Is Drought Driving You Back to Turf Grass?


I was asked about popular gardening trends for a local newspaper article and I mentioned how gardeners across the nation are replacing turf grass with perennials and how traditional garden beds are partnering with edibles. While that is true for many gardeners, another trend is emerging here and abroad.


Red Poppy

Drought has become a major concern for gardeners and having too many plants means reducing some of the most resource-intensive areas due to changing weather patterns. Gardens are facing diminishing water supplies and warming climates. Our area has been hot and without rain for some time now. Thunderstorms promised never materialized. It really makes one think of all the public water being used even on gardens predominately planted with native plants.

Installing native plants has been both a fix for drier climates, but has created a problem for overly ambitious older gardeners as they cut bed after bed to add a bevy of rambunctious native plants.

In addition, gardener’s time constraints don’t permit hour upon hour of watering, pruning, dividing or plant pampering.


Too many gardeners were quick to follow the “eliminate the grass” trend without thinking to what the weather may bring or the work involved in overly exuberant plantings.

I would not be surprised to see many more gardeners backpedaling on all the turf they removed and rethinking what drought resistant plants to install instead. Some gardeners are removing beds and replacing them with hardscape materials, like gravel, pavers, concrete, stone and asphalt.


While the current trend encourages using native plants to cut back on natural resources, native plants still need water as well. I mentioned that many times on GWGT because in times of drought, providing for the pollinators is very important. Having too little water, even the native plants don’t bloom, go dormant or die.


Annual Larkspur and Chrysanthemum leucanthemum

This current trend has shifted to adding trees and shrubs. Both have less maintenance and their water needs are generally met naturally. I am a big fan of trees and shrubs.


White Snapdragons

Having the garden layered starting with trees, is both esthetically pleasing and very needed for wildlife. See below that all grass does not need to be mowed. Keeping it longer with succession plants within has all the benefits for wildlife and the environment.

Notice too that there is no real downside to having trees within this unmoved area either. Mowing turf between for paths is very appealing to people and wildlife. It is just getting creative with plant materials, even turf grass.


Having a garden alive with birds and insect life which is only occasionally irrigated to sustain plants for wildlife is what a garden should be. If it does not pollute the environment with unnecessary chemicals and will replenish the underground aquifer, that is even much better.

Go Native Grasses

While turf grass is a poor choice for all of the above in many cases, there are native grasses that can be used as lawn alternatives if you select ones that grow well in your area. Most grow tall, but some like Prairie Dropseed stay a bit shorter at 15″ and while in bloom, 36″. It is a soft grass that lays over in nice clumps so it makes an interesting ground cover. I love this grass for estate gardens.


Prairie Dropseed Grass at Chanticleer

Estate gardens have huge expanses to fill and this grass makes a beautiful application in large areas.


Carex plantaginea is a native sedge on the East coast and will reach only 10 inches high with flowers in May. Carex siderosticha ‘Lemon Zest’ is another low grower at 9 inches. Watch the carex, though.


Carex ‘Ice Dance’

I grew Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ on my own property and it would have covered the entire property if I let it, both in sun and shade. It stayed less than one foot high, but spread by runners. I started with three plugs. Carex although nice, has a hard appearance and feel, not one on which you would want to walk. I removed it because it required too much dividing.

Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem is a nice native prairie grass that stays upright rather than drooping like other grasses of the prairie. It too is a bit taller at 2-4 feet. I can list many more but you see a pattern forming. These grasses will not meet many city ordinances because of their height and somewhat unorthodox appearance.


Yarrow and Salvia

Gardens are becoming more and more about reducing maintenance, managing gardens better and conserving resources, yet many may be less out of choice than necessity in some areas around the country.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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28 Responses to Is Drought Driving You Back to Turf Grass?

  1. I was just outside watering my flowers and I passed over the black-eyed Susans. I guess I’ll give them some water next time.

    • I hope your area has gotten rain. Every storm missed us and it has been more than two months now. Even last night they said 80% chance and it was dry this morning again. Although my garden is tiny, with so many plants, I cannot keep up keeping them hydrated.

    • Yup. I’m done with watering! Done with standing outside with a hose. I installed drip irrigation everywhere and I’m a happy man. And yup…I’m a big fan of trees and shrubs too. Been planting everywhere and using this new product that insulates and waters them. Plant native plants attract bees and butteries, something my daughters love!

      • I installed irrigation in my garden during my first design 30 years ago, yet abandoned it after the second design 20 years ago. Now am in my third design and no irrigation. My garden is predominately native plants, well Navitars to be correct. Too small to handle the true native plants (yet, I still have some). Some of those Navitars have gotten culled because they are far too aggressive like their brethren. I have a post coming up on Navitars and how in denial some gardeners are about them, saying “they only grow native plants”, when in fact, it is a named, cultivated native plant they are growing. Funny thing is most perennials have been bred from native plants, so technically, they too are “native” albeit far removed. I was just at a native garden in PA and lo and behold, NAVITARS. Most of the plants in the formal garden were named cultivars, yet featured as native plants. Yet, they are native plants, only science/botany made them better. The docent denied they where cultivated. But to the garden’s credit, the horticulturist in charge had a test garden growing cultivars of some native plants to see how well they attracted pollinators.Findings were similar, but not in all cases. And like I have been saying here at GWGT, my garden has pollinators galore. I too have tested many of the Navitars and found no difference in servicing insects from the native parent plant. I believe it has more to do with how many blooms I have for the full season. The constant bloom attracts better than the native meadows mere blocks away from me because meadow flowers are few and so interspersed. Native Monarda for instance rarely has a bee or hummingbird, yet my Navitar Monarda is flapping and buzzing constantly. Maybe it is quantity, not quality. 😀 It certainly is not location, location, location.

  2. swo8 says:

    Your pictures always look so wonderful, Donna. I’d like to get rid of more grass but am leery of taking on too much up keep.

  3. So green! I have a patch of grass at the front of my current garden, but it’s rarely watered in summer. It goes dormant and comes back when it rains. On our new country 5 acres, we will stick with the native grasses for the larger areas. They do not need watering, but will have to be slashed periodically, in patches, or burnt in patches to reduce fire-risk. We won’t have large trees near the house for the same reason and have to be careful about what tree species we plant. I think many Australians feel a ‘lawn’ is something that goes brown in summer and we’re fine with that!

    • My small patch of grass is nothing but weeds and brown. Years of little rain allowed a lot of weeds to invade. I don’t mind weeds in the grass, but this year had so many in the garden which never happen before. Lots of work removing them from under and between perennials. I know Australia has had many years of drought. Drought year after year is historically new to our area.

  4. Yes, the variable weather makes the whole process more challenging, doesn’t it? And then when a person has a busy summer (like I have this year), pampering the plants becomes impossible. Yeah, the established shrubs and trees are definitely assets. Good post.

    • Thank you. I too have a busy summer like every year. The last years it has been work which is mostly seasonal, now I have been traveling quite a bit. Traveling makes me miss a lot happening in the garden. This was a year I actually got to see my Allium bloom though, but not in the gardens I traveled to. Much bloomed earlier in our area.

  5. Emily Scott says:

    I hate the trend to put down artificial turf or paving/concrete without any thought for birds, bees and other wildlife. I like your approach of using trees, shrubs or letting the grass grow long. Bring on the green.

    • At least we don’t see artificial turf in our area unless it is for a putting green. Trees and shrubs are great. Some gardeners don’t see the value in them for both nature and landscape aesthetics but they provide more value to the environment as a whole. Many have wonderful bloom for pollinators too. Although some trees and shrubs have tiny flowers we dismiss, the insects just mob them. I noticed one year my boxwood was swarming with tiny bees or flies. They looked like bees to me, but were so small. The little yellow flowers are cute too.

  6. Karen says:

    I have no irrigation in place here either, but I also don’t water very often. I am always saddened when I drive through cities and see sprinklers watering the concrete. We’ve been lucky the last few years and have been able to get by with mulching heavily in the spring to retain the moisture already in the soil. Of course some years that won’t work and I’ll have to resort to watering to keep trees alive. My hosta gardens are on their own, I feel they develop a stronger root system when they are not pampered. I had carex in the garden too, and also removed it, you’re right, it will soon take over. I love the prairie dropseed, very pretty.

    • In our area, the trees have suffered greatly. Our street trees have been dropping one by one. It is hard being surrounded by water and getting none that drops, yet a few miles away another community is getting the rains. I never used to water the garden, but in recent years it became a necessity. We are lucky at least NF has not become like CA where everything is brown and dry to start wildfires. Rain does help us enough where that does not happen. I agree on not pampering plants for them to become more hardy. Hosta here are rarely wilted back or are lost. This area is known for hosta and there are a number of growers. They also live where more rain falls.

  7. bittster says:

    I think gardening in general is work, and most of it comes along two or three years after the beds are in… once things have multiplied, plants reseeded, beds weeded up, mulch decayed… it seems so much fun when everything goes in new, but sometimes it becomes overwhelming rather quickly.
    Things look sad here. I don’t water much of the garden but a few areas get pampered. The things which are on their own are beginning to look droopy but even if they dry out enough to go dormant (after weeks of heat and drought) most will resprout in the fall or next year. I’m often surprised more doesn’t die!
    I saw your comments on nativars, and I agree many people are in denial regarding this. If planting selected or hybrid cultivars is the same as planting natives I’m going to fill a garden with supersweet corn, bigboy tomatoes, and dinnerplate dahlias and call it an adapted, drought resistant planting!

    • You are too funny, Frank. I do agree gardening is work in general. Some gardeners don’t view it as work, but instead play. I suppose I wish I felt that way, but years working in architecture/landscape design, it takes the play right out of you. My own garden got neglected a bit and that is why I made a garden with packed-in plants. For almost ten years, the density reduced weeds and kept the garden moist. With drought year after year though, some perennials reduced in size, disappeared or just plain looked unhappy. Good, robust plant health is key in keeping out the weeds. When stressed, the plants and trees increase seed production, and weeds flourish. Even the stressed perennials put out extra seed. This year was like no other we have seen, weeds had a heyday and were relentless. On the plus side, annual flowers reproduced nicely by seed too. It was just hard separating them from the weeds that seeded all scrunched up beside them.

  8. John says:


    I somehow fell out of touch and had to get caught up with your lovely blog. There were so many outstanding garden and bird pictures, I spent much of this morning catching up on previous posts. Thanks for the great excuse to procrastinate on my morning garden chores!

    Your posts are always so thoughtful and inquisitive. I think much of the movement away from turf grass, like many gardening movements, comes without adequate thought of the full ramifications. Many native plants still require some water, and native grasses may stillrequire some tending or care, but both are still better and less resource intensive than turf grass. Thank you for the suggestions on the native grasses, I may look in to them for a few places in my garden.

    Cheers from North Dakota.

    • Thanks for checking in. I tend to agree that often you see trends and people follow along like sheep. But being fickle and getting bored…people move on to the next new shiny thing rather quickly. I do believe though word is getting out on big issues like lose of bees, loss of habitat, climate change, water in short supply, and a host of other grave concerns confronting our future. The biggest hurdle? People might know and understand, but still look to others to solve these issues, without affecting or sacrificing their own lifestyle, pocketbook or well being.

      While all the nature enthusiasts look to have nature around them, they should look at how important cities where and will become to save that nature. I say that because keeping people more concentrated in land mass and accessible to their daily needs and ways to make money, allows more and more space left for places for other beings. Cities were built to maximize space, people and sustainability. Of course, the car changed that. With rising demand for energy, cities will help deal with those issues if they become popular once again – even if only out of necessity.

  9. Kevin says:

    A smart, sensible post. Well done!

  10. Another great post. Do you find that most people like the scent of Prairie Dropseed? I like it, but I keep running into people who don’t.

  11. debsgarden says:

    Great photos! I especially liked seeing the grassy spaces. The majority of my blooms come from flowering trees and shrubs. In my large garden, this was definitely the way to get the most bang for my buck. I also maintain several lawn areas, using only natural products, and I enjoy watching the many birds, as well as squirrels and rabbits, who find their meals there. I do have some perennials, as well as annuals, but I find they are much more work than trees, shrubs, and grass!

    • I like seeing the visual break that grass gives garden colors and bloom, especially if it has an artful shape itself. This garden has that. My lawn is really weed green, but with little rain, even the weeds look drab brown. Trees are so important and your garden uses them beautifully.

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