Rocks and gravel are essential components of dry Southwest landscaping, and we rely heavily on both. But I do believe some Southwest gardeners can have a sustainable patch of grass that uses little water and requires minimal maintenance. The pluses: a place for kids (especially barefoot!) and dogs to play, the cooling effect vs. the heat of gravel, and the look, of course.
Native grasses might not look as manicured or deep green as typical lawn turf, but they’re adapted to survive in various Southwest climates and soils, making them a more sustainable alternative to high-water sod or seed mixes. These native grasses might work as a replacement for a high-water lawn or to add a small grassy area in an otherwise gravel yard.
The warm season perennial Buffalograss (Buchole dactyloides) forms sod through spreading of stolons, stems that run above the ground. The grass turns brown as soon as it freezes in fall and greens up later than some other Southwest grasses. New cultivars of buffalograss have been bred to improve its green color and shade tolerance and help form dense sod. Here’s the best benefit: if you choose a new variety of buffalograss (such as BOWIE, Prestige Sundancer or UC Verde, a variety developed for coastal California and low valleys in Arizona), you can have a green summer lawn on more than half the watering required to keep Kentucky bluegrass green. Buffalograss comes in sod, plugs or seed and needs at least half of the day in sun to thrive and green. It holds up to moderate foot traffic, but not heavy use. Check with local sources for the best seeding time in your area.
Blue grama (Boutteloua gracilis)
This is another grazing grass that’s a favorite of cattle, deer and other wildlife. It’s also excellent for erosion control. Blue grama is native to most zones of the Southwest and Great Plains, up to about 7,000 feet. The prairie grass needs full sun and comes back each year as soon as spring temperatures warm. Most of all, once established, blue grama needs really no irrigation at all. In fact, if you overwater and overfertilize blue grama, it becomes more susceptible to weed invasion. We’ve seeded several disturbed areas around our property with Blue grama; just wait until temperatures reach 80 degrees and water frequently until it’s established. By far my favorite feature of blue grama is the seedheads. We’ve left meadow areas to go to seed in a few spots and enjoy the beauty of the seeds blowing in the wind long after the grass has lost its color. This also helps it spread and double as an ornamental grass.
Galleta grass (Pleuraphis jamesii)
Galleta is a perennial warm season groundcover that holds up to heavy foot traffic. The bunches slowly merge by rhizomes to form a sod. A variety called Viva was bred in New Mexico from native stands of Galleta grass to improve seed yield and seedling vigor. It’s common in areas with low annual precipitation (5 to 16 inches) and at about 3,500 to 7,500 feet altitude. The grass greens when spring rains begin and can bloom from February to June in the Mojave desert. It grows in all types of soil and has shallow roots, one reason it is so drought tolerant.
If you plant a small portion of your yard with grass, it’s important to get the features you want. A native mix might be your best choice. This Western Native Grass mix from American Meadows contains seven low-water seeds. With Ricegrass, Gallleta, Idaho Fescue, Prairie Junegrass, Sandberg Bluegrass, AIkali Sacaton and Bluebunch Wheatgrass, you can extend your lawn season and still use little water.
The basis of this grass is native to Africa, not the Southwest, but was carefully bred to be drought tolerant and recover from foot traffic, including from your four-pawed family members. It’s hardy down to zone 5 and only greens in summer, but DogTuff grows well on slopes and in full sun. The grass typically comes in plugs.
I feel dogs, kids and adults need a little bit of lawn, as long as it’s placed well, such as near the house or patio for cooling and use, and not in a hell strip (the narrow space between a sidewalk and road). Native grasses also tend to need little water or mowing. You will use more water getting seeds or plugs started, but once established, I’d water once as the weather warms and then see if Mother Nature does the rest.