We get it. You’ve got better things to do than take care of your lawn. That’s why choosing the right grass (or even a ground cover) is so important – the right grass saves you time and money while still looking decent. And while the climate and soils in Hawaii can result in gorgeous gardens, the high amount of rainfall or dry conditions, huge differences in soil types and quality, and exposure to salt can make growing a lawn challenging. Which grass is right for your Hawaii lawn? Read on to find out.
What To Know About Grass In Hawaii?
That Hawaii has a tropical climate probably isn’t a surprise to you, but it makes lawn care much different from most of the mainland US. You can’t rely on the advice and instructions provided for most American lawns because they’re meant for the mainland US, where most states have winter.
Winter is very useful in lawn care, as not only do people get a break from lawn care, but cold temperatures can kill off annual weeds and reduce pest populations. Weeds that are annual in other places are perennial in Hawaii. The average winter temperature is still 78 degrees F, with growing zones ranging from 9a to 13a. Many plant and turfgrass guides only go up to Zone 9 or 10 because that’s the highest in the mainland US, but many warm-season grasses do well in zones up to 13a.
Don’t plant cool-season grass seed. Yes, you may see it in articles for use during the cooler season, or see grass seed mixtures in stores advertising that they’re adapted to Hawaii, but they’re not. No cool-season turfgrass can survive two months of a typical Hawaii summer.
The only time you’d use a cool-season turfgrass is to provide temporary erosion control over an area while you’re waiting for a slower growing turfgrass to establish itself. Perennial Ryegrass is the best for this purpose, since it establishes quickly and the heat of summer will kill it off.
Rainfall And Drought
Weeks of rainfall or continually dry periods also add challenges.
When you get too much rain, your lawn just keeps growing taller while you can’t mow because the lawn never dries out enough. Choosing a grass that grows short naturally or a grass that doesn’t need to be kept very short will help. For areas that you won’t walk on, choosing a native ground cover instead of grass will cut out mowing entirely.
Weeds and fungal diseases will take advantage of the extra rainfall, and while you can still hand pull weeds even when the lawn’s wet (moist soil can actually help), it’s still a lot of work. While mowing helps control the spread of weeds by removing or preventing seeds, you can’t do that if you can’t mow.
You also need to be prepared to handle droughts and water restrictions, which have become more common in Hawaii. Likewise, if you live on the leeward side of the island, you can’t count on much rain. Lawn irrigation can increase household water use by 30%. A grass that is resilient has low water requirements, and is drought tolerant will look better even without irrigation.
No Two Places Are Alike
Furthering difficulties in finding helpful information on caring for your lawn is that the islands of Hawaii have a tremendous variety of weather and soil. One island may get 2 years of rain, while another goes through an extended drought.
The soil varies hugely even over small distances. 10 of the 12 soil orders in the world are found here. For example, the coastal plains of Kahuku have fertile Mollisol soil, but head up the mountain, and the soil becomes less fertile Ultisols and Oxisols.
But don’t worry! You don’t need to know the soil orders to create a healthy lawn – you just need to know your own soil. Getting a soil test is crucial so that you know what you’re dealing with, from texture to fertility. This will also help you figure out what advice to take based on the type of soil you have.
You will need a salt-tolerant grass if you live near the coast, if your lawn is located over a shallow water table with a high salt content, or if you irrigate with brackish water. For areas not in use, consider using a native salt-tolerant ground cover instead.
To keep salt content from building up too high in the soil, leach the soil every so often with fresh water (unless you get enough rain to do it for you). Even Seashore Paspalum, praised as having the highest salt tolerance, has a limit.
6 Types of Grass in Hawaii
1. Bermuda Grass (Cynodon spp.)
Bermuda grass is the most widely grown turfgrass in Hawaii, and you can find a lot of varieties to suit, like the old favorites of Tifway, Tifgreen, No-Mow, and Sunturf, or newer ones like Oasis and Blackjack. While Bermuda grows easily in Hawaii, it is the highest maintenance grass with high water needs.
Advantages of Bermuda Grass
- Grows an attractive lawn. Where you can’t use Kentucky Bluegrass, you find Bermuda. However, it’s attractiveness depends on how much you care for it. The more you put in, the more you get out of it. If you don’t want to or can’t meet its needs, choosing a less attractive but lower maintenance grass will still look better than a neglected Bermuda lawn.
- Grows vigorously. Bermuda grows and gets established fast, since it grows through both stolons and rhizomes. It also has a special mechanism that, when it gets intense sunlight, it explodes into growth. In fact, it grows so vigorously that it may become your toughest weed yet.
- Thrives in high heat and humidity and can handle a range of soil and pH levels. It’s a favorite in Hawaii for a reason.
- Handles high foot traffic. Bermuda is often used in athletic areas for this reason. It resists wear and any damages self-repair quickly. If your lawn gets used roughly, Bermuda can take it.
- Drought tolerant. While Bermuda is not in any way, shape, or form, a low water grass, it can survive periods of drought by going dormant, which is useful for water restrictions.
Disadvantages of Bermuda Grass
- Needs high maintenance. You’re only going to reproduce a golf course lawn if you put in a golf course amount of maintenance. It requires high amounts of fertilizer and water, so it will need additional irrigation during dry weather. Because it grows vigorously but best as only 1.5 to 2 inches, it needs a lot of mowing.
- Becomes your biggest weed. Its rhizomes sneak out of your lawn and into your garden beds, and pretty much wherever else you don’t want it to go. Eradicating it is quite difficult, especially when you don’t have a period of dormancy, and controlling it is the best you can hope for.
- Prone to thatch. Bermuda grows through stolons, and stolons are the biggest contributor to thatch. The faster it grows, the more thatch builds up. You may have to dethatch once or even twice a year.
- Low shade tolerance. Bermuda worships the sun. You can still grow it in partial shade (as long as you have 4 hours of sun), but it won’t look its best. Shade may help keep it in check.
- Suffers in poorly drained soils. While you can grow it on clay soils or even occasionally submerged in water, it needs well-drained soil to do its best.
2. Carpet Grass (Axonopus affinis)
Carpet Grass is the flip side of Centipede Grass – where Centipede grass thrives with dry, sandy soil, Carpet Grass thrives in moist, sandy soil. This isn’t a widely used turfgrass because it’s best used only for very specific conditions.
Advantages of Carpet Grass
- Low maintenance. How much care it needs depends on how often you mow it. If you’re using Carpet Grass in an out-of-the-way place, then let it grow to its natural height or occasionally mow it, and you’ll barely need to fertilize at all. If you mow weekly, then you’ll need to fertilize a lot more (although still less than Bermuda).
- Ideal for moist, sandy soil. Few other grasses can handle perpetually wet, sandy soil, but Carpet Grass thrives in it – just so long as it’s not salty.
- Grows into a thick mat to outcompete weeds. Carpet Grass spreads through stolons, so it can self-repair.
- Shade tolerant. You can grow Carpet Grass in full sun or shade.
Disadvantages of Carpet Grass
- Not considered an attractive grass. It’s coarse and light green, and puts up large seed heads during the summer heat. To remove the seed heads, you’ll need to mow between every 5 to 7 days.
- Poor salt tolerance. If a freshwater source keeps your soil moist, you’re golden. However, if it’s moist from ocean water or you live along the coast, then Carpet Grass will struggle.
- Medium water needs and low drought-tolerance. If your soil stays perpetually moist, this isn’t a problem. Otherwise, you’ll need to irrigate it. Carpet Grass’s primary advantage is that it thrives in moist conditions where other grasses struggle to grow. If your soil dries out more often than not, you’re better off choosing another grass or a native ground cover.
- Poor traffic tolerance. If your lawn is used a lot for outdoor activities, you may want to look for another grass. It’s best grown in unused areas.
3. Centipede Grass (Eremochloa ophiuroides)
Centipede Grass is one of the lowest maintenance grasses available, so long as you have the right conditions for it. The main drawback is that it doesn’t fit the ideal turfgrass appearance.
Advantages of Centipede Grass
- Low maintenance grass. It grows slowly, meaning you don’t need to mow it often (great for those weeks when it never stops raining long enough to mow), and it requires little fertilizer. It also has few insect or disease problems, which means you won’t have to spend time and money trying to save your lawn.
- Thrives in low-fertility, sandy, or heavy soil.
- Low water needs and drought tolerance. Centipede does best with frequent, shallow waterings with quick draining soil. But if it can’t get water for a while, it’ll go dormant until it gets water again.
- Outcompetes weeds once established with dense sod. While its slow growth means it’ll need more attention during the first year or two, once it’s established, it’ll form a thick enough sod that weeds will have trouble germinating. This slow growth also means few thatch problems, even though it spreads by stolons.
- Tolerates light shade, but grows best in sun.
Disadvantages of Centipede Grass
- Considered a less attractive grass. Centipede has its iconic apple green color, when the ideal is dark green. People try to over fertilize it to give it a darker color, but this only causes problems and makes your grass sickly with Centipede Grass Decline and iron chlorosis. Your low maintenance grass suddenly becomes high maintenance. However, just because it’s not dark green doesn’t mean that you won’t love the look of it. A healthy lawn always looks better than one that’s struggling.
- Sensitive to some herbicides. Once the grass is established, you won’t have many weed problems, anyway. Avoiding herbicide use is also better for you and for protecting the native fauna and flora.
- Low foot traffic tolerance. If you use your lawn for rough-and-tumble sports, or otherwise frequently damage your lawn with use, then pick another grass as this one grows too slowly to repair itself in time.
4. Seashore Paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum)
While many myths surrounded Seashore Paspalum when it was introduced to homeowners in 1999, once people cut through the myths, they still found it to be an attractive grass that grows in conditions too salty for other grasses.
Advantages of Seashore Paspalum
- High salt tolerance. If your biggest challenge is salt, then Seashore Paspalum is for you, especially if you have sandy soil. But don’t water it with straight ocean water – that’s a myth that will only build up salt levels in your soil to a point where even this grass struggles. You can irrigate it with brackish water.
- Low maintenance. It has low fertilizer and water needs, although it needs to be kept mowed short to avoid fungal diseases.
- Low water needs and high drought tolerance. Seashore Paspalum may show signs of moisture stress, but it’ll bounce back easily.
- Highly attractive grass. Seashore Paspalum can become a high-quality turfgrass with the right conditions and care.
Disadvantages of Seashore Paspalum
- Needs to be mowed short (1 to 2 inches) or it becomes prone to disease. While the fact that you can cut it as low as one inch (taking care not to scalp the lawn) can be an advantage if you’re putting the time and care in, it’s a disadvantage when it’s been raining for weeks and you’re stuck just watching it grow and grow.
- Struggles against weeds when in fertile soil and/or high water. Seashore Paspalum can outcompete weeds when the soil doesn’t have excess nutrients or there isn’t excess rain, but any more than what it needs will just feed the weeds. Some of this is out of your control and you may be better off with another grass, but you also need to make sure that you’re not overfertilizing or overwatering.
- Low resistance to insects. Keeping your lawn as healthy as you can (without overdoing it) is your best defense.
5. St Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum)
First introduced to Hawaii around 1816, St Augustine is popular on the mainland, particularly in Florida, because it does well in hot, humid areas and tolerates partial shade. However, it also comes with a host of challenges, from high maintenance to susceptibility to insects and disease.
Advantages of St Augustine
- Good salt tolerance. St Augustine tolerates salt spray and short-term flooding, making it a suitable choice for coastal areas, especially with moist, fertile, sandy soil.
- Tolerates part shade. It needs only 4 hours of sun per day, so it’s a suitable alternative when you have a shady yard.
- Outcompetes weeds once established. A healthy St Augustine lawn forms a thick sod that prevents weed seeds from germinating. However, while it’s getting established, you’ll need to keep on top of weeds and/or use a cool-season cover grass.
Disadvantages of St Augustine
- High maintenance. While some sources cite St Augustine as a low maintenance grass, its high fertilizer needs, high water needs, susceptibility to pests and disease, high thatch, and that it needs a heavy duty mower doesn’t seem to match. St Augustine establishes slowly, so you’ll need to apply much more maintenance during the first 6 months (cover grasses can help). Like with Bermuda, its high fertilizer needs exacerbate problems like thatch, pests, and disease.
- Poor drought tolerance and medium water needs. While St Augustine doesn’t have the highest water needs, it needs to be continually watered.
- Vulnerable to chinch bugs, grass webworm, and lawn armyworm. While cultivars Floratam and Floralawn showed initial resistance to chinch bugs, they have both since lost it as the chinch bugs have adapted. High levels of nitrogen make it particularly susceptible to insects.
- Only available as sprigs, plugs, and sod. All three options are more expensive than seed, while the first two are less expensive than sod but have a longer establishment period. Sod is the most expensive option, but the grass gets established much sooner with fewer weeds.
- Sensitive to many common herbicides. It’s better to hand weed and avoid herbicide use whenever possible.
6. Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.)
Originating from East Asia and the South Pacific, Zoysia is commonly used throughout the islands of Hawaii for golf courses and home lawns. You have a choice of three different Zoysia species, with their own advantages.
Zoysia japonica is most likely what people mean when they just say Zoysiagrass. It resembles Centipedegrass in appearance, but with dark green leaves. It’s the only Zoysia where you can find some cultivars as seed. Commonly used cultivars include Zenith, Compadre, El Toro, Meyer, and Palisades.
Z. matrella is often called Manilagrass, and if you’re looking for a high quality lawn (and can provide for its high maintenance needs), this is the species for you. It has a finer texture than Z. japonica. Common cultivars include Cavalier, Diamond, Zeon, and Zorro.
Z. tenuifolia is often called Templegrass, Koreangrass, or Velvetgrass, and it’s better used as a beautiful, wavey ground cover than as a lawn.
You can also find hybrids like Emerald (a cross between Z. japonica and Z. tenuifolia) and Z-3 (a cross between Z. japonica and Z. matrella).
Advantages of Zoysiagrass
- Very attractive. While the texture and color can vary a bit between species and cultivars, they typically have a medium to dark green color and medium to fine texture.
- Tolerates part shade. Zoysia’s part shade tolerance is only slightly lower than St Augustine’s, but can vary between species and cultivars. You likely won’t notice much of a difference between them.
- Low water needs. Once established, Zoysia’s long roots make it one of the top drought and heat resistant of the warm-season grasses. Only water it when it shows signs of wilting. Otherwise, leave it alone.
Disadvantages of Zoysiagrass
- Medium maintenance. Zoysia is not a low maintenance grass. It has medium to high nitrogen needs (on par with St Augustine) and you will need to mow it every 7 to 10 days (unless you take a no mow/ground cover approach), but it doesn’t need to be watered as much during dry periods.
- Establishes slowly. Some cultivars establish faster, but for the most part, you’re going to have to care for it and weed it over 12 to 18 months while it gets established. Cover grasses can help.
- May have thatch problems. Zoysia grows densely and spreads through stolons, but because it grows slowly, thatch doesn’t build up as quickly as species like Bermuda, so long as you’re not overfertilizing.
- Most cultivars are only available as plugs or sod. Plugs are the most common option in Hawaii, which are cheaper than sod, but will take much longer to fully establish.
- Many cultivars are vulnerable to billbugs. A healthy lawn is your best defense against insects.
Ground Cover Alternatives For Hawaii
Hawaii is home to over 25,000 unique species, making it one of the most diverse regions in the world. If you don’t need grass for activities, why not replace it (or at least unused areas) with stunning, low maintenance, highly adapted, and ecologically friendly native plants?
Just a select few native plants you can choose from include:
- ‘Ae’ae (Bacopa monnieri). Also known as Water Hyssop, ‘Ae’ae makes a great ground cover in consistently moist soil, whether its fresh or brackish water, or even when submerged like in a rain garden. It forms a dense, 2 to 4 inch tall mat that can look similar to lawn grass from a distance. While it can tolerate part shade, it grows compactly in full sun. You can also use it as a trailing plant in a hanging basket.
- ‘Ākulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum). Also known as Shoreline or Sea Purslane, it’s native to many tropical regions. As its English name suggests, it thrives along shorelines, tidal flats, and salt marshes, or pretty much wherever you have sand, limestone, sandstone, and salt. It’s a ground spreading succulent with glossy green leaves and tiny pink or purple flowers that close at night or during cloudy days.
- Nehe (Melanthera spp., Lipochaeta spp.) Nehe refers to all the native plants in these two genera, so you have a great variety of choices. They’re spreading herbs with fern-like foliage and yellow flowers, although the size and look can vary. While some Nehe are endangered and must be ethically sourced, if used at all, Melanthera integrifolia is a common plant used as a low growing ground cover for well-draining soil, and is tolerant of drought, salt, and part shade.
Gregory A. Koob put together two starter lists of native plants for ground covers for the University of Hawaii Master Gardener program (PDFs: Native Hawaiian Plants and More Native Hawaiian Plants). Non-native plants can become aggressive and invasive (and some are even illegal to plant), but these non-native plants often have a native plant that grows better.
Choosing the Best Grass for Your Hawaiian Lawn
When in doubt, you can always plant a couple patches of grass for experimentation. You’ll find out in just a few months which grass thrives and which struggles, saving you a lot of time and money in the long run.
The Best Grass For Shade in Hawaii:
- St Augustine
Best Grass For Low Water Needs in Hawaii:
- Seashore Paspalum
Best Grass For Water Restrictions/No Irrigation in Hawaii:
- Seashore Paspalum
Best Grass For Salt in Hawaii:
- Seashore Paspalum
- St Augustine
Best Grass For Low Maintenance in Hawaii:
- Carpet Grass
- Seashore Paspalum
Read Our Related Grass Guides for Other Locations Here:
- 7 Types of Grass in Colorado
- 10 Types of Grass in California (5 Lawn Alternatives)
- 10 Types of Grass in Arizona (With 3 Lawn Alternatives)
- 9 Types of Grass in Alabama
- 19 Types of Grass in Georgia
- 7 Types of Grass in Florida
- 11 Types of Grass in Texas
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.