Drought-Tolerant Lawn Grasses
Dry spells don't have to equal disaster for your lawn. The key is to choose the right grass.
The ups and downs of wild and unpredictable weather seem to be here to stay. One major problem for homeowners? Drought. We love our lawns, but drought makes it tricky to keep them looking lush and green. How do you grow a sustainable lawn when rainfall is almost non-existent or comes all at once or not at all? If your area is constantly under water restrictions, how can you install and enjoy low-water landscaping?
A lot of it comes down to the type of grass you grow. Some grasses are able to stay greener than others by being water efficient or tolerant to dehydration (or both), or because they can grow deep roots that have access to more water in the soil. Other grasses may temporarily go dormant, then recover when conditions improve. It is worth noting, too, that all grasses are more drought-tolerant when they are mowed and fed properly. To keep grass growing strong, follow these mowing guidelines and feed your lawn regularly. If you live in the South, use Scotts® Turf Builder® Summer Lawn Food, with EveryDrop® technology to help water absorb into hard, dry soil. In the North, feed with Scotts® Turf Builder® Summerguard® Lawn Food with Insect Control, which strengthens the lawn against heat and drought.
Here are the best drought-tolerant lawn grasses for different regions of the country.
Drought-Tolerant Grasses for the South and Southwest
Drought in the South and Southwest often comes with extreme heat, and drought-tolerant grasses have to stand up to both. Warm-season grass types need some water, but they will generally make do with much less than cool-season types. Note, too, that warm-season grasses tend to become dormant (and may turn completely brown) during the colder part of the year. In addition, several types of warm-season grass grown at higher elevations and latitudes can be susceptible to winter kill.
Bermudagrass is ideal for hot and dry areas because, once established, it tolerates both conditions very well (though it will need some water to stay green in arid environments). A fine textured turfgrass that grows best when maintained at 1-2 inches in height, bermudagrass requires full sun for best growth. It is a low-water user and may send roots as deep as 6 feet in the right conditions. Bermudagrass is very tolerant of traffic and can recover rapidly from damage, so it’s often used on athletic fields. Because it is a vigorous grower, it may require more frequent mowing than some other grass types. Bonus: It is also relatively salt-tolerant, making it a good choice if you live near the ocean or in an arid environment where salts are left behind as water evaporates, or where reclaimed water is used for irrigation.
Zoysia is also drought-tolerant, but grows more slowly than bermudagrass and requires less fertilizer, so you may end up mowing less frequently. Zoysiagrass also tolerates more shade than bermudagrass. This grass type generally will start to go dormant and turn brown before bermudagrass when moisture is limited, but it will recover well thanks to creeping underground stems (called rhizomes) that help it spread. There is a range of different species and varieties of zoysiagrass, and while they are all thick and easily handle foot traffic, they vary in texture (from very fine to coarse), recommended mowing height and frequency, cold hardiness, and whether available as seed or sod.
With its deep roots and high tolerance for dehydration, St. Augustinegrass is the top choice for lawns in Florida and the areas of the Deep South that are along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. One of the least cold-hardy species, St. Augustinegrass will turn brown when and where temperatures get cold enough. It tolerates shade better than bermudagrass and, when provided with proper nutrition, spreads quickly (via above-ground stems called stolons) to repair damage. It is a bit pickier in terms of maintenance than some of the other warm-season grass species, as it needs good air circulation to help reduce problems with diseases such as large patch and gray leaf spot.
With its coarse blade texture (though not as coarse as St. Augustinegrass) and fast-to-flower habit, bahiagrass is not the prettiest grass type. However, it tolerates extremely poor soil and grows a deep root system that makes it highly drought-tolerant. One of its limitations is that it doesn’t form a nice, dense carpet like most of the other warm-season grasses. If you’re in an area with terrible soil, though, bahiagrass is a good option.
Well-adapted to grow west of the Mississippi River, buffalograss is a good choice for areas that see both winter cold and a fair bit of summer heat. (Its range actually extends beyond the South and Southwest, and it can be found in plains states from North Dakota to Texas.) Buffalograss does best in heavier clay soils, in areas with limited seasonal rainfall. It gets its drought tolerance from the small amount of water it requires, its deep roots, and its ability to go dormant and then recover from drought. The down side? It’s slower and lower growing than most other lawn grasses and has a long dormancy period that begins in early fall (in areas with colder temperatures and shorter day lengths) and lasts well into spring, depending on your latitude. Once established, though, it will provide a low-maintenance lawn.
Drought-Tolerant Grass for the North
Without additional irrigation, many cool-season grasses will go dormant during extremely dry summers. Below are the best choices for cool-season grasses that perform during drought conditions.
Tall fescue is a standout drought-tolerant performer for cool-season turf areas, as it boasts excellent heat-, drought-, and shade-tolerance for a cool-season grass. It’s the best option for those in the transition zone who want green turf in the wintertime, when warm-season grasses go dormant and turn brown. The downside to tall fescue is that it doesn’t spread very rapidly, though it is fairly easy to establish from seed. For drought-tolerance and self-repair, plant Scotts® Turf Builder® Grass Seed Heat-Tolerant Blue® Mix for Tall Fescue Lawns, which not only recovers quickly from heat and drought, but also spreads to mask wear and tear on the lawn. There’s even a tall fescue bred to withstand the tough growing conditions in the South: Scotts® Turf Builder® Grass Seed Southern Gold® Mix for Tall Fescue Lawns, which thrives in harsh summer conditions, even in high-traffic areas.
Fine fescues, including creeping red fescue and Chewings fescue, are both low maintenance and shade-tolerant. Their drought-tolerance comes from their low water use rates and ability to handle dehydration. Creeping red fescue produces underground rhizomes that creep along, helping the grass survive extended drought and repair damage. Fine fescues do well in both well-drained, sandy, acidic soils and clay soil with good drainage and limited traffic. They are most commonly found in mixes with Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass; these mixes can handle sun and shade, heavy traffic, and different levels of lawn maintenance.
While Kentucky bluegrass is less drought-tolerant than the fescues and will go dormant during periods of extreme drought, it will recover well thanks to creeping underground rhizomes that make it easy for the lawn to self-repair damaged areas. Mixed with tall or fine fescues, Kentucky bluegrass works especially well to help create a more durable, disease-tolerant, robustly drought-tolerant lawn.
Enjoying a low-water landscape starts with choosing the right drought-tolerant lawn grasses. When you take the time to do that, you’ll ensure that your lawn will have its best chance of weathering the next dry spell.