You Can Have Grass in a Xeric Landscape

This post originally appeared as a guest post on Gardening Know How.

In New Mexico, drought is more a way of life than an occasional phenomenon. With only 10 inches of annual rainfall in much of the state and a high of 20 inches in the mountains, xeriscaping is the responsible landscaping strategy.

But here’s the problem – unaware homeowners and real estate “flippers” often come in and rip out every blade of grass, replacing the cool turf with what amounts to hot lava. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but too much landscape gravel can be harsh. And the gravel often lies over a layer of black plastic. If they leave a tree in place, they can kiss it goodbye in five or 10 years. And they might say hello to higher energy costs.

Replace high-water grass

So, let’s say that you want to save water by eliminating your current turf lawn, which uses way too much water. If you plan to rip it out anyway and were thinking of replacing it with gravel and hardscaping, then consider ripping out the high-water grass and replacing a small portion of it with a low-water native grass. Ideally, you’d plant some turf close to your home for the cooling and barefoot effect, especially around the southwest side of the house. And if you have a tree you want to preserve, especially one that shades your home, consider low-water grass near the outside canopy of the tree and wood or other organic mulch surrounding the tree’s trunk.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain. We get no more than 19 inches a year.

Low-water native grass

Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) is native to most zones of the Southwest and Great Plains, up to about 7,000 feet. The prairie grass is a favorite of area ranchers for its protein content and because it comes back each year as soon as spring temperatures warm up. Most of all, once established, blue grama needs no irrigation at all. In fact, if you overwater and overfertilize blue grama, it becomes more susceptible to weed invasion. That’s right, the less you do, the more healthy the grass. Now, you can’t beat that for saving water and time.

blue grama grass seed
A stand of blue grama grass that was left to go to seed.

When I first heard about using native grasses for lawns, I assumed they would not look like regular turf, but like separate bunches of tall grass swaying in the breeze. I could not have been more wrong. It might take longer to fill in than do some grasses designed for turf, and certainly longer than laying sod, but blue grama bunches spread and meet, forming a sod lawn. However, if you want to let the grass go to seed – especially to promote its spread – you’ll delight in the appearance of its 12-inch high stalks with blue-green seedheads. You can even have a mix of both. Mow it in a small patch where you walk and let a few stalks go to seed near the perimeter.

The main point is that with a low-water grass native to your area, you can keep a lawn for kids to play on, dogs to run in, or just for the look of green grass in summer. Yet you use no more water after the first year than you would if you put gravel around your entire house. In fact, most warmer areas of New Mexico have evaporative cooling, which mixes water with forced air to cool homes. When heat reflects off of gravel right next to the house, it takes more water and electricity to cool a house down.

And a few cautions

I have a few cautions with blue grama, however. The first is that it needs some supplemental water the first summer, much like any new lawn. The grass typically comes in seed or plugs, and native sod rolls are now available in Colorado. The seeds should be available from companies that sell native and drought-tolerant plants. The seeds germinate quickly when temperatures are high. The second caution is patience. Blue grama greens a little later in spring than typical grasses made for lawns, especially those that use lots of water. So hang in there. You can water a little in summer when rain is scarce to keep the grass from going dormant, but part of the beauty is letting nature take its course.

Since it’s late in the year now in most zones to successfully seed blue grama, you can at least plan for next year. Check out this excellent handout from High Country Gardens on how to prep your lawn for native grass plugs.

Blue grama seed
Blue grama seed germinates quickly. We had good luck filling in some patches of dirt made by gophers.

Finally, native grasses are just that; they’re not hybrids designed for perfectly manicured lawns that look like golf greens. You might have some imperfections and will certainly have to wait until each area fills in. But when given a choice between gravel and green, I’ll take at least a patch of green – and without using a drop of water.