Best Drought-Tolerant Grasses

Lawn in front of a house

When cities across the country face drought and increasing water restrictions, many homeowners are switching to more drought-tolerant grasses to help increase their lawn’s sustainability.

But you don’t need to give up on your dream of having a beautiful green lawn if you need to cut costs on your water bill and protect water resources. Learn about the best drought-tolerant grasses and their benefits.

What is drought tolerance?

Drought tolerance is a plant’s ability to survive with little water during times of extreme heat and drought. Drought-tolerant grass can withstand dry conditions without suffering significant damage.

Drought tolerance varies by species, but what is it about these grasses that help them survive drought?

Many drought-tolerant grass types have special tools to get them through tough conditions.

Deep roots, lateral root systems, and underground rhizomes help plants reach deeper into the soil to find nutrients and grow more roots, which is what helps them survive droughts. Drought tolerant plants will also go dormant when put under drought conditions, which means they stop growing to conserve energy until the drought is over.

Best drought-tolerant grasses

Grass comes in two categories: cool-season and warm-season. 

Cool-season grass varieties prefer mild summers and can endure freezing winter temperatures, so they are best for those who live in the upper third of the U.S. and for homeowners who live in the middle transition zone. While many cool-season grasses require about 20% more water than other types of grass, there are still some drought-tolerant varieties to choose from. 

Warm-season grass types thrive in warm climates. These grass types tend to have more heat tolerance and require less water than cool-season grasses. Drought-tolerant warm-season grasses are preferred, especially in the South, for retaining their green color throughout the hot summers. 

Bahiagrass

Bahiagrass
Bahiagrass | Forest and Kim Starr | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

Grass type: Warm-season

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

Grass Seed Options 
Pensacola Bahiagrass:
Scotts Turf Builder Pensacola Bahiagrass (5 lb. bag)
SeedRanch Pensacola Bahiagrass Seed (10 lb. bag)
Hancock Seed Co. Pensacola Bahiagrass Seed (50 lb. bag)
Argentine Bahiagrass:
Scotts Turf Builder Argentine Bahiagrass (10 lb. bag)
Hancock Seed Co. Argentine Bahiagrass Seed Mix (25 lb. bag)

Bermudagrass

Bermudagrass
Bermudagrass | Scot Nelson | Flickr | Public Domain

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. 

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. The only downside is that it requires a bit more TLC than other grasses. It 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 but is fairly sensitive to cold temperatures, becoming dull and dormant in the winter.

Grass type: Warm-season

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

Grass Seed Options:
Pennington Bermudagrass Bare Spot (5 lb. bag)
Pennington Smart Seed Bermudagrass Mix (8.75-lb. bag)
Scotts Turf Builder Bermudagrass (10-lb. bag)
Hancock Seed Co. Bermudagrass (50-lb. bag)

Buffalograss

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

Buffalograss has been thriving on North American soil for 7 million years. Buffalograss is a native grass, meaning 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. 

Grass type: Warm-season

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

Grass Seed Options:
Everwilde Farms Buffalograss Seeds (1 lb. of seeds)
Buffalograss seed (primed) (5-lb. bag)

Centipedegrass

Michael Rivera | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Centipedegrass is a warm-season grass that needs very little maintenance and performs at its best in soil with a high acidic level. Though it requires very little when it comes to fertilization, mowing, and irrigation, it has a low tolerance for cold, shade, and foot traffic.

Centipedegrass is also sensitive to herbicides and is more likely to become diseased if it is over-fertilized and watered too often. This all works in its favor since a little bit of upkeep goes such a long way, which means less work for you in the long run.

Grass type: Warm-season grass

Spreads by: Stolon

Shade tolerance: Low

Drought tolerance: High

Foot traffic tolerance: Low

Maintenance needs: Low 

Recommended mowing height: 1.5-2 inches

Potential for disease: Moderate

Grass Seed Options:
Gulf Kist Coated Centipedegrass Seeds (1 lb.)
Scotts EZ Seed Patch and Repair Centipedegrass (3.75 lbs.)
TifBlair Centipedegrass (5-lb. bag)
Pennington Centipedegrass and Mulch (5-lb. bag)

Creeping red fescue

Creeping red fescue
Creeping red fescue | Matt Lavin | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

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. 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.

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. 

Grass type: Cool-season

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

Tall fescue

tall fescue
Aaron Patton | Purdue’s Turfgrass Science Program

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. 

Grass type: Cool-season

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

Grass Seed Options:
Triple-Play Tall Fescue Grass Seed Blend (5000 sq ft)
Eretz Kentucky 31 K31 Tall Fescue Grass Seed (choose your size)
Pennington The Rebels Tall Fescue Grass Seed Mix (7 lb.)

Zoysiagrass

Zoysiagrass
Zoysiagrass | K-State Research and Extension | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

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. If your yard has partial shade, look specifically for a shade-tolerant cultivar. Other varieties will thin if planted in large shady areas.

While Zoysiagrass is a warm-season grass type, it can handle cold winters. In addition to climate, Zoysiagrass is durable against heavy foot traffic, disease, and moderate levels of shade. It is an appealing grass type to many homeowners, particularly because it is low maintenance.

Grass type: Warm-season

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

Grass Plug and Seed Options:
Zoysia Plugs (50 Large Grass Plugs)
Zoysia Plugs (50 Full & Lush Grass Plugs)
Zoysia Plugs (100 Plugs)
Zoysia Emerald Grass Seeds (1/8 lb. of seeds)
Zenith Zenith Grass Seeds (1/8 lb. of seeds)

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. 

The benefits of planting drought-tolerant grass species include:

  • 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 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? You can build a rain barrel to collect rainwater, Xeriscape your lawn, or choose a drought-tolerant grass alternative.

Artificial grass

Artificial grass is a long lasting, low-maintenance solution to a withered lawn. It can be installed in any yard to make your lawn look green year-round, and since it isn’t alive it doesn’t need watering, mowing, or fertilizing. The only downsides are that artificial grass is more expensive and is not environmentally friendly.

Clover

Clover makes for a great drought-tolerant, low-maintenance lawn option, especially compared to grass varieties like Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. Clover also gives back to the soil and can improve poor soil conditions as well as attract pollinators, which makes it an eco-friendly option.

Wildflowers and groundcovers

If your HOA allows it, why not turn your yard into a bright wildflower meadow? You can add a bit of personality to your landscape with more colorful groundcovers like creeping thyme, with its clusters of bright flowers, or hardy ice plant which has dazzling bright pink flowers.

Native wildflowers are more eco-friendly and can thrive in sandy, nutrient-poor soils and exposure to sun. They do a great job at attracting beneficial insects and pollinators.

Xeriscaping

Xeriscaping is a landscaping concept that reduces water use by turning the landscape into a more water-wise environment. This can be achieved by 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

FAQ about drought-tolerant lawn grasses

What is perennial grass?

Most drought-tolerant grasses are perennials. Perennial grass regrows bigger and better each year, unlike annual grass, which dies at the end of the season and needs to be replanted. Perennials come in two types:

  • Evergreen perennials: This variety maintains growth and remains functional year-round.
  • Herbaceous perennials: These are seasonal; they grow every year during their season and go dormant during colder months.

What are the best methods for promoting drought tolerance?

Proper management is important to keep your drought-tolerant grass performing as intended. Here are a few tips to keep in mind: 

  • Mow at a species-appropriate height:
    • Most grass types have a recommended height that they should be kept at to continue healthy growth. Cutting too short will cause them to be more susceptible to drought. Keep your mower blades sharp to make a clean cut that heals fast.
  • Apply deep but infrequent watering:
    • Watering your grass often for short periods does more harm than good because the roots will stay short. Grass roots need to go deeper to find water during a drought. In order to develop a deep root system, only water your lawn when at least half of the area shows signs of wilting.
  • Maintain healthy soil:
    • Even grass that isn’t bred for drought tolerance can survive on half of the water it requires if it’s in fertile soil. Use a fertilizer with a high potassium level. Fertilizers containing nitrogen are not recommended, as they encourage your grass to focus on new shoots instead of deep roots.

Applying these methods to your lawn will promote drought tolerance in any grass species, including lawn grass.

What do I do if my grass goes dormant?

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

Even the most drought-tolerant grass varieties can die if they go without water for too long. It’s important to properly water your lawn to prevent your grass from experiencing drought stress.

Try to irrigate your lawn if you notice withering, brown grass, or other signs of dormancy. 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.

Hire a pro to maintain your drought-tolerant lawn

If you’d rather not spend time keeping track of grass length or worrying about how often to water your lawn, reach out to a local lawn care pro to keep your drought-tolerant grass lush and healthy. An affordable, drought-tolerant landscape is just a click away!

Main Photo Credit: Pixabay | Pexels

Lydian Pine

Lydian Pine is a creative writer and studio artist whose work first debuted in a short story anthology. She graduated from the University of North Texas in 2020 and enjoys video games, theatre, and swimming. Lately, she has started to study entomology as a hobby.