10 Types of Grass in Arizona with lawn alternatives

10 Types of Grass in Arizona (With 3 Lawn Alternatives)

In Grass Guides, Lawn & Garden by Jamie

With low rainfall and dense, growing cities in the desert, picking the right grass for your lawn – one that’s drought hardy, requires little irrigation, and can thrive in salty and alkaline soil — is imperative. Which grass or lawn alternative is right for your Arizona lawn? Read on to find out.

Table of Contents

What To Know About Grass In Arizona?

Extreme Heat At Lower Elevations

With summer temperatures routinely hitting triple digits, you need a grass that can handle the extreme heat and dry conditions. Many cities have over 120 days – or even over 200! – where temperatures reach above 86F. Combined with the dry air and low rainfall, even warm-season grasses may struggle in the heat.

Low Rainfall, Dry Air, And Water Restrictions

Arizona has arid and semi-arid climates. The desert regions get only 3 inches of rain per year, while the mountains get over 30 inches. But even with higher rainfall, more water evaporates from the soil and plants than they receive. The air is dry. On top of that, water for irrigation is in short supply, as the vast populations living in Phoenix and Tucson need water too, and lawns can be thirsty.

It begs the question: should you even grow a lawn to begin? It’s not an easy question to answer as lawns provide one big benefit: they can cool the air around your house. Researchers have found that lawns are 10F cooler than concrete or fake grass, so they can help you get outside more and keep your home cooler.

If you want to keep your lawn, pick a turfgrass that needs as little water as possible and can be watered with wastewater/greywater, skip overseeding for winter color, and swap out any water-loving ornamental plants in your yard for desert-hardy plants. 

You can also scrap the grass lawn for a lawn alternative (although they will also need water), or replace your lawn with a xeriscaped desert garden.

Cold Winters At High Elevations

While low elevations don’t need to worry about the cold, if you live at higher elevations, you’ll need a grass that can handle the cold as winter temperatures drop below freezing and even as low as -10F.

Growing in high elevations can also be tricky, as not all plants will do well. Most warm-season grasses just can’t do it, but a mix of cool-season or native grasses like Buffalo Grass and Blue Grama can handle both the elevation, the cold winters, and even some heat.

Clay, Alkaline, And Salty Soil

While you can find a wide variety of soil types in Arizona, the most common is alkaline, clay soil. Most turfgrasses prefer acidic soil to alkaline, and the heavy clay soil makes it difficult for roots to spread. Desert soil lacks organic matter, containing only 1% organic matter, while more fertile soils contain between 2 to 5%. Fortunately, lawns don’t need as much organic matter to thrive as garden beds do, but picking a grass that requires lower amounts of nitrogen will save you a lot of headaches.

10 Types of Grass in Arizona

1. Bermuda Grass (Cynodon spp.)

Bermuda Grass

This warm-season grass is the most popular grass in Phoenix and southern Arizona, with many people using the cultivars E-Z Turf Midiron and Tifway.

Advantages of Bermuda Grass

  • Loves, loves, loves the sun and heat. It even has a special mechanism that makes it explode into growth when it gets a lot of sun. The dry heat is the hardest part for Bermuda, as it also likes humidity, but it still grows well.
  • Can grow in all soil types, and can thrive in neutral to slightly alkaline soil. It’s also great if you have a thin topsoil layer.
  • Tolerates the high mineral content in Arizona water and has some drought tolerance.
  • Grows aggressively through above ground runners (stolons) and underground shoots (rhizomes), so it gets established quickly, grows thick, and self-repairs.
  • Creates a very attractive lawn that you can mow golf-course-short at just above 1 inch.

Disadvantages of Bermuda Grass

  • High maintenance; it requires a lot of fertilizer (especially in nutrient-poor desert soil), a lot of water, and a lot of care.
  • Has higher water needs than some other grasses. You will need to irrigate it.
  • While Bermuda has some cold tolerance, it’s not suitable for areas with frigid winters like Flagstaff.
  • Has poor shade tolerance. Bermuda loves the sun and needs at least 8 hours of sun per day.
  • Grows aggressively and invasively. Bermuda might become your biggest weed yet.

2. Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis) in Arizona

While less well-known as a turfgrass than Buffalo Grass, Blue Grama is the native prairie grass found most often in the wild. While possessing many of the advantages of Buffalo Grass, Blue Grama can handle higher rainfall. 

Advantages of Blue Grama

  • Low maintenance: needs little to no additional fertilizer, requires little water, and only needs to be mowed twice a year.
  • Prefers alkaline soil and dry conditions, and can tolerate salt.
  • Excellent drought resistance: it can survive weeks of drought by going dormant and bounces back well.
  • Grows especially well with Buffalo Grass. Add in some native wildflowers for a native prairie garden.
  • It looks great with a light green color and a fine texture.
  • Grows well at elevations up to 7,500 feet.
  • Excellent cold resistance. Blue Grama can handle anything that Arizona’s coldest winters can throw at it.

Disadvantages of Blue Grama

  • Prone to weeds if you water or fertilize too much. Your best defense against weeds is to not baby your lawn.
  • Sensitive to herbicides, so it’s best to use organic lawn care methods.
  • Limited availability: as great as this grass is for many parts of arid North America, it’s not very popular yet, and it may be difficult to find seed.
  • At lower elevations, you’ll need to water Blue Grama more. Even then, it still needs less water than other grasses like Bermuda.
  • Clump growth habit makes the lawn less uniform and may thin out, especially in high heat. You will need to overseed it.

3. Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides)

Like Blue Grama, the North American native Buffalo Grass can withstand the extreme dry heat, drought conditions, and the clay, alkaline soil. It’s the best grass to grow in the lower elevation, desert regions around Phoenix, Tucson, Kingman, and Mesquite, but can also grow well at higher elevations.

Advantages of Buffalo Grass

  • Low maintenance; once established, you just need to water it occasionally and fertilize it even less often. The mature height is 6 inches, so you don’t need to mow very often.
  • Excellent drought resistance: Buffalo Grass requires only 1.5 inches per month to stay green. It’s built for arid regions like Arizona, growing best in areas with less than 25 inches of annual rainfall.
  • Stays green when it’s hot, but can also handle Arizona’s coldest winters.
  • Features beautiful blue-green color and soft texture that is a pleasure to walk barefoot on.
  • Grows especially well when mixed with Blue Grama.

Disadvantages of Buffalo Grass

  • Slow germination and establishment: it can take up to 30 days for seeds to germinate, and up to 3 years to fully establish. Once established, it needs little maintenance, so it is well worth the wait!
  • Poor shade tolerance. Buffalo Grass needs at least 8 hours of sun per day.
  • Less dense growth than other turfgrasses, making it more vulnerable to weeds.
  • Seed is more expensive than other grass species.
  • At lower elevations, you will need to water more – but this water usage is still less than grasses like Bermuda.
  • Clump growth habit makes the lawn less uniform and may thin out, especially in high heat. You will need to overseed it.

4. Seashore Paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum)

With its high tolerance of salt and poor water quality, the warm-season Seashore Paspalum seems like it has some promise in Arizona, but it’s rarely used. While you can water it with greywater, it needs medium amounts of water and only has medium drought tolerance. However, Platinum TE Paspalum seems promising for the Arizona region with claims of higher drought resistance. If you’re ready to take a chance, experiment with a small patch first.

5. St Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum)

St. Augustine Grass

After Bermuda, St Augustine is one of the most popular grasses in southern Arizona since it can handle shade and heat. However, St Augustine struggles with alkaline soils and even the cultivar Palmetto doesn’t have much cold tolerance. It is also one thirsty grass.

Advantages of St Augustine

  • Tolerates part shade, needing only 4 hours of sunlight per day, but also grows well in full sun.
  • Handles extreme heat well, although it likes humidity rather than dry air.
  • Good drought tolerance.
  • Good salt tolerance, so it handles the higher salt levels in Arizona soil well.

Disadvantages of St Augustine

  • High maintenance: high fertilizer needs matched with high water needs.
  • Poor cold tolerance: above 3,500 feet, it won’t survive the winter.
  • Doesn’t grow well in alkaline soils. St Augustine’s ideal pH range only goes to 7.5, and alkaline soil makes it prone to iron chlorosis.
  • Poor insect and disease resistance. Some cultivars (not Palmetto) have resistance to SAD.
  • St Augustine needs a lot of water, twice as much as you’d give a Bermuda lawn.

6. Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.)

Arizona Zoysiagrass

Although Zoysia is grown in Phoenix, it’s a tricky grass for Arizona because it doesn’t handle high alkaline soils very well. Still, if you have the right conditions for it, Zoysia is a beautiful turfgrass that’s lower maintenance than Bermuda and St Augustine.

Advantages of Zoysiagrass

  • Beautiful color and texture. Zoysia is one of the most beautiful turfgrasses you can grow.
  • Grows well up to 7,000 feet and has some cold tolerance (better than Bermuda).
  • Requires half as much fertilizer as Bermuda, although it’s still more than other low-maintenance grasses.
  • Tolerates part shade, so long as it gets 4 – 6 hours of sun per day.
  • Excellent drought tolerance.

Disadvantages of Zoysiagrass

  • Low alkaline tolerance: Zoysia’s ideal pH range only goes to 7.2, which is just above neutral. In alkaline soil, it’s prone to iron chlorosis.
  • Extremely slow to establish.
  • Has similar water needs as Bermuda.

7. Fine Fescue (Festuca spp.)

Arizona Fine Fescue (Festuca) Grass

Fine Fescue is a category describing fine-leaved fescues, including Creeping Red (Festuca rubra), Chewings (Festuca rubra var commutata), Hard Fescue (Festuca longifolia), and Sheep (Festuca ovina).

The most commonly used Fine Fescue in Arizona is Creeping Red Fescue mixed in with Kentucky Bluegrass to add shade tolerance. Hard Fescue is also sometimes used.

Arizona Fescue (Festuca arizonica) is great for erosion control or as an ornamental at higher elevations.

While not as popularly used, Sheep Fescue offers greater heat and drought resistance than other fescues, needing only 12 inches of rain per year.

Advantages of Fine Fescues

  • Creeping Red Fescue has part shade tolerance, and is a great addition to a Kentucky Bluegrass mix.
  • Low fertility needs – you don’t need to fertilize much or at all.
  • High cold tolerance, great for surviving the colder winters at higher elevations.
  • Low to no thatch problems.
  • Good to excellent drought tolerance, although you may need to irrigate.
  • Fine leaf texture that’s great to walk barefoot on.

Disadvantages of Fine Fescues

  • Must plant Creeping Red Fescue in a mix – alone, it has disease and drought problems.
  • Lower wear tolerance than other grasses.
  • Low to medium heat tolerance. They’re better suited to shorter, cooler summers.
  • May be slow to establish.
  • Low salt tolerance.

8. Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)

Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis) in Arizona

This cool-season grass is most seen at elevations above 4,500 ft where summer temperatures don’t get too hot for too long, and where it benefits from its cold tolerance. It’s a beautiful grass that’s also high maintenance.

Advantages of Kentucky Bluegrass

  • Beautiful grass that’s used for golf courses in the north.
  • Excellent cold tolerance that does well through mountain winters.
  • Spreads through rhizomes, so it can self-repair unlike other cool-season grasses like Tall Fescue.
  • Does well in elevations above 4,500 ft.

Disadvantages of Kentucky Bluegrass

  • High maintenance: you need to apply 4 – 5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 sq ft per year (on par with St Augustine), and it needs to be watered and mowed regularly.
  • Low heat tolerance. Only use this grass at high elevations where you have few days over 100F. If you expect more than two weeks of extreme heat, use a Bluegrass/Fescue mix.
  • Low salt and alkaline tolerance. If your soil is naturally salty or you have alkaline soil, Kentucky Bluegrass will struggle.
  • High water needs, so will need irrigation.
  • Poor shade tolerance – it needs full sun.
  • Low insect and disease resistance.

9. Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne)

Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne) in Arizona

Perennial Ryegrass does well in the north at higher elevations, but below 4,000 ft elevation, Perennial Ryegrass isn’t actually a perennial – it can’t survive the summer. Both Perennial and Annual Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) are used to overseed for winter green at lower elevations, although if you’re trying to conserve water, you may wish to give this a miss so you don’t need to water your lawn.

Advantages of Perennial Ryegrass

  • Establishes quickly and is great for ground cover. Some people use Ryegrasses to cover bare soil while they’re waiting for their grass plugs to grow.
  • Good drought tolerance.
  • Low to medium salt tolerance.
  • No thatch problems.
  • Better heat tolerance than Kentucky Bluegrass, although still not enough to use for a permanent lawn at lower elevations.

Disadvantages of Perennial Ryegrass

  • Needs moderate amounts of nitrogen, between 2 – 3 applications per year.
  • Will need to be irrigated as its water use is moderate to high.
  • Low shade tolerance.

10. Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)

Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea) in Arizona

Also referred to as Turf Type Fescue or TTTF, low maintenance Tall Fescue is the most popular cool-season grass in many hot regions of the US, although it can’t stand up to the heat of the desert basin.

Advantages of Tall Fescue

  • Grows well at elevations between 3,500 and 7,500 feet, especially when mixed with Kentucky Bluegrass.
  • Tolerates part shade. In hotter regions, using Tall Fescue in part shade will help it survive higher temperatures.
  • Loves the dry air.
  • Medium salt tolerance and grows well in alkaline soil.
  • Great insect and disease resistance.
  • Low water needs.

Disadvantages of Tall Fescue

  • Suffers in high heat; Tall Fescue needs more water under high heat. As with all cool-season grasses, without additional irrigation, it’ll go dormant. Not suitable for growing in the desert.
  • Clump growth habit makes the lawn less uniform and may thin out, especially in high heat. You will need to overseed it.

Warm-Season Grasses For Arizona

  Bermuda Blue Grama Buffalograss St Augustine Zoysia
Adaptation Desert High Elevation High Elevation Desert Desert
Color Dark Green Light Green Gray-Green Medium Green Dark Green
Texture Medium Fine Fine Coarse Medium
Shade Tolerance Low Low Low Medium Low
Insect Resistance Medium High High Low Medium
Disease Resistance Medium High High Low Medium
Salt Tolerance Good Good Low Good Good
Foot Traffic Good Medium Medium Medium Medium
Establishment Fast Slow Slow Medium Slow
Establishment Method Seed, Sprigs, Plugs, Sod Seed Seed Sprigs, Plugs, Sod Sprigs, Plugs, Sod

Seed available for some cultivars

Nitrogen (lb/1,000 sq ft) 4 – 5; High 0 – 1; Low 0 – 1; Low 3 – 4; High 1 – 2; Low
Water Requirements Medium Low Low High Medium
Drought Tolerance Excellent Excellent Excellent Good Excellent
Mowing Height (Inches) 1 – 2 3 – 4 3 – 5 2 – 3 2 – 3
Maintenance High Low Low High Medium

Cool-Season Grasses For Arizona

  Fine Fescues Kentucky Bluegrass Perennial Ryegrass Tall Fescue
Adaptation High Elevation High Elevation High Elevation High Elevation
Color Medium Green / Blue-Green Blue-Green Medium Green Medium Green
Texture Fine Medium Fine Medium
Shade Tolerance Good to Excellent Good Low Good
Insect Resistance Good Low High High
Disease Resistance Good Low High Medium
Salt Tolerance Medium Poor Medium Medium
Foot Traffic Low to Medium Fair Excellent Good
Establishment Fast Fast (Slower Than Tall Fescue) Fast Fast
Establishment Method Seed Seed, Sod Seed Seed, Sod
Nitrogen (lb/1,000 sq ft) 2 – 3; Medium 4 – 5; High 2 – 3; Medium 2 – 3; Medium
Water Requirements Low High Medium Low
Drought Tolerance Good to Excellent Fair Good Excellent
Mowing Height (Inches) 2 – 4 2 – 3 3 – 4 3 – 4
Maintenance Low High Low Medium

3 Lawns Alternatives For Arizona

1. Clover (Trifolium spp.)

a bed of Clover

Clover might not be the first thing you think of for desert regions, but this little plant is drought hardy. It stays green year round, doesn’t need much water fertilizer, has great cold tolerance, and does well in the shade. Under full sun in the intense heat, it’ll start to wilt and need more water, but it bounces back well. You can try growing this whether you’re in Phoenix or in Flagstaff.

On the downside, most clover grows at a pH between 6 and 7, although some varieties like Palestine Strawberry Clover are supposed to be tolerant of alkaline soil. Also, neighbors may think your manicured clover lawn looks “weedy,” which might cause tensions. You may want to put up a sign explaining the benefits of your clover lawn.

Clover is also pollinator-friendly, which is great for pollinators that will feed on a wide variety of flowers, but may not do much for the native pollinators since it’s not native.

2. Dichondra (Dichondra micrantha)

Dichondra

Dichondra is another lawn alternative that does well in southern Arizona. Like Bermuda, it spreads through stolons and rhizomes (and may invade your garden beds). Dichondra doesn’t need to be mowed, grows well in sun and light shade, stays green year-round, and withstands light traffic. Look for Dichondra seed that’s adapted to high heat and has lower water needs, as some varieties are not well-suited for the desert heat and dryness.

You can also grow it at higher elevations, but it does not tolerate temperatures below 25F. Give Dichondra a miss if you need something that withstands moderate to heavy traffic.

Instead of replacing your whole lawn with Dichondra, you may wish to convert parts of your lawn, especially in places where mowing is difficult.

3. Kurapia (Lippia nodiflora)

Kurapia is a low-growing herbaceous ground cover that looks a lot like a grass that flowers. It does well with alkaline soil and salt. With its deep root system, it needs less water than warm-season and cool-season grasses, with less evapotranspiration. It also prefers sub-surface irrigation systems. While it has some drought hardiness, when it doesn’t get water, it appears to die back and looks dead. When it’s watered again, it’ll grow back. To get the best look, you will need to irrigate it. But if you can’t, don’t worry, it’ll bounce back. 

Like the other lawn alternatives, Dichondra only tolerates light traffic. It is also not frost hardy, so is limited to the lower elevations. Because the main variety used for Kurapia lawns is patented, it’s more expensive and more limited than other ground covers.

The Best Grass Picks For Arizona Lawns

Best Grass For Low Water Usage/Drought Hardiness:

  • Buffalo Grass
  • Blue Grama
  • Bermuda
  • Zoysia
  • Tall Fescue

Best Grass For Shade:

  • St Augustine
  • Tall Fescue
  • Fine Fescues
  • Lawn Alternatives: Clover, Dichondra, Kurapia

Best Grass For High Elevations

  • Blue Grama
  • Kentucky Bluegrass Blend With Tall Fescue or Fine Fescue
  • Tall Fescue

Best Grass For Low Maintenance

  • Blue Grama
  • Buffalo Grass
  • Tall or Fine Fescue
  • Zoysia