8 Drought-Friendly Lawn Alternatives
Need to rein in your water-craving lawn? From wild strawberries to native rocks, here are some ideas for a drought-tolerant lawn.
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Native Grasses and Sedges
Native grasses and sedges, including those from the Carex genus, require less water than turfgrasses but are still durable.
“These plants also support local wildlife by providing habitats and food, and require less maintenance than a traditional lawn,” says Melissa Starkey, Ph.D., an instructor at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware. One of Mt. Cuba Center’s recent trials assessed 70 species of Carex and determined some of the best for the Mid-Atlantic region to be:
- Wood’s sedge (Carex woodii), which develops into dense mats that suppress weeds and tolerate mowing. It likes sun and shade.
- Bristle-leaf sedge (Carex eburnea), which resembles fescue turfgrass. It forms low-growing clumps that spread slowly over time. It’s ideal for dry sites.
- Plantain-leaf sedge (Carex plantaginea), which works well in dry, shady areas.
- Low woodland sedge (Carex socialis), which grows even more vigorously when mowed. “In full sun it develops dense, impenetrable clumps that would be the envy of any turfgrass enthusiast,” says Starkey.
- Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), which also does well with mowing and hosts several caterpillar species. It grows best in part to full shade and dry soil.
For drier climates like the Rocky Mountain region, also consider sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a searchable database that includes the plants mentioned here and where they will grow well. In addition, resources like Garden for Wildlife, National Audubon Society and the Xerces Society are great for finding native plants by region and zip code. Tap these resources for all the plants mentioned later in this story as well.
Many low-growing ground covers, which spread readily, offer ecological and drought-tolerance benefits. If you decide to go with ground covers in your yard, consider planting a variety.
“A single species is always vulnerable to pests or some other stressor, potentially resulting in an empty area of the landscape,” says Basil V. Iannone III, Ph.D., an assistant professor of residential landscape ecology of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS). “Mixing species allows other species to fill in the gap if one goes away.”
Good ground cover candidates include:
- Sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa);
- Creeping Charlie (Phyla nodiflora);
- Evening primrose (Oenothera lacini);
- Basket grass (Oplismenus setarius);
- Purselande (Portulaca oleracea);
- Members of the Sedum family;
- Creeping thyme;
- Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera);
- Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana);
- Dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis).
Note: Do not use bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) or creeping Jenny (aka moneywort, Lysimachia nummalaria). These are highly invasive, especially in the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
“People making a lawn substitute choice need to consider the purpose of the space,” says Cathy Wise, community science program manager at Audubon Southwest.
“Sedges (depending on variety) tend to be most durable, but Sedums and thyme can tolerate some foot traffic. If the space is primarily for aesthetics, more delicate choices like phlox and snow-in-summer can be considered.”
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A mix of low-maintenance native grasses and wildflowers can mimic a natural meadow or grassland ecosystem in your yard. Besides saving on water, the plants support pollinators and increase biodiversity.
“A meadow lawn may not have the same manicured appearance of a traditional lawn, but it can offer a more natural and diverse landscape that is more environmentally friendly,” says Starkey. “People can plant meadow lawns anywhere, just do your research to make sure you are planting native species suitable to your region.”
Dozens of plants that grow well in meadow lawns, varying widely by region. A few favorites include:
- Common blue violet, especially in parts of the country where it’s not severely hot and dry. Violets can tolerate moist and dry soil, full sun and full shade and light to medium foot traffic. In shady locations, violets can bloom more than once a year.
- Plantain-leaved pussytoes and field pussytoes, which form gray-green circular mats. They tolerate medium to heavy foot traffic, do best in dry soil or heavy clay, require full sun and can even be mowed. They’re also good pollinator plants.
- For the dry, mountainous West, like Colorado and Wyoming, Audubon Rockies recommends white prairie aster (Symphyotrichum falcatum), dotted blazingstar (Liatris punctata), prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), Rocky Mountain beeplant (Cleome serrulata) and upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera).
In general, native plants are more drought tolerant, especially those with extensive root systems.
“They were born in your soil, they’re used to your climate,” says Heather Andrews, aka the Thoughtful Gardener. “In some cases their roots go down 14 feet, so they are equipped to deal with droughts.”
Also consider planting native trees. While they take more water to get going, they’re drought tolerant once established. Plus, their shade helps the soil retain moisture.
For optimal success in a native plant garden, pay attention to your soil’s health. Healthy soils leave more space for water and oxygen.
“This allows for plant roots to remain deeper because water is more readily available,” says Kathy Glassey, director of renewable services for Monster Tree Service.
“Compact soils are a major issue, especially when discussing dry and drought periods. Even when rain does occur, a compact soil can repel the rain, causing additional run-off from much-needed areas for plants. [Soil health] should be the No. 1 consideration in all of our landscapes.”
Xeriscaping and Zeroscaping
Common in the Southwest, xeric landscaping are yards that require little to no supplemental water. They often manifest as a mixture of yucca, cacti and hearty native bushes like Chamisa (rabbitbrush), intermingled with interesting rock and stone features.
However, in these climates less ambitious gardeners just go zeroscape, with an entirely gravel yard.
“While some people appreciate the ease of care that a front yard of crushed gravel provides,” Wise says, “most are looking for more esthetic solutions to a water-thirsty and high maintenance lawn, like rock gardens with large native shrubs that add seasonal interest.”
Native plants also help native animals far more than just a gravel expanse. A few of Wise’s suggestions for ultra-dry regions include desert willow, sages and penstemon native to your specific area.
To keep a green aesthetic, some people opt for artificial grass. However, it’s often not a great solution because it breaks down over time, releasing microplastics into the soil and air. Plus, it can pose health risks if not installed properly.
Kelli Larson, Ph.D., a professor at Arizona State University, says artificial grass lawns may play a role in small, targeted areas. However, she says, “I’m not an advocate of them since they do nothing for biodiversity and other ecosystem services, in addition to being wasteful as a synthetic product that will likely have to be thrown away eventually.”