Best Drought-Tolerant Lawn Grasses

Lawn in front of a house

With cities across the country facing drought and increasing water restrictions, many homeowners are switching to more drought-tolerant grasses. 

You don’t need to give up your precious green lawn to cut costs on your water bill. Read on to find the best drought-tolerant grass type for you, the benefits of planting drought-tolerant grass, and other ways to increase your backyard sustainability. 

Drought-tolerant cool-season grasses

Cool-season grass varieties typically prefer mild summers and can endure freezing winter temperatures. While many cool-season grass types require significantly more water — about 20% more — than warm-season grasses to thrive, there are still some drought-tolerant cool-season grass types for you to choose from. 

Cool-season grasses are best for those who live in the upper third of the U.S., and can also work for some who live in the middle transition zone.

Here are two of the most drought-tolerant varieties:

Tall fescue
Tall fescue | Björn S… | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

Tall fescue

Tall fescue is one of the most durable cool-season grasses available. Not only is it drought-tolerant, but it can grow in low-nutrient soil, in a variety of climates, and requires minimal care to stay green and strong. It is also resistant to most pests and diseases. 

Tall fescue is a quick-growing, coarse-textured grass type with wide blades typically ranging from medium to light green in color. Tall fescue has a strong, deep root system and when planted in the right conditions, it will stay green from early spring through the end of autumn.  

If you prefer a more hands-off approach to your lawn care, tall fescue might be the right choice for you. This turfgrass is also perfect for families and pets due to its tolerance for heavy foot traffic. 

  • Spreads by: Bunch type
  • Shade tolerance: Moderate
  • Drought tolerance: High
  • Foot traffic tolerance: Moderate to high
  • Maintenance needs: Low
  • Recommended mowing height: 2-4 inches
  • Potential for disease: Low
Creeping red fescue
Creeping red fescue | Matt Lavin | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Creeping red fescue

Creeping red fescue is a relative of fine fescue, and has fine, thin grass blades. Despite being called red fescue, this grass type is deep green in color. 

Since it has a low tolerance for foot traffic, creeping red fescue is a better option for homeowners who don’t have to worry about children or pets running all over their lawn. Creeping red fescue doesn’t need much fertilization or watering, making it low-maintenance. It thrives in cool, shaded environments and does not tolerate hot climates. 

  • Spreads by: Rhizomes
  • Shade tolerance: High
  • Drought tolerance: High
  • Foot traffic tolerance: Low
  • Maintenance needs: Low
  • Recommended mowing height: 2-3.5 inches
  • Potential for disease: Moderate

Drought-tolerant warm-season grasses

Warm-season grass types thrive in warm climates. These grass types tend to be more drought-tolerant and require less water than cool-season grasses. These drought-tolerant warm-season grasses are preferred, especially in the South, for staying green throughout the hot summers. 

Buffalograss
Buffalograss | John Tann | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Buffalograss

Buffalograss has been thriving on North American soil for 7 million years. Buffalograss is a native grass, meaning that it occurs naturally in the U.S. Because of this, it is designed to thrive without assistance in its native regions, typically around the Great Plains. Buffalograss is tolerant to drought and heat and is relatively pest- and disease-free. 

Buffalograss has a fine texture and is blue-green in color. This grass will start to brown in an extended drought but will bounce right back once watered. 

While buffalograss is low-maintenance, it is very sensitive to foot traffic and prefers yards that receive full sun. It can grow in soil with low levels of nutrients and grows best in clay soil. It is more tolerant of cold temperatures than other warm-season grasses. 

  • Spreads by: Stolons
  • Shade tolerance: Low; needs 6-8 hours of direct sunlight
  • Drought tolerance: Very high; avoid overwatering 
  • Foot traffic tolerance: Low
  • Maintenance needs: Very low
  • Recommended mowing height: 2- 4 inches
  • Potential for disease: Low
Bermudagrass
Bermudagrass | Scot Nelson | Flickr | Public Domain

Bermudagrass

If you have a very active family, bermudagrass might hit a home run in your backyard. As an athletic field favorite, this turfgrass is extremely durable in addition to being drought-tolerant. The only downside is that it requires a bit more TLC than other grasses. 

Bermudagrass spreads rapidly, so it can build up thatch pretty quickly, and can invade your garden and flower beds. You can prevent this by installing edging around the borders. 

Bermudagrass has rough-edged blades that grow in a variety of colors, from dark green to gray- or blue-green. It stays green most of the year, until becoming dull and dormant in the winter. Bermudagrass is fairly sensitive to cold temperatures. 

Whether you have kids or dogs running around your backyard, bermudagrass tolerates foot traffic well and recovers quickly. Bermudagrass is also a great choice if you suffer from allergies or if you live near the ocean.

  • Spreads by: Rhizomes and stolons
  • Shade tolerance: Low; needs full sun
  • Drought tolerance: High
  • Foot traffic tolerance: High
  • Maintenance needs: Moderate to high
  • Recommended mowing height: 1-2 inches
  • Potential for disease: Moderate

Zoysiagrass

While Zoysiagrass is a warm-season grass type, it can handle cold winters (even in Northeastern states). In addition to climate, Zoysiagrass is durable against heavy foot traffic, disease, and moderate levels of shade. 

Zoysiagrass is a medium-coarse grass that grows slowly and can thrive in a variety of environments, including acidic soil, sand, clay, and loamy soil. 

Zoysia is an appealing grass type to many homeowners, particularly because it is low maintenance. If your yard has partial shade, look specifically for a shade-tolerant cultivar. Other varieties will thin if planted in large shady areas. 

  • Spreads by: Rhizomes and stolons
  • Shade tolerance: Moderate
  • Drought tolerance: High
  • Foot traffic tolerance: High
  • Maintenance needs: Low to moderate
  • Recommended mowing height: 1- 2.5 inches
  • Potential for disease: Low
Bahiagrass
Bahiagrass | Forest and Kim Starr | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Bahiagrass

Bahiagrass is commonly found in the Southeastern U.S. It is a medium-green, coarse-textured turfgrass with sparse leaves compared to other grasses. Bahiagrass prefers full sun and sandy, low-nutrient soil.

Bahiagrass can be prone to weeds and invasive plants but is resistant to pests and diseases. Bahia might go dormant during a drought, causing the blades to turn brown. However, it can survive on little water and its color will be restored once watered. Avoid planting if you commonly have high traffic on your lawn.

  • Spreads by: Rhizomes
  • Shade tolerance: Low
  • Drought tolerance: High
  • Foot traffic tolerance: Low
  • Maintenance needs: Low
  • Recommended mowing height: 3-4 inches
  • Potential for disease: Low

What is drought tolerance?

Drought-tolerant grass can withstand somewhat dry conditions without suffering significant damage. Drought tolerance varies by species, but many drought-tolerant grass types typically have deep root systems, underground rhizomes, or lateral root systems, and/or go dormant when under drought stress. 

How to improve your lawn’s drought tolerance:

  • Water your lawn deeply and infrequently
  • Use the highest mowing height
  • Avoid fertilizing during dry conditions

Keep in mind that even the most drought-tolerant grass varieties can die if they go without water for too long. Try to irrigate your lawn if you notice withering, brown grass, or other signs of dormancy. 

Benefits of planting drought-tolerant grass

Whether you’re trying to cut the cost of your water bill, or your city recently implemented new water restrictions, choosing more environmentally-friendly options is a win for everyone. 

No matter if you live in the north, south, or somewhere in between, like the tricky transition zone, there are drought-resistant varieties to choose from. 

Planting drought-tolerant grass leads to:

  • Reduced water bills
  • Lowered water usage
  • No need to deal with complex (and costly) irrigation systems
  • Reduced regional water shortages
  • Time saved on lawn care

How to choose the best grass type for your lawn

Choosing the right grass type can be overwhelming. Ask yourself some key questions to narrow down the options when selecting new grass seed or sod. 

  • How much time can you dedicate to lawn care? 
    • Busy homeowners would be happy with buffalograss, tall fescue, creeping red fescue, or bahiagrass. 
  • How much sun or shade does your lawn receive? 
    • Shaded lawns would do best with creeping red fescue or tall fescue.  
  • How much activity occurs on your lawn?
    • Households with rambunctious kids or pets should opt for Zoysiagrass, bermudagrass, or tall fescue. 

Sustainable lawn alternatives

Some people are moving away from grass lawns entirely. It’s no wonder why when you see that more than a third of the average American family’s water usage is spent keeping lawns watered, and water prices are increasing rapidly

Why not take out that grass lawn and replace it with something more environmentally friendly? 

Xeriscape your lawn or build a rain barrel to collect water. You also can choose a drought-tolerant grass alternative like dutch white clover, or ditch lawn chores completely for artificial grass. If your HOA allows it, why not turn your yard into a bright wildflower meadow or an abundant vegetable forest? 

Don’t stop at eco-enhancing your lawn. Reduce water costs across your landscape by planting: 

FAQ about drought-tolerant lawn grasses

1. What is dormant grass?

When grass experiences extreme conditions, like hot or cold temperatures and drought, it can go dormant. Dormancy helps the grass survive through these conditions. Dormant grass turns brown or tan, may thin, and the grass blades will fold over or roll up. 

Cool- and warm-season grasses both experience dormancy. If you notice your lawn has become dormant, water and see if it bounces back. It’s important to properly water your lawn to prevent your grass from experiencing drought stress. If your lawn doesn’t bounce back, those brown patches of grass might indicate that you’re dealing with a lawn pest infestation or disease. 

If your grass goes dormant in the summer, why not brighten up your lawn with non-toxic grass paint? You can have the green lawn of your dreams, even in dry conditions. 

2. What is xeriscaping? 

Xeriscaping is a landscaping concept that reduces water use by turning the landscape into a more water-wise environment. Xeriscaping can be entirely removing your lawn and replacing it with hardscaping or designing your lawn to thrive in the natural environment (including natural rainfall). 

Xeriscaping often takes the form of:

— Drought-resistant plants
— Native plants
— Hardscaping (ie. patios, pavement, paths)
— Mulch
— Rocks
— Sand

3. Should I consider ground cover?

You can ditch the traditional turfgrass lawn but keep your yard green by switching to a drought-tolerant ground cover, like clover. Clover gives back to the soil and can improve poor soil conditions. Clover makes for a great drought-tolerant, low-maintenance lawn option, especially compared with grass varieties like Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. 

Add a bit of personality to your landscape with more colorful ground covers like creeping thyme, with its clusters of bright flowers, or hardy ice plant which has dazzling bright pink flowers. 

Don’t have time to make your yard more environmentally friendly? Reach out to a local lawn care pro for an eco-friendly lawn and landscape makeover. 

Main Photo Credit: Pixabay | Pexels

Sav Maive

Sav Maive is a writer and director based in San Antonio. Sav is a recent graduate from the University of Virginia and is a loving cat and plant mom.