Drought-Tolerant and Drought-Resistant Grass Alternatives

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It’s another hot, dry day, and your grass has turned the color of the lemonade in your fridge. If you live in a drought-prone region, it may be time to explore lawn options that don’t require constant watering, frequent fertilizing, mowing, and, oh, more watering. 

There’s a treasure trove of ground covers, succulents, and ornamental grasses that are drought-tolerant and drought-resistant and can reduce your lawn stress and benefit the planet.

Why choose a drought-tolerant lawn alternative?

Maintaining a traditional lawn can be a headache, especially when you live in a drought-prone region. Regular watering, fertilizing, and mowing can take chunks out of your schedule. Even with great upkeep and plenty of attention, your grass lawn may not prove a sustainable, long-term option.

Drought-tolerant and drought-resistant options are … 

  • Lower maintenance than turfgrasses
  • Eco-friendly
  • Often low-mow or no-mow
  • Often pollinator-friendly 
  • Many require less fertilizer and herbicide than turfgrasses

Native plants

Native plants are adapted to your region and climate, so they won’t shrivel up at the faintest whiff of a dry spell. With native plants, you won’t have to spend as much time on watering and upkeep, and your lawn will stay healthy and green. 

Many native plants also attract pollinators, provide a habitat for insects and birds, and increase biodiversity. Plus, they’ll need less water than turfgrasses, and you won’t have to apply fertilizer or harsh chemicals.

Native plants vary by region, but popular varieties for drought-prone regions include: 

Pros of native plantsCons of native plants
✓ Adapted to your region and climate

✓ Little watering required

✓ No fertilizing or mowing required

✓ Little to no herbicide and pesticide required

✓ Great for pollinators
 
✓ Promotes biodiversity and reduces pollution
✗ Can be more expensive than non-native plants
 
✗ Can be difficult to find in local garden centers

✗ Cannot tolerate high foot traffic

✗ May look less tidy than a turfgrass lawn

Ornamental grasses 

Ornamental grasses are a gorgeous accent to your lawn, perfect for a rock garden, around pathways, or framing your door. They come in a variety of heights, textures, and colors, so you can create a landscape design that’s uniquely your own.

Ornamental grasses tend to thrive in hot, arid regions, so there are many drought-tolerant and drought-resistant options available. Plus, if you choose native grasses, you’ll attract pollinators and you won’t have to worry about fertilizing or constant watering. 

The best drought-tolerant ornamental grasses for your lawn vary based on your region. Popular varieties include:

Pampas grass is considered invasive in California. Before you plant, make sure that your ornamental grass isn’t considered invasive in your region. 

Pros of ornamental grassCons of ornamental grass
✓ Add texture and definition to your lawn

✓ Many are drought-tolerant or drought-resistant

✓ Little maintenance required

✓ Resists insects and diseases

✓ Controls erosion

✓ Comes in a variety of heights, textures, and colors
✗ Cannot handle heavy foot traffic

✗  Some need seasonal trimming

✗ Some require fertilizer

✗  Some are invasive (Check with your local extension office before planting)

Wildflower meadow

Like ornamental grasses, many wildflowers thrive in nutrient-poor, sandy soils exposed to a lot of sun. Planting a wildflower meadow can transform your dry lawn into a gorgeous, colorful field — and you can ditch the mowing, fertilizing, and harsh chemicals. 

If you’re interested in being more eco-friendly, a native wildflower meadow is excellent for increasing biodiversity. It attracts a cheerful assortment of pollinators and provides a habitat for insects and birds. 

Choose a high-quality mixture of flowers that are native to your region. Once your wildflower meadow is established, you’ll just have to water during dry spells and mow once in late fall to ensure the seed heads drop.

Popular drought-tolerant and drought-resistant wildflowers include:  

Pros of a wildflower meadowCons of a wildflower meadow
✓ Grows in poor soil

✓ Eye-catching foliage

✓ Does not need frequent watering

✓ No mowing or fertilizer required

✓ Little to no herbicide and pesticide required

✓ Great for pollinators
 
✓ Promotes biodiversity and reduces pollution
✗ Takes time and labor to establish seeds

✗ Can only tolerate low to no foot traffic

✗ Can look less tidy than a traditional lawn

✗ Not a good play area for children and pets

✗ Can be susceptible to weeds

✗ Most wildflowers need full to partial sun

Drought-friendly grasses

If you’re tired of your turfgrass but don’t want to lose the green lawn look, tall fescues and buffalograss have you covered. In addition to saving you from constant watering, they’ll reduce your carbon footprint: You won’t have to mow as often or use as much fertilizer and herbicide. 

Tall fescue and fine fescue 

If you live in the cooler, northern region of the U.S., or in the Transition Zone between cold and warm, tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a hardy choice known for its drought tolerance. 

Tall fescue is a fine-leafed, cool-season grass with a deep, dense root system that makes it the ideal drought-tolerant grass for cooler regions. It thrives in nutrient-rich clay soil.

Fine fescues are slightly less drought-tolerant than tall fescue, but they’re great to plant with tall fescue to crowd out weeds and ensure an even lawn. Chewings and red varieties are especially good choices for shady areas. 

  • Tall fescue and fine fescue growing conditions
  • Region: Northern and Transition Zone states (USDA hardiness zones 4-9)
  • Sunlight: Full sun to partial shade 
  • Foot traffic: Moderate to high
  • When to plant fescue: Early fall
Pros of tall fescue and fine fescueCons of tall fescue and fine fescue
✓ Drought-tolerant

✓ Shade-tolerant

✓ Can withstand cold winters

✓ Control erosion

✓ Little herbicide, fungicide, or fertilizer required
✗ Cannot tolerate extreme summer heat

✗ Highly susceptible to brown patch disease

✗ Need nutrient-rich soil

Buffalograss 

If you live in the prairie states (Montana to Arizona) or in the South, buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides) will be your best friend. 

It’s a hardy, warm-season turfgrass that thrives in sunny areas and handles heat and drought well. It prefers clay soils and can tolerate alkalinity. 

In addition to its drought tolerance, buffalograss also requires very little mowing: You can mow it every two to three weeks for a manicured look or once every spring for a meadow-like lawn.

  • Buffalograss growing conditions
  • Region: Plains and prairie states from Montana to Arizona, Southern states (eastward to Louisiana)
  • Sunlight: Full to partial sun
  • Foot traffic: Moderate
  • When to plant buffalograss: Late spring or early summer

UC Verde is a top pick for drought-prone areas. It’s a slow-grower that thrives in California heat and grows in USDA zones 7 to 10. 

Pros of buffalograssCons of buffalograss
✓ Drought-resistant

✓ Little water and fertilizer required

✓ Deep root system prevents erosion

✓ Tolerates clay and alkaline soils

✓ Tolerates cold weather better than other warm-season grasses
✗ Does not compete well with weeds; requires spot-spraying or hand-weeding during establishment

✗ Takes weeks to fill in your yard

✗ Cannot tolerate sandy soil without amendments and increased watering

✗ Does not tolerate shade 

Ground covers

For a low-maintenance, plant-filled lawn, ground covers give you the best of grass without the hassle of mowing and constant watering. With drought-tolerant ground cover plants, you’ll still need to water, but not nearly as frequently as with turfgrasses. 

Sedum

Carpet sedum (Sedum lineare), also known as stonecrop, is an evergreen succulent perfect for sunny areas with poor, shallow soil where other plants cannot survive. It thrives in sandy and gravelly soil, prevents erosion, and attracts pollinators with its tiny yellow flowers. Sedum is a great choice for xeriscapes, rock gardens, and any lawn that struggles with low water levels. 

  • USDA hardiness zones: 6-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade (the sunnier, the better)
  • Soil needs: Can grow in gravel and sand
  • Foot traffic: Moderate

Creeping thyme

Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) is a drought-resistant, fragrant herb that attracts pollinators and gives your lawn plenty of curb appeal. In late spring, its tiny pink, purple, and white flowers (depending on the cultivar) blossom, transforming your yard into a carpet of color. Creeping thyme can be used as a lawn accent or as a full ground cover.

  • USDA hardiness zones: 4-9 (depending on the variety)
  • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial sun
  • Soil needs: Well-drained, sandy or rocky, low-nutrient soil
  • Foot traffic: Low to moderate

Dutch white clover

Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) is an inexpensive, low-mow legume that’ll have you admiring all the butterflies from your window. It’s an eco-friendly solution for lawns that face dry spells but aren’t too dry. 

Though clover is drought-tolerant, it can’t handle too much dry heat. If you’re living in a desert-like region, it’s better to plant succulents like sedum or flowering shrubs like lantana

  • USDA hardiness zones: 3-10
  • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • Soil needs: Cool, moist, loamy soil. Can tolerate clay and silt soils.
  • Foot traffic: Moderate

For more drought-friendly ground cover ideas, check out Lawn Love’s “Ground Covers as Grass Alternatives.”

Pros of ground coversCons of ground covers
✓No mowing required

✓ Little or no watering required

✓ Protect against weed growth

✓ Insulate the soil, keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter

✓ Protect against erosion

✓ Many attract pollinators

✓ Native ground covers won’t require fertilizer

✓ Many perennial and evergreen options

✓ Can be used as a full lawn substitute or as a landscaping accent
✗ Can be invasive to your region

✗ Take more time than turfgrasses to establish

✗ Some require trimming

Alternatives to plants

There are plenty of greenery-free alternatives for homeowners in drought-prone regions. If you don’t have time to wrangle with plants, consider these low-maintenance lawn options:

  • Decomposed granite (DG) is a gritty, fine mixture of granite pieces that can be used as a pavement alternative. Instead of installing a stone patio or pathway, you can simply spread DG. It’s an inexpensive, eco-friendly solution that will keep dust in place and give you a weed-free space to walk. You won’t have to water, fertilizer, or mow.
  • Pea gravel is an inexpensive, visually appealing option for grassless areas. These small, rounded stones come in a variety of colors, and they’re perfect for pathways, patios, and rock gardens.
  • Artificial turf can be installed in any yard to make your lawn look green and healthy year-round without watering, mowing, or fertilizing. Artificial grass is expensive and poses some environmental concerns, but it’s a long-lasting fix to dry lawn.
  • Permeable paving, unlike traditional paving, allows water to seep down into the soil underneath the paved surface. This reduces stormwater runoff and ensures that the water is cleaned before it reaches waterways. Permeable paving is a great choice for areas that see some seasonal heavy rain. 

Drought-resistant vs. drought-tolerant

Drought resistance and drought tolerance: Same difference, right? Not quite. 

Drought-resistant plants can live without water for extended periods of time, sometimes even years, whereas drought-tolerant plants can survive with minimal water for a shorter period of time — generally a few weeks to a month. 

Drought-resistant plants are more resilient to drought than drought-tolerant plants. 

  • Many drought-resistant plants have waxy leaves or very few leaves; these adaptations help reduce water loss. 
  • Cacti and pine trees are examples of highly resilient, drought-resistant plants. 
  • Drought-resistant plants have deep roots which seek out moisture far under the surface: The root systems of some mesquite trees in the southwestern U.S. extend almost 200 feet into the ground.
  • Cacti, like prickly pears (Opuntia), can survive two to three years without water. 

When you’re deciding whether you should choose primarily drought-tolerant or drought-resistant plants, consider your region. Many drought-tolerant plants can thrive in places like Ohio when rain is sporadic in the summers. In Southern California, though, you may want to choose more drought-resistant varieties to handle the six dry summer months. 

Don’t take the labels of “drought-tolerant” and “drought-resistant” at full face value. The terms are often used interchangeably. 

FAQs

1. How long will it take for ground cover to fill my lawn? 

Ground covers can take two or three years to fully make themselves at home in your yard. As the saying goes, “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap.” 

2. Do ornamental grasses need to be mowed?

Nope! Ornamental grasses respond poorly to mowing and will be slow to regrow if mowed. The Washington Post describes them as “grasses you won’t want to mow.” Some require seasonal trimming, but it’s important not to cut them down too close. 

It’s a good idea to bundle stalks of grass with tape and trim them using pruning shears or power hedge trimmers (depending on the size of your ornamental grass). In general, you’ll want to cut about two-thirds of the stalk at the beginning of the growing season to promote new growth.

3. How do I choose plants that are native to my area? 

Check the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder for a list of plants that thrive in your area. They’re ranked by how many butterfly and moth species use them as host plants for their caterpillars. 

Creating a drought-tolerant lawn

With drought-tolerant and drought-resistant grass alternatives, you can start having fun in the sun instead of constantly fighting the dry heat — and you can finally drink that cold lemonade. 

If you want a hand installing your new drought-friendly lawn, you’ll get a warm welcome when you call a local lawn care professional

Main Photo Credit: David J. Stang | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

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