JoAnne Skelly: Lawn grass alternatives

Tina Davis-Hersey reported good results after planting a mix of blue grama and buffalo grass.

Tina Davis-Hersey reported good results after planting a mix of blue grama and buffalo grass.

I’m often asked, “Are there lawn grasses that are more drought-tolerant than fescue or Kentucky bluegrass?” The answer is, yes, according to one reader. Tina wrote me this past week, “In 2013, I contacted you about drought-tolerant grasses for our yard, because we were tired of spending effort and money trying to keep our fescue and Kentucky bluegrass lawn green throughout the summer. We dug it all out and seeded with a mix of primarily blue grama and buffalo grass, and are we ever happy! The first year was a little disheartening because it didn’t establish like we imagined it would, but the second year was much better with more coverage, and now in year three it has spread very nicely. Even the shady areas have coverage and we have every reason to believe that by year five it will be deep-rooted and well settled over our property.”

Blue grama is a hardy lawn grass alternative. According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, “It is commonly used as a low maintenance turf planting, such as rough areas of a golf course and in locations prone to drought.” Because it is a warm season grass, it greens up later in the spring than fescue or bluegrass, and browns out with the first cold weather. It tolerates drought, salinity and alkalinity. Buffalo grass is similar.

Colorado State University (CSU) reports, “Proper management is necessary to achieve reasonable turf quality. Excessive management, in terms of irrigation and fertilization, will promote weed and cool-season grass invasion.” According to CSU, both blue grama and buffalo grass require irrigation to establish, but then need only two to four inches of water per month to thrive. During the hottest days of summer, traditional lawns may require two inches or more per week to stay green. A challenge with blue grama or buffalo grass is weeds until they are established. “Preemergent herbicides labeled for use on buffalo grass are safe for blue grama turf (CSU).” Herbicides such as 2,4-D and others often found in products such as weed killer/fertilizer combinations and other traditional lawn herbicides, should not be applied to actively growing blue grama or buffalo grass turf. These products will burn the grass. “Spot applications of glyphosate to weeds in dormant blue grama can effectively control cool-season weeds (CSU).

Tina says, “I think a lot of people believe a landscape has to be rock and sagebrush to save water, but this is proof that a beautiful lawn doesn’t require a ton of effort or water!”

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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