The Best Drought Tolerant Lawn Alternatives

Drought-tolerant landscaping covered with pea gravel, small yellow cacti and large aloe plant

The Spruce / Sarah Crowley

For many, a manicured green grass lawn represents the perfect traditional front and back yards. But look again: they can be boring to look at, high-maintenance, downright ugly for several months, require chemicals, and need lots of water. In some areas, that thick green carpet of turf looks nice if that region gets regular rainfall. But if you live in a drought-prone or -stricken area like the state of California, much of the western United States, Georgia, South Africa, Australia, or other dry regions, a green lawn is a symbol of being conspicuously out of touch, not caring, or simply confused.

If you don't know how to get rid of that thirsty patch of lawn or aren't sure what to replace it with, now may be the time to make a change, before water restrictions are imposed. Even if the region receives rainfall to get it out of its current drought, the area still needs to be landscaped with drought-tolerant plants. Consider our suggestions for lawn alternatives—all with low maintenance and conserving water in mind.

  • 01 of 08

    DG: Decomposed Granite

    decomposed granite path
    CountryMouse13 / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    It may look like dirt, but decomposed granite (DG) is actually a gritty, crumbly granite rock that binds together when compacted. Unlike dirt, it doesn't create dust or particles when you walk on it. And for areas that don't need to be paved or landscaped, DG is a great solution. In addition to replacing your lawn with DG, think about using it for other areas that don't necessarily require paving, like driveways, patios, or pet spaces. 

    DG is also an environmental way to go: it helps absorb rain water and irrigation, filters pollutants and solids from water, and is high in trace minerals.

  • 02 of 08

    A Meadow of Native Grasses

    Pennisetum setaceum 'Eaton canyon' (fountain grass) flower & purple foliage Getty Images

    Native grasses planted together in meadows or drifts add movement to your landscaping as they move with the wind. If chosen wisely—that is, looking for grasses that are native to your region—then the watering requirements will be suited for the environment. Plant several of the same species together for a striking visual effect. Group according to height, with taller, grasses in the back and shorter ones at the front of the border.

  • 03 of 08

    Pea Gravel

    Pea gravel replaces grass in a modern backyard. Getty Images

    In the category of decorative rock as a lawn substitute, pea gravel is quick, easy, and economical. While many colors are available, the most common is a mix of earthy tones. 

    What to consider when shopping for pea gravel:

    • Shape of gravel: if it's cheaper, it might have sharp edges—not a good idea if it's a surface for a children's play area or a dog run.
    • Size of rock: some suppliers carry several different sizes, but 3/8 to 1/2 inch is easiest to work with.
    • Depth: 2 inches gives you a good layer.
    • Know the dimensions of your space so that you can calculate how much you will need. A trusted supplier will help with this. 
    • Delivery charges will be added. Your pea gravel will be dumped in a pile in front of your property or on your driveway.
  • 04 of 08

    Artificial Turf

    Fake turf near a swimming pool
    Andy Sotiriou/Getty Images

    If you just can't imagine your home without a green expanse of lawn, artificial turf might be the answer. Naturally, it doesn't require water, making it a low-maintenance lawn substitute. No weeds, no fertilizer, no mowing—sounds pretty ideal, right?

    Nothing's perfect: to pad that lawn and give it some fake "dirt," many manufacturers use crumb rubber, which is often made from recycled tires. And many tires are made of toxic materials, including lead—OK for streets and highways—but never intended for daily human contact.

    Organic Infills

    As an alternative to rubber infill for artificial grass, organic infills are available in North America, such as natural cork or ground fibers from the outside of coconut shells.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Permeable Paving

    Permeable pavement with grass. Eco friendly parking
    slowcentury / Getty Images

    Gaining popularity and considered a sustainable form of hardscape, permeable pavement allows rainwater to seep into the ground as it falls rather than running off into storm drains or waterways. Permeable paving acts like a sand filter, forcing water to pass through different sizes of aggregate and/or filter fabric. 

    Permeable paving would be a good choice for a driveway, path or walkway, or a patio that isn't connected to a house. Benefits and goals of using permeable paving are:

    • To direct water away from the house
    • Minimize excessive pooling in low lying areas due to runoff
    • Retain water in landscaped areas
    • Diminishing stormwater contaminants in storm drains, streams, rivers, and other bodies of water
    • Prevent erosion

    It's important to select the right kind of pervious pavement for certain areas or applications. Types of residential permeable paving available include:

    • Permeable concrete
    • Permeable asphalt
    • Pervious interlocking pavers
  • 06 of 08

    A Mixture of Materials

    Pavers, a low wall and various water-wise plants replace a lawn. Gerry Whitmor/Getty Images

    Combine hardscape materials with drought-tolerant plants. By using at least a few different types of hardscape, the missing lawn is not as obvious because there are several surfaces and elements to look at. Possibilities include paved surfaces, walls, rocks and boulders, and even outdoor furniture. Selecting plants that blend with or complement the colors of the hardscape helps tie together the design.

    Good types of plants to try include:

  • 07 of 08

    A Combination of Water-Wise Plants

    Grasses, ground covers and hedges make a drought-tolerant mix. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Instead of planting all of one type of plant, like succulents or ornamental grasses, carefully plan your landscape to incorporate different types of drought-tolerant plants. Group according to needs—like water, light, and soil—along with height. Most plants need about a year to establish growth, get rooted, and become acclimated to your yard before becoming truly drought tolerant.

    As a rule of thumb, place plants that require more water closer to your house, while the ones that are most drought-tolerant or resistant can be planted farther away, closer to the perimeter, sides, or curb.

    Plant flowering succulents (like sedums, aloes, and Crassulaceae) together in groups, like you would perennials and shrubs, for a colorful display that will last for several months  Ice plant also brings a burst of color to the landscape and is a smart, water-saving ground cover.

    While they take a long time to grow, consider planting more trees, which provide shade and reduce water needs for nearby plants.

  • 08 of 08

    Water-Wise Ground Covers

    Lysimachia nummularia (creeping jenny, moneywort)
    Lysimachia nummularia (creeping jenny, moneywort) MartaJonina / Getty Images

    Use drought-tolerant ground covers alone or in combination with other water-wise plants and hardscape, or between crevices of pavers or flagstone. Most are best suited for small spaces.

    Good ones to consider:

    • Dymondia margaretae
    • Juniperus: chinensis, J. communis, J. horizontalis, J. procumbens, J. rigida conferta, J. sabina
    • Mazus radicans, M. reptans
    • Monardella macrantha
    • Moneywort Lysimachia nummularia: Creeping Jenny
    • Thyme: Thymus serpyllum 'magic', Mother of thyme: T. praecox articus; Wooly thyme: T. lanugenosis
    • Wormwood Artemesia