In many parts of the country, droughts are becoming all-too-regular occurrences.
As more people are encouraged to water their lawns less to conserve water for drinking, bathing, and other vital tasks, more people are looking for drought tolerant grass species to help them make the most of dry conditions – without sacrificing the beauty of their lawns.
If you are interested in growing a lush, beautiful lawn that withstands foot traffic, requires minimal fertilizing, and doesn’t give in to weeds, you need to find a species with good drought resistance.
Before we tell you all the best tips for growing a drought-tolerant lawn, let’s first address the most pressing question – what does “drought tolerance” even mean?
Drought tolerance is the natural ability of a plant to maintain its growth in arid conditions. Some plants are naturally adapted, having the ability to handle dry weather on their own, while others have been genetically engineered to be this way.
Grass species that have the best ability to handle an extended drought tend to have the following characteristics:
There is no single-best drought-tolerant grass – you will need to choose a species that is best for where you live and your unique landscaping needs.
If you live in an area that has a mild winter but a super hot summer, like the deep South, a warm-season grass will be the best choice. For people with mild temperature summers and sub-freezing winters, such as the Northeast, the upper Midwest, or the Pacific Northwest, cool-season picks will reign supreme.
And if you live somewhere in between, in the transition zone – like Virginia or southern California – you may be able to get away with either type of grass; warm season or cool season turf.
In addition to considering how drought-tolerant a grass type is, be sure to consider where you will be planting – grasses planted in high-traffic areas such as sports fields or golf courses may dry out faster than those planted elsewhere.
Below are some excellent low-maintenance grass options to choose from.
Bermuda grass, or bermudagrass, as it is sometimes called, is one of the most popular warm-season grasses you can grow. It performs best in full sun and responds quickly to a bit of water after a period of drought.
St. Augustine grass is another popular option. This grass has a coarse texture and grows well in dappled shade. It’s great for areas that receive only moderate amounts of traffic. St Augustine does not remain green when it is dormant in the winter months. St. Augustine thrives in coastal areas because the weather does not get too cold so the grass stays green.
Zoysia grass does well in both shade and sun but grows relatively slowly, especially compared to other warm-season grasses like St. Augustine. Once it is established, however, its lush blades will give you a gorgeous turf that tolerates foot traffic with ease.
Centipede grass produces a unique apple – or lime- green color. Despite being slow-growing, it is attractive and low-maintenance. It tolerates acidic soil and partial shade. It has phenomenal shade tolerance and is a good choice for planting beneath pine trees.
Bahiagrass is one more warm-season grass for you to consider. It is an all-purpose grass with an excellent ability to tolerate foot traffic. Not only is it one of the best in terms of drought tolerance, making it a good choice for homeowners with active water restrictions, but it also has phenomenal insect and disease resistance.
Wheatgrass is a cool-season grass that tends to be somewhat coarse-looking. It requires minimal water or fertilizer and is an all-purpose grass that is easy to start from seed.
As you might expect from the name, buffalo grass is native to the Midwest and is popular for its infrequent need for mowing and overall hardiness. It grows lush and thick, requiring only a quarter of an inch per water a week during the summer for optimal growth (though it can survive on less).
This cool-season grass starts relatively slowly, so plan on buying it in plugs rather than starting from seed.
Another cool-season grass to consider is sheep fescue. An alternative lawn grass type, it grows in clumps, offering a natural look and requiring minimal water. It requires little mowing and fertilizing but does have a bumpy surface that may not be the best for backyard recreation.
The last of the cool-season grasses on our list is tall fescue. This is one of the most popular grasses of them all with each plant growing from a single seed. Seed heavily and mow often – and you will love the carpet effect produced by this grass type.
Unfortunately, just about every type of grass will need some water.
The goal with choosing a drought-tolerant grass species isn’t necessarily to eliminate the need for water entirely. Instead, it’s to create a low-maintenance lawn that handles dry conditions a bit better without requiring you to provide supplemental irrigation.
Some grasses are just naturally able to stay green when dry because they have deep roots and handle environmental stressors with ease. They still need water but they may be able to extract what they need from deep within the soil rather than requiring you to water all the time.
When it comes to getting through weather that is hot in addition to dry, you’ll want to choose warm-season grass. Unlike cool-season grasses, which thrive (as the name implies) in cold weather, heat-tolerant grass will perform best in warm weather.
The most heat-tolerant grass species include Bermuda grass (especially varieties like common Bermuda, ‘Celebration,’ and ‘GN1’), zoysia grass, St. Augustine grass, centipede grass, and bahiagrass.
Despite being cool-season grass, buffalo grass also performs quite well in the heat.
When you’re looking for the ideal drought-tolerant species of grass for your lawn, it’s important that you also consider the exposure your lawn receives.
Just as a lawn can be overwatered or underwatered, it can also receive too much (or too little) sunlight.
If your grass is receiving too much sun, the symptoms will look a lot like drought stress. It will become brown and crispy-looking and may be more likely to suffer from insect infestations or diseases.
Don’t want to plant a special kind of grass? Here are some alternatives.
Artificial turf will eliminate the need for mowing, fertilizing, and weeding – plus, it will withstand drought with ease, obviously. Believe it or not, there are plenty of natural-looking artificial turf options out there, too.
Permeable paving is another option. Simply put, you will be using concrete, open-pore pavers, or asphalt instead of lawn. These systems create a sort of hardscape instead of a lawn but allow for room with recreation without requiring lots of water.
You can also mix different materials. You can combine different grass species to create the best overall aesthetic.
For instance, some people choose to overseed their Bermuda grass with other species, such as ryegrass. This offers winter color once the Bermuda has gone dormant. All in all, though, Bermuda grass is one of the best types you can pick, especially when you consider that it has a strong ability to self-repair and forms strong underground roots to access water even when rainfall is restricted.
Of course, you can always combine grass with a mixture of hardscaping and xeriscaping features to get the look you want, too!
Even if you aren’t able to grow a drought-tolerant grass species, there are plenty of other tips you can follow to keep your lawn looking lush.
Rather than watering briefly every single day, fine-tune your irrigation strategy to provide a deeper, more infrequent level of moisture. This will help the water get down deep to the roots of the grass – rather than remaining at the surface of the soil.
You should also practice mowing at a species-appropriate height. The ideal grass length will vary depending on what species you decide to grow, but ultimately can help reduce how much water your grass needs.
In general, mowing grass to a taller height helps it establish a deep root system. Frequent mowing (that is less aggressive) can help you achieve this without making your lawn look raggedy.
Other tips for growing drought-tolerant sods include aerating the lawn to help it retain water it does receive, keeping weeds to a minimum, and overseeding areas that have died back to encourage turfgrass to grow back healthy and strong later on.
Having a drought-tolerant lawn starts with choosing the right type of grass. Hopefully, these tips will help you choose the right kind of grass for your lawn – and keep it looking flush and green – even when it’s been weeks without a drop of rain.