Low-Maintenance Grasses as Grass Alternatives

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large area of green clover

Mowing your yard every week steals time away from family, friends, and fun weekend activities. The average American spends 70 hours a year on lawn care, according to the American Time Use Survey. Planting low-maintenance grasses is an eco-friendly way to keep your lawn lush while reclaiming your weekends.

You can choose a traditional lawn look with fescues or buffalograss, or get creative with sedges and ornamental grasses. Here are some top grass alternatives that’ll keep your lawn green without all the work.

What type of grass should I choose?

illustration showing the cool and warm season grasses on the US map, along with the transitional zone

Your region’s seasonal temperatures will determine what type of grass will thrive in your lawn. To begin your low-maintenance yard transformation, determine whether you need warm-season grass, cool-season grass, or a mix of both. 

Warm-season grasses

Warm-season grasses thrive in hot Southern climates (75-90 degrees Fahrenheit) and do most of their growing in the summer months. If you live in the lower third of the U.S., you’ll want to plant warm-season grass varieties. 

Warm-season grasses are:

  • Well-adapted to drought and high temperatures
  • Go dormant (turn brown) in the winter and green up again in spring
  • Should be planted in late spring or early summer
  • To begin growing, they need a minimum soil temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which corresponds with an air temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit

Cool-season grasses

Cool-season grasses grow in the Northern U.S., growing best in the spring and fall when the air is cool and the soil is warm. If you live in the upper third of the U.S., choose cool-season grasses to plant.

Cool-season grasses are:

  • Well-adapted to snow and cold winters 
  • Go dormant in the peak of summer and green up again as fall approaches
  • Require more water in summer to stay green
  • Should be planted in late summer or early fall
  • To begin growing, they need a minimum soil temperature of 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit, which corresponds with an air temperature of 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit

Transition Zone

If you live in the middle strip of the U.S., extending from California to Virginia, you live in the Transition Zone, where neither warm-season nor cool-season grasses perfectly fit the bill. You’ll want to plant a mix of warm-season and cool-season grass varieties to handle the temperature swings in your area.

No-mow and low-mow grass

Hard fescue and fescue mixes (cool-season)

Fine fescue is the most popular low-maintenance cool-season grass. Hard fescue and fine fescue mixes require very little maintenance. You’ll only have to mow your lawn once or twice a year. 

Fescues are hardy and they’ll naturally crowd out weeds, so you don’t have to worry about fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide. 

Hard fescue and fescue mix growing conditions

  • Region: Northern and Transition Zone states (USDA hardiness zones 4-9)
  • Sunlight: Full sun to shade 
  • Foot traffic: Moderate 
  • When to plant fescue: Late summer to early fall

Best low-maintenance varieties: Hard fescue or low-mow fine fescue mixes

  • Bunch-forming fine fescues, like hard fescue and sheep fescue, are highly drought- and heat-tolerant. 
  • Chewings fescue prevents weeds and grows well in shady and dry areas. 
  • Red fescue resists drought, grows in shady areas, and can repair damaged spots on your lawn by binding to other grasses. It’s sod-forming and withstands heavy foot traffic.

Plant multiple types of fescue to ensure that if one variety doesn’t thrive, another can fill in the gap. A 5-pound bag of fine fescue grass seed mix costs approximately $50, and it will cover 1,000 square feet.  

Pros of hard fescue and fine fescue mixesCons of hard fescue and fine fescue mixes
✓ No herbicide, fungicide, or fertilizer required

✓ Tolerant of drought, shade, and cold temperatures

✓ Does not need frequent watering

✓ Slow-growing, so mowing is only needed annually
✗ Cannot tolerate extreme summer heat

✗  Does not thrive in clay soils

✗ Most fescues can only handle moderate foot traffic

✗ Prone to developing a thatch layer

Buffalograss (warm-season)

Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides) is a tough warm-season turfgrass that thrives in sunny areas and handles heat and drought well. It has short, fine foliage that grows 4-6 inches tall and forms a dense sod.

Buffalograss works well as a low-mow grass due to its slow growth rate. It only needs to be mowed once every 2-3 weeks for a manicured grass lawn, 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 (seed, sod, and plugs available)

Best low-maintenance variety: UC Verde is a slow-grower known for its dense, soft turf that thrives in California heat. It grows well in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 10. 

Pros of buffalograssCons of buffalograss
✓ Drought-resistant; little watering required

✓ Little fertilizer required

✓ Deep, fine root system prevents erosion

✓ Tolerates clay and alkaline soils

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

✗ One of the slowest-growing grasses; takes weeks to fill in your yard

✗ Cannot tolerate much shade

✗ Cannot tolerate sandy soil without significant amendments and increased watering

Centipedegrass (warm-season)

A light green, slow-growing turfgrass, centipedegrass (Eremochloa ophiuroides) still requires mowing, but much less than the average lawn, hence its nickname, the “lazy man’s grass.” Dense and low-growing, it’s a great choice for humid, sunny southern lawns that don’t freeze over in winter.

Centipedegrass thrives in acidic, low-nutrient soil that drains well. It requires infrequent, deep waterings when the grass shows signs of drought stress. Too many light waterings will weaken its roots, which are shallow compared to those of other turfgrasses.

Centipedegrass growing conditions

  • Region: Southeastern states to the Texas Gulf Coast (USDA hardiness zones 7-10)
  • Sunlight: Full sun to partial shade (prefers sun)
  • Foot traffic: Low to moderate
  • When to plant centipedegrass: Late spring or early summer (seed, sod, and plugs available)

Best low-maintenance varieties: TifBlair, AU Centennial, Oklawn, Santee, 

Covington, TennTurf.

Pros of centipedeCons of centipede
✓ Drought-tolerant; little watering required

✓ Requires less mowing than typical turfgrasses

✓ Little fertilizer required

✓ Beats out weeds

✓ Tolerates light shade

✓ Evergreen in warm climates
✗ Susceptible to damage from insects and fungal diseases like brown patch

✗ Cannot tolerate cold, harsh winters

✗ Cannot tolerate high foot traffic

✗ Sensitive to too much fertilizer 

✗ Cannot tolerate poorly drained clay soil

✗ Sensitive to iron deficiency in Southwestern states

Zoysia tenuifolia (warm-season)

With fine, bright green blades, no-mow Zoysia (Zoysia tenuifolia) is a popular choice for Southern lawns and golf courses. Unlike other Zoysia varieties that need weekly mowings, Zoysia tenuifolia’s slow growth makes it easy to maintain.

No-mow Zoysia is a hardy warm-season grass that tolerates drought and only needs two mowings per year. It forms soft green mounds of growth that give your yard texture and dimension.

Zoysia tenuifolia growing conditions

  • Region: Southern and Transition Zone states (USDA hardiness zones 6-11)
  • Sunlight: Full sun to partial shade
  • Foot traffic: High
  • When to plant Zoysia: Late spring to early summer

Best low-maintenance variety: No-mow Zoysia (Zoysia tenuifolia), also known as temple grass

Pros of Zoysia tenuifoliaCons of Zoysia tenuifolia
✓ Heat- and drought-tolerant

✓ A low-water grass

✓ Can grow well in partial shade

✓ Tolerates high foot traffic

✓ Pest-resistant
✗ Needs well-drained, loamy soil
 
✗ Requires fertilization in fall and spring

✗ Slow to spread

✗ Can develop Zoysia Patch if drainage is poor and shade is high

✗ Cannot tolerate cold, harsh winters

Grass-like ground covers

Sedges

Sedges (Carex) are elegant, bunching plants with blade-like foliage. They’re quickly gaining popularity as an easy-care turfgrass alternative. Sedges are environmentally friendly: They need little water and no fertilizer when planted in their native regions. 

There is a tremendous variety of sedges (over 2,000 species globally), so you can pick the one that best fits your yard’s needs.

Popular native sedges include the drought-tolerant Appalachian sedge, which thrives in shady wooded areas; and plantain-leaved sedge, a low-growing, pollinator-friendly ground cover great to plant between shrubs, under trees, or in bare lawn spots.

Sedge growing conditions

  • Region: Depends on the sedge type. Sedges tend to thrive in woodland environments.
  • Sunlight: Tend to prefer shade
  • Foot traffic: Low to moderate
  • When to plant sedges: Fall for cool-season sedges, spring for warm-season sedges

Best low-maintenance varieties: 

  • For a sedge that will fill out your entire lawn, the shade-loving Pennsylvania sedge is the way to go. Thriving in the Eastern U.S., it can be kept as an unmown lawn of 6 to 7 inches or mowed at 3 to 4 inches. 
  • If you live on the West Coast and have sandy soil, evergreen sand dune sedge is an excellent option. 
  • Texas sedge is a popular choice for Texan homeowners with shady lawns and dry to moist soil.
Pros of sedgeCons of sedge
✓ Enormous variety

✓ Little watering or fertilizer required

✓ Grows well in shade

✓ Native plants are pest- and disease-resistant

✓ Many are evergreen, especially in warmer climates

✓ Many attract pollinators
✗ Most need to be grown with other plants to fill your yard
 
✗ Cannot tolerate high foot traffic

Ornamental grass

For a unique lawn look, plant gorgeous ornamental grasses. They’re especially popular in dry Prairie regions with full sun, but there’s a variety for any lawn — shaded or sunny, warm-season or cool-season.

  • There’s a plentiful assortment of native grasses available. By choosing an ornamental grass native to your region, you can improve biodiversity and environmental health while also watering and mowing less.
  • Ornamental grasses tend to be bunch-type, not sod-forming, which means they grow in separate clumps rather than spreading horizontally via rhizomes or stolons. 
    • This clump-forming habit means that ornamental grasses work beautifully as yard accents, but you’ll probably need to have a supplemental grass for a consistently green lawn. For example, the popular warm-season blue grama tends to be mixed with buffalograss for a turflike appearance.
  • Some ornamental grasses, such as black mondo grass, are excellent spreaders, so they work well as ground cover. With elegant purple blades, black mondo also can be used as a drought-resistant accent around stone walkways and flower beds. 

* Best for partially shaded areas

Pros of ornamental grassCons of ornamental grass
✓ Insect and disease-resistant

✓ Controls erosion

✓ Fewer weeds

✓ Many ornamental grasses are drought-tolerant or drought-resistant

✓Native ornamental grass increases biodiversity and offers wildlife a habitat
✗  Some trimming, watering, and fertilizing may be needed

✗ Bunch-type growers will not fill your whole yard

✗ Cannot handle heavy foot traffic

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

Creeping thyme

If you’re feeling adventurous and craving a pop of color, creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) may be the ground cover for you. With a low-growing mat of dainty pink, white, or purple flowers, it’s an eye-catching, sun-loving perennial that attracts a host of pollinators. 

Creeping thyme can be used as a full ground cover or planted around stone walkways and in rock gardens as a yard accent.

Creeping thyme growing conditions

  • USDA hardiness zones: 4-9 (depending on the variety)
  • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial sun
  • Soil needs: Well-drained, sandy or rocky, slightly alkaline soil. Thrives in low-nutrient soil as long as it drains well.
  • Foot traffic: Low to moderate
Pros of creeping thymeCons of creeping thyme
✓ No mowing

✓ Controls weeds

✓ Drought-tolerant

✓ Little fertilizing and watering required

✓ Lovely herbal aroma when stepped on

✓ Edible: Can be dried and used for cooking

✓ Attracts pollinators
✗ Cannot tolerate high foot traffic

✗ Cannot tolerate clay soils or high shade

✗ Requires trimming

Dutch white clover

Clover isn’t a traditional turfgrass, but it sure will give you a green carpet. Plus, it’s a living mulch: When planted with other grasses, it will suppress weeds, keep the soil moist and temperate, and reduce erosion. As a legume, it fixes nitrogen to help fertilize other plants and keep them disease-free. 

Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) is a low-mow, pollinator-friendly solution to sweating it out in the yard. With clover, you can stop wrestling with the lawn mower and start watching butterflies outside your window. 

Clover growing conditions

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

White clover does not need to be mowed, but some homeowners choose to do so in the height of summer to remove dead flower heads and tidy the lawn. It spreads horizontally and grows 4-8 inches tall. Microclover is a good choice to blend with other grass types, but it is more expensive than regular clover varieties.

Pros of white cloverCons of white clover
✓ Little mowing and watering required
 
✓ Will spread across large areas

✓ No fertilizer or herbicide needed

✓ Inexpensive

✓ Drought-tolerant

✓ Attractive white flowers are pollinator-friendly

✓ Resists discoloration from dog waste

✓ Stays green all summer except in extreme heat
✗ Needs frequent watering when establishing

✗ Needs reseeding every 2 or 3 years

✗ Poor shade tolerance

✗ Cannot handle consistently high foot traffic

✗ Should be grown with other plants for best results

✗ Does not thrive in cold, arid environments

Choosing your grass alternatives

You may want to mix and match lawn alternatives based on your region and lawn aesthetic. Pairing ornamental grasses with creeping thyme can give your lush purple carpet an added height dimension. Likewise, microclover mixes well with Zoysia, filling in the lawn and giving Zoysia roots nutrients. 

If your lawn struggles to grow grass, begin by amending your soil to get it in peak condition for your new low-maintenance grass. In areas with poor soil, you also may want to consider planting wildflowers, succulents, and other native plants that are adapted to your region’s conditions. 

To skip the preparation and planting and get to the low-maintenance part of lawn care, don’t hesitate to contact a local professional for advice on the best grass alternatives for you and start your lawn out on a healthy, eco-friendly foot.

Main Photo Credit: Jeon Sang-O | Pixabay

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