If you’ve lived in Colorado for any length of time, then you know it’s not a “sow it and it will grow” kind of place. Colorado’s alkaline clay soil and dry, drought-prone conditions (along with the Colorado River’s emergency low water levels) make picking the right grass not just helpful in saving time and money, but imperative. Which grass is right for your Colorado lawn? Read on to find out.
Table of Contents
- What To Know About Grass In Colorado?
- 7 Best Types of Grass in Colorado
- 1. Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
- 2. Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides)
- 3. Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum)
- 4. Fine Fescue (Festuca spp.)
- 5. Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)
- 6. Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne)
- 7. Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
- Best Grass Types in Colorado Comparison Table:
- 3 Lawn Alternatives For Colorado
- The Best Picks For Colorado Lawns
What To Know About Grass In Colorado?
Dry, Semi-Arid Climate With Intense Sunlight
Most places in Colorado only get 10 to 15 inches of rain per year. To put that in perspective, Kentucky Bluegrass (the most popular grass in Denver) needs between 1 to 2 inches of water per week, meaning rain will only account for approximately 28% of its annual water needs.
The dry air and high winds also dry the soil much faster than in other places. The good news is that your lawn is less prone to fungal diseases and snow mold that are aided by humidity.
Supplementing irrigation is also problematic, as the water levels of the Colorado River are at emergency lows. Lawn irrigation in Colorado currently accounts for 40% of all home water use. The state government has announced its first program for converting turfgrass into water-wise landscapes during 2023, so watch for possible rebates if you’re planning on making the switch as you may be able to cover part of the cost of converting your lawn. (And remember, xeriscaping means sustainable landscaping, not just rock gardens!)
But Colorado also has many days of sunlight, even through the winter. This intense sunlight also means that you can grow the most gorgeous blooms in the US, which is handy if you’re planning on reducing your lawn in favor of water-wise flowers.
Clay, Alkaline Soil
Colorado soil is not a “plant it and it will thrive” kind of soil. If you live in a city, your soil is most likely heavy clay. Heavy clay soil has poor aeration and poor drainage. If you water it, the water will puddle and starve the roots of oxygen. Mixing in compost helps alleviate compaction, but if you add too much at one time, you may build up salt levels. Using compost over years will continue to build the soil.
Your soil is also likely to be alkaline, with the pH as high as 8.5 – much higher than many grasses can handle. Alkaline soils tie up iron so that plants can’t absorb it, causing iron chlorosis. Applying an iron amendment won’t help in the long term, as the alkaline soil will just render the additional iron unavailable. It’s not that there’s not enough iron already, it’s just that plants can’t absorb what’s there. You can try to lower the pH level, but that’s tricky, precise work, where adding too much amendment may swing your pH level too hard the other way. The best course of action is to choose an alkaline-loving grass.
The higher elevation you are, the more likely your soil is to be of poor quality too, lacking in nutrients and organic matter.
Unpredictable Drops In Temperature
While you may think the short growing season and cold winters are the primary challenges facing homeowners (and they are challenging), the bigger problem is the rapid changes from warm weather to subzero cold. The highest recorded drop was over 90 degrees F! Many plants struggle to adjust to such vast changes in temperatures. A cold-hardy grass is a must, and a native grass provides an advantage as it evolved to handle the temperature fluctuations.
Unseasonal killing frosts and heavy snowstorms in late spring and early fall can also cause damage, and may destroy your germinating lawn before it even gets established.
With the average elevation throughout Colorado at 6,800 feet above sea level, and the lowest at still a high 3,317 feet, elevation plays a pervasive part of your daily life. Not all grasses can handle the elevation, so the higher up you are, the less choice you’ll have.
7 Best Types of Grass in Colorado
1. Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
Did you know that Blue Grama is Colorado’s official state grass? The most common native grass in Colorado, Blue Grama is a warm-season grass that’s great as a lawn or as an ornamental grass – and grows even better when mixed with the native Buffalo Grass.
Advantages of Blue Grama:
- Beautiful and soft to the touch. If you like to walk barefoot across your lawn, Blue Grama is a top contender.
- Low maintenance grass. You don’t need to add additional fertilizer as its adapted to nutrient-poor soil, you don’t need to change the pH as it thrives in alkaline soil, you won’t have to water it most of the time (and only needs ⅓ of the water that Kentucky Bluegrass does), and you only need to mow it twice a year.
- Excellent drought resistance, heat tolerance, and low water needs. It evolved in Colorado – it can handle the lack of rain and extended droughts. It will go dormant during extended dry spells (as will all grasses), but it bounces back well.
- Excellent cold resistance, so it can handle temperature fluctuations and the cold.
- Grows better when mixed with Buffalo Grass, and you can add other native grass and flower species for a native prairie garden that’s highly resilient, pollinator-friendly, and beautiful. Bring the glory of the wild into your backyard.
- Grows well at elevations up to 7,500 feet.
Disadvantages of Blue Grama:
- Grows in bunches rather than spreading out through rhizomes. While this growth habit makes it ideal for growing with wildflowers and other grasses, as a single-species lawn, it may thin out and be more prone to weeds. You may need to overseed.
- If you baby your lawn with fertilizer, irrigation, and herbicides, you will do more harm than good. Adding too much fertilizer and irrigation will just feed weeds that take advantage of the extra nutrients.
- Sensitive to herbicides, so hand-pulling is necessary. But if you keep this lawn healthy, overseed it, don’t overfeed and overwater your lawn, (and even mix it with native wildflowers and Buffalo Grass,) you won’t need to worry too much about weeds.
- Goes dormant in cooler temperatures. Blue Grama is a warm-season grass, meaning it grows best during warmer temperatures, and turns brown when it’s cooler. Depending on your growing season, that may mean that it’s brown most of the year (when it’s not under snow). This is another reason why mixing it with other grasses and wildflowers is a great idea – during the cooler temperatures, the other foliage will shine.
- Limited availability. While Blue Grama is gaining popularity, it’s not one of the most popular grasses, and so grass seed is hard to find.
2. Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides)
Like Blue Grama, the warm-season Buffalo Grass was made for Colorado’s lack of moisture, alkaline soils, and intense weather fluctuations. It grows best in regions with less than 25 inches of rain per year (so, most of Colorado).
But if you see Buffalo Grass being referred to as needing lots of water and lacking drought tolerance, then they’re actually talking about St Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum), which is known as Buffalo Grass in Australia and South Africa, and will not survive a Colorado winter. Always pay attention to the scientific name as common names can be misleading.
Advantages of Buffalo Grass:
- Beautiful blue-green color and soft texture. Newer varieties are darker green and form a dense, short-growing turf that’s more in line with a traditional lawn while still getting all the benefits.
- Low maintenance grass. Once established, you may not even need to water or fertilize Too much water and fertilizer will only encourage weeds. The mature height is only 6 inches, so you may not need to mow at all. It does best when kept between 3 to 4 inches tall. Grow with Blue Grama and/or native wildflowers for higher resilience.
- Excellent drought resistance and low water needs. With its 3+ feet roots, Buffalo Grass needs only 1 to 2 inches every 2 to 4 weeks to stay green.
- High heat and cold resistance. Whether you’re going through a heat wave or a cold, Colorado winter, Buffalo Grass can handle the temperature fluctuations. Some varieties may be prone to winterkill.
- Tolerates elevations up to 6,500 feet.
Disadvantages of Buffalo Grass:
- Germinates and establishes slowly. Buffalo Grass can take up to 30 days to germinate and up to 3 years to fully establish. While establishing, it will need more water than the established lawn, and will be more prone to weeds. However, your patience will be well rewarded with a hardy, low maintenance lawn. If you need an established grass sooner, you can establish via sod or plugs. However, Buffalo Grass sod is more expensive and limited than bluegrass sod.
- Poor shade tolerance. It needs at least 8 hours of sun per day.
- Grows less densely than other turfgrasses and is sensitive to herbicides. However, newer cultivars grow denser, which cuts down on weeds. Growing with Blue Grama and other native plants will also help.
3. Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum)
While not as prominent as the other grasses on this list, the non-native Crested Wheatgrass is a low-maintenance cool-season grass that excels at heat, cold, and drought tolerance.
Advantages of Crested Wheatgrass
- Grows best in areas with extreme cold, drought, and short periods of high heat. While it will go dormant during drought, it bounces back well.
- Requires little fertilizer and does well in nutrient-poor soil, although you may need to fertilize once a year to keep it looking its best.
- Tolerates a fair amount of foot traffic, so kids and pets can run on it.
- Outcompetes weeds so long as you let it grow between 3 to 4 inches and only water as necessary. This thick growth that prevents other plants from germinating is what makes it so hard to get rid of once established.
Disadvantages of Crested Wheatgrass
- Difficult to remove once established. If you decide to remove it, take advantage of Colorado’s intense sunlight through solarization.
- Low heat tolerance; it needs more water during hot spells to keep green. Crested Wheatgrass is better adapted for long periods of cold than it is through intense heat, so like most grasses, it’ll need a bit more help. Or let it go dormant.
- Poor shade tolerance. It’s best planted in full sun, although having some shade during the heat of summer (like from light deciduous cover) will help keep it cooler.
4. Fine Fescue (Festuca spp.)
Fine Fescue isn’t just one grass species – it’s a category that includes many Fescue species with a fine texture like Creeping Red, Hard Fescue, Chewings, and Sheep Fescue. Each Fine Fescue grass has its own advantages and best situations. Look for a blend that’s been created for your region.
If you’re looking for a Fine Fescue that can compete with Blue Grama and Buffalo Grass in low water use, drought tolerance, and low maintenance, take a look at Sheep Fescue. Red Fescue can handle medium foot traffic (on par with Crested Wheatgrass).
Advantages of Fine Fescue:
- Added resilience thanks to diversity. While you can get some Fine Fescues like Sheep Fescue by itself, most are sold in mixes and blends. While one or two grasses may win out in the end (depending on what conditions are favored), you’ll know that you’ll get something that thrives. Each Fescue has its advantages that it can lend to your yard. Check with your local extension office for the best mixes for your area.
- Needs little water. While Sheep Fescue excels at this (it needs only 10 inches of water per year), the other Fine Fescues also have pretty low water needs.
- Grows in full sun and part shade. While some Fescues have a higher shade tolerance, a blend means that your lawn will look uniform from full sun spots to part shade.
- Sheep Fescue grows in all soils. While the other Fine Fescues favor silt and loam (which doesn’t mean they won’t grow well in Colorado), Sheep Fescue grows in whatever soil it finds itself in.
- Establishes fast (except for Sheep Fescue). Red, Chewings, and Hard Fescue all germinate in as little as a week to just under two weeks.
Disadvantages of Fine Fescue:
- Handles only low to medium foot traffic. Red Chewings can handle more foot traffic, since it can repair through rhizomes, but other Fine Fescues will struggle under rowdy use.
- Sheep Fescue establishes slowly. If you were hoping to find a drought-hardy grass without the long wait of Buffalo Grass, sorry to disappoint. Sheep Fescue also takes a few years to fully establish. Meanwhile, weeds will take advantage of gaps. But like with Buffalo Grass, your patience will be rewarded.
- Needs overseeding (except for Red Fescue). Red Fescue is the only Fine Fescue that spreads through rhizomes and so it can self-repair. The other Fine Fescues have a bunch-forming growth habit, meaning you’ll need to overseed to fill in the gaps.
5. Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)
Kentucky Bluegrass is the most popular grass in Denver for two good reasons: it’s really easy to grow, even in Colorado’s challenging soil, and it looks really nice – so long as you water and fertilize it a lot. It’s the least eco-friendly, most water hungry grass on this list.
Advantages of Kentucky Bluegrass:
- Highly attractive grass that’s used for golf courses throughout the north.
- Excellent traffic tolerance. If you have little ones or pets racing around your yard, a bit of Kentucky Bluegrass can be very helpful. Because it spreads by rhizomes, it’ll cover in bare spots. If you need the traffic tolerance, but also want to be more waterwise, then cut back on the amount of lawn you have (start first in places where you know it’s difficult to grow grass) and replace those amounts with xeriscaped options.
- Good drought resistance. While not as good as other grasses on this list, Kentucky Bluegrass can handle short periods of drought if it’s allowed to go dormant. If you want it to stay green, then be prepared to water it a lot. To increase drought resistance and lower water needs, water deeply and less frequently to encourage the roots to grow deeper (this works with most grasses, except on sandy soil, as water drains away too quickly).
- Works well in seed mixes and blends. Mixing Kentucky Bluegrass with lower maintenance grass seed will help lower fertilizer and water requirements.
Disadvantages of Kentucky Bluegrass:
- High maintenance. You need to apply fertilizer 4 to 5 times a year, mow often, and water once or twice weekly. It takes time and money. It may seem like standard care, but that’s only because many homeowners already overwater and overfertilize without even knowing it, as Organo Lawn notes.
- High water needs. It needs 1.25 to 1.5 inches of water every week during hot, dry spells to stay green, and about 1 inch a week otherwise. When you’re only expecting 10 to 15 inches of rain per year, this means you need to irrigate it – and this irrigation is costly, both for your wallet and for the environment.
- Lower salt and alkaline soil tolerance (prefers acidic soil). While it grows well in Denver, the higher your pH, the more Kentucky Bluegrass will struggle.
- Low insect and disease resistance. Kentucky Bluegrass isn’t a hardy grass, and using high nitrogen fertilizer destroys the beneficial microbes in the soil that would otherwise aid your lawn against pests and disease.
- Low shade tolerance. Most varieties need full sun, but some varieties can handle shade.
- High thatch. You know what else spikes in nitrogen cause? Thatch. Because Kentucky Bluegrass grows quickly, and synthetic nitrogen makes it grow even faster, dead stems and rhizomes build up faster than they decay, causing thatch. You will need to dethatch regularly.
6. Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne)
Perennial Ryegrass is another high traffic grass, one that needs a bit less care than Kentucky Bluegrass. However, since it has poor drought tolerance, can die from very cold weather, and is prone to snow mold (a big problem in Colorado), it may best serve you in seed mixes or just as a quick grass cover while you’re waiting for your real lawn to grow in.
Advantages of Perennial Ryegrass:
- Establishes quickly. It’s the first to germinate and get established, and that’s why Perennial Ryegrass makes a great temporary ground cover while you’re waiting for slower germinating grasses or plugs to take over.
- Doesn’t spread. While its bunch-forming growth habit means it won’t self-repair, it also won’t invade your garden beds.
- Good heat tolerance. It’ll stay in place through unexpected heat waves.
Disadvantages of Perennial Ryegrass:
- Needs moderate amounts of nitrogen, between 2 – 3 applications per year.
- Poor drought tolerance and high water needs. The good news is that if you’re using it as a groundcover for a water-wise grass like Buffalo Grass, then simply reducing the amount of water you give your lawn as the water-wise grass takes over will give that grass the final edge.
- Low shade tolerance. Perennial Ryegrass needs Full Sun for eight hours a day.
7. Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
Also known as Turf Type Tall Fescue or TTTF, cool-season Tall Fescue is like the Goldilocks of grasses. It requires a bit more fertilizer and water than hardy grasses like Blue Grama and Buffalo Grass, but it needs a lot less than Kentucky Bluegrass.
Advantages of Tall Fescue:
- Low to Medium Maintenance. Tall Fescue requires 2 to 3 fertilizer applications per year and ¾ inch to 1 inch of water during heat spells.
- Good cold tolerance and medium heat tolerance. It can survive most winters and unexpected heat waves, and like other cool-season grasses, stays green throughout most of the year.
- Part shade tolerance. You can grow Tall Fescue through the sunny and shady parts of your yard for a uniform look.
- Grows in any kind of soil. Tall Fescue doesn’t have an ideal soil, it can do as well in acidic soil as alkaline, and as well in clay as sand. It grows well in poor quality soil. It also tolerates salt.
- Grows quickly. It germinates almost as quickly as Perennial Ryegrass and gets established before Kentucky Bluegrass,
- Mixes well with Fine Fescues and/or Kentucky Bluegrass. Mixing grasses gives a lawn more resilience, as whatever the weather throws at it, there’s likely at least one grass type that can thrive.
Disadvantages of Tall Fescue:
- Needs overseeding. Its bunch-forming growth habit means that it doesn’t self-repair to fill in gaps, so you may need to overseed it to keep your lawn growing thickly.
- Needs more water and fertilizer than other low maintenance grasses, but less than Kentucky Bluegrass.
Best Grass Types in Colorado Comparison Table:
3 Lawn Alternatives For Colorado
Whether you’re ready to ditch a grass lawn entirely, or just wondering what the advantages may be, here are a few great lawn alternatives that grow great in Colorado.
- Native Prairie Garden. Bring the wild to your backyard while also having a beautiful garden. Mix Blue Grama and Buffalo Grass with other native grasses and wildflowers. While they require a bit of ongoing maintenance, and more when getting established, all of these plants thrive in Colorado’s challenging conditions. Just check that any mixes you purchase are actually native to your area, and not just flowers that grow wild somewhere.
- California Meadow Sedge (Carex pansa). Sedges are top of the list for lawn alternatives because of their grass-like appearance, and California Meadow Sedge is one of the best Sedges for lawns. California Meadow Sedge is native to California (as the name suggests), but it thrives in Colorado’s semi-arid conditions and clay soil. Mow it 2 or 3 times a year to make it look even more lawn-like, or let it grow naturally. Stays green year round.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). While Clover lawns have become increasingly popular, its poor drought tolerance and its adaptation to wetter climates leaves much to desire in Colorado. But do you know what unsung lawn alternative is water-wise and drought-resistant? Yarrow. When you regularly mow it, Yarrow grows low and dense feathery leaves with shorter flowers. A Yarrow lawn looks like it’s from a fairy tale.
The Best Picks For Colorado Lawns
Best Picks For Shade:
- Fine Fescues
- Tall Fescue
Best Picks For Drought & Low Water Usage:
- Blue Grama
- Buffalo Grass
- Crested Wheatgrass
- Sheep Fescue (Fine Fescues)
Best Picks For Elevation:
- Blue Grama
- Fine Fescues
- Tall Fescue
Best Picks For Low Maintenance:
- Blue Grama
- Buffalo Grass
- Crested Wheatgrass
- Fine Fescues
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.