I live in the desert so I got interested in finding alternatives to the traditional turf grasses like KBG. KBG is the best choice for a cool season lawn in most cases, but I wanted to find something that required less water.
Where I live, we get nearly all of our water as snow and usually get less than an inch of water a month from June through August. Precipitation levels that would be considered severe drought in most of the US would be considered unusually wet years here.
I found that there are alternatives that use much less water than KBG. Many of these also require less fertilizer and less (or even no) mowing. There are grasses that will stay alive with no water in my conditions and will stay green with very little. There are also ground covers that use a lot less water than traditional lawns.
I was mostly interested in options that I could use, so I know more about those, but I’ve read up on other options as well.
One thing that is important to keep in mind is that if you want your lawn to look like a showcase KBG lawn, there’s no substitute for premium KBG. None of the alternatives would be able to pass themselves off as a premium KBG lawn.
If you want to replace your lawn with one of these options, it’s best to kill the existing lawn first. I didn’t do that, and it took longer and cost more to get where I am. This does not apply if you’re adding clover to the lawn. It only applies if you’re doing something like replacing your KBG lawn with a Western Wheatgrass lawn.
Pre packaged seed mixes
There are some packaged mixes that are available for low maintenance lawns, such as Fleur de Lawn, Water Saver RTF and No Mo Lawn. Fleur De Lawn is probably good for some parts of the country, but would not be appropriate for other areas. When I’ve seen No Mo Lawn mixes, they’ve usually been fine fescue mixes. There’s nothing wrong with using fine fescues to reduce water use and/or mowing, but if you’re willing to put in some time for selection, you can put together your own mix that will suit your needs better. Water Saver RTF is a turf type tall fescue (TTTF) blend that includes a rhizomatous variety of tall fescue. I don’t think TTTF uses much less water than KBG and under certain conditions it can require more water.
Clover can fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, so it doesn’t require any fertilizer. It is also pretty drought tolerant. Until combination fertilizer/weed killer products became popular, Dutch white clover was often included in lawn mixes. Dutch white clover does better in a low pH soil. In areas with high pH soil, strawberry clover would probably be a better choice. Clover has lots of flowers, so it attracts bees (this can be a good thing or a bad thing). It can also stain more than grass. If these are planted along with grass, they can be mowed with the lawn. If they are planted as a monostand, mowing should not be needed.
I know somebody who has no irrigation in the heckstrip and has planted some sort of juniper there. Even in our climate, it stays alive. There are other ground cover options, as well. I haven’t done much research into ground covers, though, so I don’t have much information on them.
Sedges are grass like plants that can be used in lawn settings, but I know little about them.
Buffalo grass is native to much of the Midwest and western US. I think buffalo grass has a lot of potential, but it’s not perfect. It requires very little water to stay green during its growing season. It spreads via stolons (above ground runners) to fill in bare spots. It requires little (if any) fertilizer. It’s low growing and some people leave it unmowed as a lawn. Seeded varieties can cause problems for people who have allergies, but there are sodded/plugged varieties that don’t produce any pollen. It’s a very fine bladed grass. The color is somewhat grey-green. It doesn’t do really well with high traffic. It needs a lot of sunlight to thrive. It’s a warm season grass, so it will only be green during warm weather (this is what decided me against it: it would be dormant too long here).
Blue grama is another warm season native grass. It is often planted along with buffalo grass. It will stay green with very little water (I’ve seen native patches in unwatered areas here that were green at the end of the summer). It has a nice green color and fine blades. It greens up a little earlier than buffalo grass and turns brown a little later. I’ve got some planted in my heckstrips since they heat up faster and get less water than the rest of the lawn. It’s a bunch grass, but will spread somewhat via tillering, especially if it is mowed. If it is left unmowed, it will go to seed and spread that way, also. If it is watered and fertilized, it will probably grow too tall to leave unmowed in a lawn setting. In areas with more rainfall, it will also probably need to be mowed.
One grass that has been getting a lot of attention as a potential lawn grass is crested wheatgrass. It is a naturalized but non native grass. It is a cool season grass, so it can stay alive all year here. It’s somewhat yellow green in color. It can survive extended periods of drought but seems to do so by going dormant quickly and coming out of dormancy quickly. Most varieties are bunch grasses, but some new varieties (Ephraim and Roadcrest are two I know) are weakly rhizomatous. It has many more seeds per pound than native wheatgrasses and also germinates more readily. It does not require any fertilization. Fertilization can actually be detrimental to it.
There is some debate about whether Streambank and Thickspike wheatgrass are really separate species or are variations of the same species. They are very similar, but Streambank does better in heavier (clay) soils and Thickspike does better in looser (sandy) soils. This is a fine bladed grass that has light green blades. It will go dormant later than crested wheatgrass but faster than western wheatgrass. It’s fairly slow growing, but will probably need to be mowed a few times a year. It doesn’t need additional fertilization, but won’t be hurt by it.
Western wheatgrass deals with drought by developing very deep root systems. The downside to this is that if it does go dormant, it doesn’t come out of dormancy until the water goes deeply into the soil (crested wheatgrass comes out of dormancy much more readily for example, but also goes dormant more readily). Western wheatgrass has thicker blades than streambank or crested wheatgrass, but I think the blade width is acceptable. Western wheatgrass seems to germinate better when it is dormant seeded or if the seeds are soaked for a few days prior to planting. It grows more slowly than Streambank wheatgrass but will probably need to be mowed in a lawn setting. It benefits from fertilization, but doesn’t seem to suffer much by its absence.
There are several types of grass in the fine fescue family. Most are bunch grasses, but creeping red fescue spreads (although more slowly than KBG). Some of the fine fescues are native and some are introduced. Even among the varieties that are native, there are introduced varieties. For example, sheep fescue is native, but the variety most often used for lawns (Covar) was introduced from Turkey. The fine fescues are shade tolerant and somewhat drought tolerant. Sheep fescue is very drought tolerant, but all others would need at least some irrigation to stay alive in desert conditions. Sheep fescue will stay alive with no irrigation, but will need irrigation to stay green. Over fertilization can be detrimental. Fine fescues are slow growing and are sometimes left unmowed.
In summary, there are options to the traditional lawn and many are more “eco-friendly” than what we’re used to seeing.
In case you’re wondering, I’m transitioning to a wheatgrass front lawn (1/2 streambank and 1/2 western). The heckstrip adds some blue grama to the wheatgrass. I’m using fine fescues (mostly sheep with a little creeping red) in the back.