With mega droughts threatening California and lawn irrigation accounting for 70% of all household water use, picking the right grass (or lawn alternative) can not only provide you with a better looking lawn when droughts strike but also save you a lot of hassle, grief, and money. Which grass is right for your California lawn? Read on to find out.
Table of Contents
- What To Know About Grass In California?
- 10 Types of Grass in California
- 1. Bermuda Grass (Cynodon spp.)
- 2. Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
- 3. Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides)
- 4. Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum)
- 5. St Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum)
- 6. Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.)
- 8. Native California/Seashore Bentgrass (Agrostis pallens)
- 9. Sheep Fescue (Festuca ovina)
- 10. Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
- 5 Lawn Alternatives For California
- Best Grass Picks For California Lawns
What To Know About Grass In California?
Mega Droughts & Water Shortages
As severe droughts continue to plague California, you just can’t grow the same lawn that you used to. You have two options: learn new lawn care practices or switch to a lawn alternative.
If you want to keep your lawn but lower water use:
- Choose a drought tolerant, low water warm-season grass (in South and Central California). While cool-season Tall Fescue is the most popular grass in Southern California, it actually needs more water during the summer than warm-season grasses.
- Allow your grass to grow longer. Long grass blades encourage deeper root growth, so the grass can access more water through the soil. The longer the roots, the better the drought tolerance.
- Allow cool-season grasses to go dormant during droughts to save on water. They’ll turn green again when they get more water. You still need to water once a month to keep the grass alive.
- Choose a grass that does well with subsurface irrigation or drip lines if you’re irrigating. Each sprinkler is like a shower – it uses up a lot of water, and a lot of water evaporates before the grass can benefit from it, especially in a heat wave. Since subsurface irrigation is a drip line buried beneath the ground, no water is lost to evaporation, saving up to 70% of water compared to sprinklers.
- Cut back on how much you water. Many homeowners either overwater their lawns or irrigate for optimal growth even when it’s not needed. But you don’t need your grass growing optimally all the time. You can still have a nice lawn while cutting on your water costs. This table, provided by the University of California [PDF], will tell you how much water you actually need when using a standard irrigation system.
|Irrigation Levels||Summary||Warm-Season Grasses||Cool-Season Grasses|
|Optimum Irrigation||How much water a grass needs for optimum growth, generally what the instructions tell you||60% ETo||80% ETo|
|Deficit Irrigation||How much water grass needs to maintain a good appearance but not grow as much||66% of Optimum||75% of Optimum|
|Survival Irrigation||How much water grass needs to survive and recover once water becomes more plentiful||33% of Optimum||50% of Optimum|
But do you actually need or want a grass lawn? While having grass rather than concrete or astroturf can help cool your yard by 10 degrees and give kids and pets a place to play, you’ll get the same benefits and a lower water bill by using a lawn alternative. Lawn alternatives like clover, kurapia, and yarrow will stay green all year round.
With up to 70% of household water use going towards lawn irrigation, districts are paying as much as $6 a square foot for homeowners to remove their lawn and replace them with district-approved drought-tolerant alternatives (so no plastic grass). If your lawn is already struggling or you’d like to make the switch, these programs can cover most or all of the costs of installing an alternative.
When starting or replacing a lawn, wait until water becomes more available. All plants, even the native drought-tolerant plants, need more water when getting established. Cool-season grasses need cooler temperatures in the fall or spring to germinate and grow.
Heat Waves & Arid Conditions In Southern California
While most of California has mild summers, Southern California benefits from warm-season grasses that love high temperatures, especially as heat waves become more frequent. To keep cool-season grasses from going dormant during heat waves, you must water more, but you can also let them go dormant/brown (watering occasionally to keep them alive), and they will bounce back. Warm-season grasses stay green and grow best during the heat of summer.
Cooler Conditions At Higher Elevations
While most of California doesn’t need to worry about overwintering their grass, if you’re at a higher elevation, winter temperatures drop below freezing. This is the one region where choosing a cool-season grass may be more appropriate, as you won’t benefit as much from the heat tolerance of warm-season grasses, and most can’t handle the cold (Blue Grama and Buffalo Grass can!).
Smog & Smoke
Los Angeles is famous for many things, and one of those things is smog. Smog and smoke from wildfires are terrible for both people and plants, so turfgrasses may struggle under heavy smog or smoke. They also make it difficult to be outside to care for your lawn and can block out sunlight.
As of July 1, 2022, California enacted a ban on gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers, as they are an enormous source of air pollution. If you don’t want to buy another expensive electric mower, look for a low or no mow grass, and consider switching to a reel mower. Reel mowers have come a long way in making it easier physically to mow. Better yet, push reel mowers make little noise! Many people who make the switch report that mowing the grass is now a favorite part of their day, enjoying their yard in peace and quiet.
10 Types of Grass in California
1. Bermuda Grass (Cynodon spp.)
One of the most popular grasses in the southern US, Bermuda grass grows very well in Southern California. While Hybrid Bermuda grasses like Tifgreen, Tifway II, and Santa Ana are popular choices, look for newer cultivars and cultivars developed in Australia like Celebration for higher drought tolerance and lower water use. Santa Ana is more tolerant of smog than other varieties. In regions with cooler winters, look for higher cold tolerance.
Advantages of Bermuda Grass
- Attractive dark green grass that you can mow golf course short (1 to 2 inches).
- Grows aggressively through both stolons and rhizomes.
- Handles moderate foot traffic and can repair itself quickly.
- Thrives in high heat. It has a special mechanism that, when exposed to intense sunlight, it explodes with growth.
- Has some drought-tolerance and uses less water in the summer than cool-season grasses like Tall Fescue.
Disadvantages of Bermuda Grass
- High maintenance. It needs to be mowed, fertilized, and dethatched often.
- Requires a lot of nitrogen, 5 to 6 applications per year.
- Fast, aggressive growth through rhizomes and stolons means it will become your biggest weed as it invades your garden beds and neighbors’ yards.
- Prone to thatch problems because of its fast growth through stolons.
- Cannot handle shade – full sun only.
2. Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
Native to California, this warm-season grass makes an excellent turfgrass or ornamental grass. Since it’s native to semi-arid regions, it can handle the dry air and extended droughts. Blue Grama grows even better when mixed with Buffalo Grass.
Advantages of Blue Grama:
- Low maintenance: needs little to no additional fertilizer, requires little water, and only needs to be mowed twice a year.
- 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. Also looks great as an ornamental grass.
- Grows well at high elevations and has excellent cold resistance. However, when growing in places with shorter summers, it won’t stay green as long.
- On the coast, Blue Grama will stay green year round. Inland, it’ll go dormant and bounce back when temperatures rise again.
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.
- Needs a bit more water during heat waves. 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 native Buffalo Grass loves arid and semi-arid regions. In fact, it suffers in areas that get more than 25 inches of annual rainfall. The best Buffalo Grass cultivar for California is UC Verde, which has been specifically developed for California, and can grow well throughout the state.
(In Australia and South Africa, St Augustine is known as Buffalo Grass. St Augustine is very different and not nearly as drought tolerant. When looking for info, make sure they’re talking about Buchloe dactyloides.)
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. Keep it mowed high (3 to 4 inches) for better resilience and drought resistance.
- Excellent drought resistance: Buffalo Grass requires only 1.5 inches per month to stay green. It needs 75% LESS WATER than traditional turfgrasses like Tall Fescue. Some cities offer rebates for UC Verde lawns.
- Stays green when it’s hot, but can also handle California’s coldest winters.
- Features beautiful blue-green color and soft texture that is a pleasure to walk barefoot on. Buffalo Grass grows especially well when mixed with Blue Grama.
- UC Verde is pollen-free, so it’s a welcome relief for allergy-sufferers.
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. You can only establish UC Verde through plugs. 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. It is sensitive to herbicides. Use organic lawn care methods.
4. Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum)
Kikuyu grass is like Bermuda grass, but much hardier. It needs less water, has higher drought resistance, and needs little fertilizer. Like Bermuda, Kikuyu explodes into growth when exposed to high-intensity sunlight. But it’s far more invasive and difficult to get rid of than even Bermuda. Left to its own devices in the wild, it creates thick mats that strangle other plants and can even suffocate small shrubs. That’s why the California Department of Food and Agriculture has deemed it a noxious weed and restricted Kikuyu to the counties of Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. Because of its invasiveness, it’s not recommended for home use.
However, there is one new cultivar out of Australia that promises to be less invasive. If you go with Kikuyu, keep inputs like water and fertilizer to an absolute minimum (it’ll look fine, and more than that will just fuel its aggressive growth) and add edging around your lawn to control rhizomes.
5. St Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum)
St Augustine hangs onto popularity because it grows well in subtropical regions and in part shade, but it’s prone to pests and disease, and needs a lot more water than other warm-season grasses. Look for other grasses that fit your situation before giving this one a shot.
Advantages of St Augustine
- Good salt tolerance and is great for sandy soil, making it a suitable choice for coastal areas.
- Tolerates part shade, needing only 4 hours of sun per day.
- Grows well in hot conditions, but prefers humidity.
Disadvantages of St Augustine
- Poor cold tolerance limits it to subtropical areas that don’t go below freezing. Some cultivars like Raleigh have higher cold tolerance.
- Requires a lot of maintenance, from high nitrogen needs (3 to 4 applications per year), supplemental irrigation (needing more water than Bermuda), and annual dethatching.
- All St Augustine cultivars are vulnerable to chinch bugs. Those cultivars that initially saw resistance have since lost it.
- Prone to many diseases without effective controls, particularly St Augustine Decline.
- Can only establish a new St Augustine lawn from sprigs, plugs, and sod, making it more expensive than grasses with seed available.
- Sensitive to many common herbicides.
6. Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.)
You can grow Zoysia in the hotter regions like Los Angeles, but along the coast or in the north, it’s just not hot enough for it to grow well. It needs as much water as Bermuda, but it has partial shade tolerance too. Zoysia is one of the most beautiful grasses you can grow, but depending on the variety, it can require a lot of maintenance. Look to other grasses before trying Zoysia.
8. Native California/Seashore Bentgrass (Agrostis pallens)
This cool-season native bentgrass goes by a lot of names: Native Bentgrass, California Bentgrass, Seashore Bentgrass, and West Coast Native Bentgrass, and the names are pretty accurate. It’s best grown on the coasts and mountain regions of California.
Advantages of Native Bentgrass
- You can mow it (as low as 1 inch) or leave it natural, where it will “flop” over to create beautiful waves of a meadow. Leaving it natural will also cut down on maintenance, and it’ll require only half the water as traditional turfgrasses.
- Thrives in both full sun and part shade.
- Extremely drought tolerant, and needs 50% less water than traditional turfgrass.
- Well adapted to coastal and mountain regions.
- Spreads through underground rhizomes, allowing it to grow thick and more uniform than clump-growing native grasses.
- Tolerates some foot traffic.
- Tolerates cold as low as -10F.
Disadvantages of Native Bentgrass
- Requires more maintenance and water if you mow it short.
- Goes dormant (brown) in high heat unless irrigated, but you can also let it go dormant.
9. Sheep Fescue (Festuca ovina)
Sheep Fescue is the newest fine fescue on the turfgrass scene, but with its increased drought hardiness, water efficiency, and low to no mowing, it’s a very promising cool-season grass for California.
Advantages of Sheep Fescue:
- Only requires 10 inches of annual precipitation. You may not even need to water it or have irrigation.
- Stays green through the fall through the spring, like other cool-season grasses.
- Higher heat tolerance than other fescues.
- Grows in both full sun and part shade.
- Resistant to disease.
- Either let it grow naturally (no-mow) or mow it twice a year (low mow). Occasional mowing helps keep weeds in check.
- Grows well in a wide variety of soils.
- A beautiful grass with dark green color and fine texture.
- Works well in blends with other hardy grasses and lawn alternatives.
Disadvantages of Sheep Fescue
- Establishes slowly. Even though it needs less water, you need to water it more while germinating and getting established. As it gets established, reduce the amount you water it to encourage it to spread its roots and develop its high drought tolerance.
- Goes dormant in high heat unless you water it, but it will survive with a bit of water every few weeks.
- Doesn’t hold up to heavy wear.
- You’ll need to overseed this clump-growing fescue to keep your lawn thick and to repair holes.
10. Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
Also known as Turf Type Tall Fescue or TTTF, the cool-season Tall Fescue is the most widely grown grass in California. The downside is that it requires 30% more water in the summer than warm-season grasses like Bermuda. It’s best grown in coastal, mountainous, and northern regions where you don’t need as much heat tolerance and you can take advantage of its cold hardiness.
Advantages of Tall Fescue
- Attractive grass with medium to dark green color and medium texture.
- Tolerates cold winters. Like other cool-season grasses, in places without snow, it’ll stay green through the winter.
- Part shade tolerance. Being planted in part shade helps Tall Fescue endure high heat while needing the same amount of water as Bermuda.
- Grows well in just about any soil and pH range, and does well in heavy clay soil.
- Only requires 2 to 3 applications of nitrogen per year.
- Tolerates a medium amount of salt
- Fast establishment from seed, and seed is inexpensive.
Disadvantages of Tall Fescue
- Suffers in full sun in high heat, needing 30% more water than Bermuda to stay green. If you get high heat, keep Tall Fescue under part shade. For full sun, choose a warm-season grass.
- Clump growth habit makes a less uniform grass that’s too bumpy for sports like soccer. Becomes “clumpy” when grass thins out under extreme heat, and will require overseeding. Some newer cultivars grow with rhizomes instead, growing a more even lawn that can self-repair.
- As a cool-season grass, it goes dormant in the heat. You will need to water it often to keep it green, or let it go dormant with occasional waterings.
5 Lawn Alternatives For California
1. Clover and Micro Clover (Trifolium repens and Trifolium repens var. Pipolina)
Once only thought of as a weed, Clover lawns are booming in popularity. There’s much to love as Clover:
- Stays green year round.
- Uses less water than most turfgrasses and has good drought resistance. However, after long periods of drought with little water, it’ll suffer.
- Needs no mowing, but Micro Clover needs to be mowed or it’ll revert to regular White Dutch Clover. Mowing clover will make it softer with smaller leaves.
- Needs no fertilizer. Clover fixes nitrogen into your soil for other plants to use.
- Won’t yellow from pet urine.
- Is budget friendly, costing less than traditional turfgrasses.
On the downside, clover will need more water than native grasses like Buffalo, and it will spread. Some people think that a clover lawn looks weedy. It also doesn’t hold up to heavy use.
If you’re not ready to give up turfgrass, or need something that stands up to heavy use, you can overseed your existing lawn with clover. The turfgrass will help the clover withstand heavier use, while the clover will lower fertilizer needs. You could also get a clover meadow blend that includes sheep fescue and yarrow for more resilience.
2. Dichondra (Dichondra spp.)
Dichondra lawns used to be all the rage in Southern California, with some remembering it always needing to be watered and others remembering it as needing low water. It’s a low growing herbaceous ground cover with round leaves that doesn’t tolerate much foot traffic. It feels great under bare feet, but is also more expensive and harder to find in nurseries.
Dichondra donellia, AKA California Ponysfoot, is native to California’s coastal areas. Outside of the coast, it’s best planted in the shade to cut down on watering.
Dichondra argentea, AKA Silver Dichondra, is native to the Desert Southwest, so doesn’t need as much water as other species, and needs to dry out between waterings. It has a silver color instead of green.
3. Sand Dune Sedge (Carex pansa)
Sedge is not actually grass, although if you look at a sedge lawn, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. With over 2,000 different sedge species, there’s bound to be one that fits every situation, but one particularly handy species for California is the native Dune or California Meadow Sedge.
Dune Sedge is known as one of the best sedges for natural lawns. It’ll grow in everything from sandy coasts to hot, clay valleys, in full sun and part shade (in deep shade, it’ll thin), and tolerates heavy traffic. It’s very drought tolerant. You will need to mow 2 to 3 times a year to create a lawn-like look, or you can let it grow natural. It’ll stay green in everything but the coldest winters, high heat, and drought conditions.
4. Kurapia (Lippia nodiflora var. ‘Kurapia’)
Kurapia is a herbaceous lawn replacement or ground cover that’s been cultivated to handle high heat and drought conditions. The University of California at Riverside evaluated Kurapia along with other turfgrass species for drought performance, and Kurapia was among the top 3 with Kikuyu and Buffalo. During extended drought without water, it may appear to die back, but it bounces back when it’s watered again. It needs 60% less water than traditional cool-season grasses like Tall Fescue.
Because the cultivar used for lawn is patented, Kurapia is more expensive than other lawn alternatives.
5. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
When you think of yarrow, you may be picturing white sprays of flowers sticking up 2 to 3 feet tall. But did you know that when you mow yarrow, it grows as a low mat of fern-like foliage? Mowing removes most flowers, and those that do bloom are only 6 inches tall. It’s extremely picturesque up close, and at a distance, looks like a traditional lawn. It’s also a top contender if you need something that stands up to moderate to high foot traffic – it’s just a little less hard wearing than Dune Sedge.
Yarrow is drought-tolerant, can live in full sun or part shade, thrives in all types of soil with poor fertility, and needs less water than many traditional turfgrasses. It even comes in a variety of flower colors.
Yarrow is invasive, spreading through underground rhizomes, so use edging to contain it. Like clover, yarrow is considered a nuisance in lawns, but if you keep it mowed, most people wouldn’t guess that it’s yarrow.
Best Grass Picks For California Lawns
Best Grass For Low Water Usage & Drought Tolerance:
- Buffalo Grass (Warm-Season)
- Sheep Fescue (Cool-Season)
- Blue Grama (Warm-Season)
- Sand Dune Sedge (Grass Alternative)
- Kurapia (Grass Alternative)
- Yarrow (Grass Alternative)
Best Grass For Shade:
- Native Bentgrass (Cool-Season)
- Sheep Fescue (Cool-Season)
- Tall Fescue (Cool-Season)
- Sand Dune Sedge (Grass Alternative)
- Yarrow (Grass Alternative)
- Kurapia (Grass Alternative)
- Clover (Grass Alternative)
- St Augustine (Warm-Season)
Best Grass For Low Maintenance:
- Buffalo Grass (Warm-Season)
- Sheep Fescue (Cool-Season)
- Blue Grama (Warm-Season)
- Lawn Alternatives: Clover, Dichondra, Sand Dune Sedge, Kurapia, Yarrow
Read our related grass guides here:
- 7 Types of Grass in Florida
- 11 Types of Grass in Texas
- 19 Types of Grass in Georgia
- 10 Types of Grass in Arizona (With 3 Lawn Alternatives)
- 9 Types of Grass in Alabama
- 6 Types of Grass in Hawaii (The Ultimate Guide)
Jamie is the founder of The Backyard Pros. When he was 15 years old he started working at a garden centre helping people buy plants, gardening products, and lawn care products. He has real estate experience and he is a home owner. Jamie loves backyard projects, refinishing furniture, and enjoys sharing his knowledge online.