turf. If you don’t want to dig down that deep, a one-inch layer of compacted sand or decomposed granite is a bare minimum for solidity, comfort and good drainage.

Grade (flatten and level) the underlay as you go. Flat areas of your new artificial turf lawn must have a minimum slope of 1/4-inch per foot toward a runoff point to prevent water from collecting under the turf and degrading it.

Keep the Blade Direction Uniform

Artificial turf, like carpeting, comes in heavy rolls that are difficult for one person to manage. You’ll need help carrying and positioning them. Once you get a roll in the general installation area, leave it in the sun for an hour or so before unrolling it. It will be more pliable and lay out flatter.

When you have to put two sections of turf side by side to cover a wide area, make sure the blades of both pieces lay in the same direction. If they’re facing opposite directions, your new lawn will look like patchwork instead of a continuous whole.

Cut Edges Slightly Long

When you lay out the turf, you’ll have to trim the edges, like trimming carpeting around the perimeter of a room. Pros recommend a sharp utility knife for this, and always cut from the back.

Leave a few extra inches on the edges so you have something to tuck under borders or against walkways. If you leave too much, you can always cut more as a final step. But if you leave too little, you may end up with hard-to-hide gaps.

Secure the edges with landscape staples or landscape nails. You can use a carpet installer’s knee-kicker to stretch the turf and keep it free of wrinkles and loose areas.

Spread Infill and Brush It In

With a drop spreader, apply the infill material of your choice in the quantity recommended by the turf manufacturer. Afterwards, brush it into the turf with a hard-bristle push broom, following the same direction as the blades so the blades pop up and stand out.

Artificial Turf Costs

Polypropylene turf costs from $1.90 to $6.75 per square foot, while polyethylene costs between $2.55 and $3.85. Nylon, the softest but least durable option, costs from $5.05 to $5.85.

If you have the turf professionally installed, expect to pay between $5.50 and $18.75 per square foot for labor and materials. Manufacturers offer material warranties from five to 15 years regardless of who does the installation, and installers usually offer their own warranties to cover workmanship.

You can save a lot of money by doing your own installation. But keep in mind it’s a challenging DIY project that involves hauling dirt, renting equipment (like a plate compactor) and heavy labor. Do you have a pet? Check out these artificial turf grass pads for dogs.