Xeriscape: Which Grass?

Now that you know why you want a lawn, and how big it should be, it’s time to consider what type of grass to grow.

Lawn_UplandIN_20090615_LAH_3607Kentucky Bluegrass still reigns supreme for a turf that can stand up to hard use. It spreads via runners, so it quickly fills in holes. (But beware. Those same runners have a tendency to wind up in the adjacent flower beds.) If you have children and/or dogs, this is probably your best choice.

All those runners act as a mat to bind the turf together, making it possible to cut and sell bluegrass as sod.  Of course, it is also available as seed.

Bluegrass has the added advantage of going dormant when it gets too dry. Deeply watering about twice a week will encourage deep roots that resist drought. Most people overwater their bluegrass lawns. Along the Front Range, 35 inches of precipitation per year is enough to grow healthy turf. Remember, that total includes what falls naturally, as well as what the sprinklers deliver. Colorado State University Extension’s Fact Sheet on Watering Established Lawns provides more information on this important topic.

Fescues are often touted as more “drought resistant” than bluegrass, but it all depends. It’s true that fescue roots can grow more deeply into the soil. This means they can reach damp soil that may be too deep for bluegrass, and go longer between waterings. Unlike bluegrass, however, if those roots run dry, the grass dies.

Fescues are bunch grasses. Each seed you plant grows into a clump that stays where it germinated. This quality means they are well-behaved around planting areas. However, if an area of your lawn dies, the only way to green it up is to plant more seed.

Some growers offer fescue sod for sale. It usually comes with a plastic mesh that holds the grass clumps in place. Most often, fescue lawns are started from seed.

Southwest Native Grasses
Native species such as buffalograss and blue gramma grass are the latest rage in southwestern lawns. They have a softer texture than the traditional turf grasses, and may be left un-mowed for a natural effect.

Blue gramma grass
Blue gramma grass

While both fescue and bluegrass are “cool season” grasses, meaning they grow best at moderate temperatures, buffalo- and blue gramma are “warm season” grasses. They will remain dormant until the weather is consistently mild. Consider these natives if you live below about 6,500 feet. At higher altitudes, they may remain brown for seven to eight months out of the year.


For the homeowner, the best way to start both buffalograss and blue gramma grass lawns is to purchase plugs. These will fill in over time to produce a solid patch of grass.

Both of these species are very xeric, so they may be the perfect choice if you live in an area with water restrictions.

Saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) is another native grass that shows great promise as a turf grass. While currently unavailable to the homeowner, Colorado State University is improving various strains to make them suitable for home lawns. As the name implies, saltgrass is able to tolerate soils with high concentrations of salt. But this isn’t its only asset.

Sod trials @CSU LAH 001I was impressed to learn that this species needs no supplemental watering in Colorado. Native to the southwest, it is adapted to areas of low rainfall. But I was amazed when they told me it never needs mowing! The leaves are so tough that the sharpest lawnmower blade would merely shred them. Instead, saltgrass is “rolled” in the same way as loose soil is firmed for turf installation. The more traffic the grass receives, the flatter it grows.

I’ll be sure to let you know about this “lawn of the future” the moment it becomes available.

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