A lush, green lawn is as American as baseball and complaining about the IRS. It tells the world that you have a solid work ethic and the skills to maintain an orderly home. Only a few people really like putting in a lot of time on lawn maintenance, however, so the real trick is being able to maintain your lawn without wasting a precious weekend. But if you have soil that is on the sandy side, how do you find the best grass for sandy soil?
The first step is getting the right seed, which starts with knowing something about your soil. While loam is ideal for growing almost everything, sandy soils, however, can pose real challenges. Because it is comprised of grit from finely-crushed rock and contains very little organic matter, water and nutrients will run right through it.
Your choices are further compounded by the fact that there are no one-size-fits-all seeds for sandy yards. Climate will have much to do with what kinds of grasses thrive where you live. If you live in the south, you’ll want a warm weather grass, which can tolerate long stretches of hot weather but tend to go dormant during winter. If you live in the north, especially the northern part of the Great Lakes, you’ll want a cool weather grass, which can survive in the cold, but turn brown during summer dry spells.
If you live in the southern United States, the choice is also between grasses that do better in the acidic soils of the eastern states versus the more alkaline soil of the western ones. Of course, before investing money, you’ll want to get your soil tested.
The best overall grasses for sandy soil are those that fill in a yard with vibrant green and take only a minimal amount of time to upkeep. They are grasses that allow homeowners to spend less time sweating so they can spend more time enjoying their yards. As a side note, if you are thinking of skipping real grass altogether and going with artificial grass you should check out our list of the best artificial grasses.
The best overall grass for sandy soil is Zoysia, which originated in Asia and was brought to the United States in the late 1800s. It looks good, is low maintenance, can adapt best to different climates, and is very efficient when resources are scant.
You can grow it in a variety of locations. Among warm weather grasses, it is among the most tolerant of cold. It also grows well in partial sun but of course, thrives in total sun. It also doesn’t demand much water.
Lawn maintenance can eat up both time and money, so a grass that cuts both considerably will necessarily rank very highly. Keep it adequately mown, and that’s really about it. Zoysia’s roots grow thick and deep, which helps keep it flush with water and nutrients.
It can also take a beating from heavy foot traffic. Insects don’t like it, and its root structure keeps weeds out. If you put this in and it gets established, it will be the king of the mountain.
Zoysia also does well in another important area. When it gets cool and the grass gets ready to go into its seasonal slumber, zoysia will stay green a little longer than other grasses and come out a little earlier.
There are a couple of things worth keeping in mind, however. Lots of homeowners pride a deep-green grass for their lawn. Zoysia is light-to-medium green.
A common complaint about warm weather grasses that do well in sandy soil is that they also take a lot of time to get established. That applies to zoysia. People with lawns of this grass can either expect to wait or pay for plugs.
Runner-up–Creeping red fescue
Creeping red fescue isn’t really a runner-up to zoysia in terms of quality. It’s the runner-up because it is the best option for people who need a cool weather grass that grows well in sandy soil. For those people, it’s really a choice between different fescues and creeping red, a variant of the family of fine fescues, is really the best.
What sets it apart from other fescues is that while its cousins grow in bunches, creeping red fescue — as its name implies — creeps along underground. It sends out rhizomes, shoots that spread underground, which establish complex root structures and send their fine, slender blades up.
It is easy to start, doesn’t require a lot of watering or fertilizer, spreads quickly, and tolerates a lot of different growing conditions. It also grows well in partial shade. One advantage is that it doesn’t require a lot of mowing, so if it gets established your lawn is largely hands-off.
The roots give it two advantages. The first is that they help crowd out weeds, further reducing maintenance. They also make it better equipped to handle the dry, hot height of summer. Like all cool weather grasses, it will turn brown and go dormant if it doesn’t receive water. Creeping red fescue will bounce back more quickly when it does, however.
One disadvantage to fescues, in general, is that they are easy to tear up in high-traffic areas. They do well when it comes to appearance, but not so well if teens use a lawn to play football. The lower, finer blades of fine fescues like the creeping red are more tolerant than its cousins when it comes to foot traffic.
A warm weather grass brought to the United States from South America for use in pastures and public works projects, Bahai is a relatively new entrant into the home lawn arena. Since homeowners have clued into it, it’s rapidly becoming a popular choice.
While it does very well in sandy soil, it can also grow just about anywhere. It handles some shade, and if you find the right variety has some tolerance for cooler weather.
Among these grasses, it is also the fastest at establishing itself. It sprouts from seed quickly and spreads readily. For homeowners who don’t want to wait a few years for a lawn to establish itself and lack the money for plugs, Bahai is an excellent choice.
There is also no reason secret for why it thrives in sandy soil. It grows a network of roots that can go up to 20-feet deep into the soil to retrieve water and nutrients. Close to the surface, it has a compact network of roots that can capture water and nutrients before they can fall deeper to where other plants have their roots.
Because of that, it also crowds out weeds. Insects do little damage to it and it is resistant to disease.
While it is a low maintenance grass, it does require some feeding. Too little nutrients can cause it to discolor. This is most noticeable later in its active season, but before the grass starts to go dormant.
It also doesn’t quite measure up when it comes to the intangibles. People grow lawns because they look nice and are pleasant to walk on. Bahai wasn’t brought to the United States for lawns, but for practical purposes. So, it’s not the most comfortable grass to walk on. Also, while it can withstand the odd few cattle walking across it, sustained foot traffic can damage it.
Named for the slow, winding way to crawls across your yard, centipede grass was brought to the United States from Asia. For people living in the southeastern States, it is a great option especially for homes with sandy yards.
It is among the lowest-maintenance grasses used for lawns. It grows slowly and grows low to the ground. That cuts down on the amount of mowing required. Its roots are also established by underground runners. The result is a compact root mass that creates a dense mat of blades above ground.
That naturally helps this grass maximize the water and nutrients it takes in. That makes it ideal for sandy soil, but it can grow in a variety of soils. It also keeps it largely free of weeds.
When people say this is a low-maintenance grass, that isn’t to be undersold. It is possible to overfertilize centipede grass. If that happens, your only options are to replace the discolored grass. It can only tolerate a narrow range of conditions, mostly in the hottest summer temperatures. If it gets outside of that geography, it doesn’t do well.
It is also not as durable as some other grasses. Heavy foot traffic can tear it up, and because it moves so slowly it takes it a long time to recover.
How to pick the grass for your lawn
Starting your search for the right grass begins with your local geography because that will immediately establish whether you want a warm season grass or a cold season grass. Warm season grasses will have the most appeal, simply because there are more people who live in the sandy soil zone of the southern states than do in the sandy soil zones of the northern ones.
People who live where it is warm most of the year should get their soil tested when considering which grass to buy because some grasses prefer a more acidic environment and some prefer more alkaline soil. In general, the higher rainfall of the southeast leaches alkaline soil elements out of sandy soil quickly, leaving it a little more acidic.
Zoysia, Bahai, and centipede grass both do well in the acidic soils of the southeastern states, making them attractive options for people who live there. There are other grasses that do well in these conditions, too.
The drier conditions of the southwest leave the soil more alkaline. There aren’t a lot of options available, because an arid, alkaline environment doesn’t in general produce a great lawn. As a general option, an alkali grass would suffice.
In the north, the only real option is fescue. There are several kinds of fescues to choose from, each with their own advantages. Creeping red does well in cool weather conditions, is one of the most drought-tolerant of all fescues, and is a low-maintenance grass.
Soil isn’t uniform across regions, of course, and there are sandy patches in transition zones between north and south. While cool weather grasses might work in these places, especially at higher altitudes, zoysia is the best-performing of the warm weather grasses.
This will give you a good starting place to start considering which grass is right. A good next step is figuring out which grass is easiest to get started. With plugs and sod available as options, that doesn’t necessarily mean starting straight from seed.
Bahai isn’t one of those grasses. It germinates easily and grows quickly. That makes it especially popular for people who want fast results.
One of the few things the negative qualities of zoysia is that it is hard to get going from seed. Starting with plugs is recommended as a way around that. Once the plugs are in, however, zoysia should take root very quickly.
Centipede spreads slowly, sending runners out underground to create a community of blades and roots. While these are good for maintenance, it will take extra time for these grasses to get going. Centipede also doesn’t tolerate any salt.
Something else that plays into this is other growing conditions. Most grasses, especially warm weather grasses, prefer full sunlight. Fescues, on the other hand, are just as happy with a bit of shade as they are in full sun. Bahia and zoysia tolerate partial shade well; centipede not so much. Very few grasses tolerate full shade.
Consider how easy it is to establish a lawn the way you’d consider the upfront cost for any major investment. The real decision is driven by the amount of time and money it takes to maintain it. A lawn that is easy to put in but requires lots of hours and a firehose of money for upkeep is just a bad investment. It might look great, but you wind up miserable.
2. Getting going
The ideal soil for growing anything is loam, which is a mix of crushed inorganic rock and organic matter. It’s ideal because it can capture and keep moisture and nutrients, while the rock creates space for roots to spread. When you grab a handful of loam and squeeze it, it will hold its shape until you touch it. Then it loses its form.
Clay, the other basic soil type, holds its form when squeezed into a ball. There is lots of fine organic matter to hold moisture and nutrients, but little space for roots to wiggle through. It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from sand.
Sandy soil is comprised of comparatively large bits of grit. If you squeeze it, it holds no form. There is lots of room for roots to grow, but very little organic matter for nutrients and water runs right through it.
The most successful grasses overcome this with root systems that go deep and create thick networks just under the soil. That ensures that what is an interconnected plant system captures as much water and nutrients as possible as they fall through the soil. This is a common quality of all these grasses, and their ability to do this is, aside from geographic considerations, is how they were ranked.
Thanks to these root systems, lawns grown from these grasses are difficult places for weeds to take hold. They might sprout, but sandy soils are already inhospitable enough for most plants without also have to compete with a tightly-knit, deep-rooted plant structure.
Among the cool weather grasses, creeping red fescue excels. Because it grows via rhizomes, rather than in clumps like other fescues, it is more tolerant of droughts. When water is scant, it will certainly turn brown and go dormant, but it will be fast to bounce back with the rain.
This is where zoysia really shines. It creates a root system that can reach as deep as two feet. Nothing gets past it. Where there is regular rain, there may be no need to further water a lawn of this grass. That also makes it perfect to prevent run-off from a lawn into a road or ditch. It will also bounce back easily from a drought.
One thing about zoysia is that the same thing that makes it such a low-input grass makes it harder on your lawnmower. It’s thick, tough blades are great for withstanding heat and periods of no-rain, but if your mower blades are dull, you’ll whip the grass rather than cut it. You’ll want to keep it pretty well mown, too.
Centipede and Bahai grass also form solid, complex root systems, and both are also good.
Bahai grows well in low-nutrient conditions and in a variety of soils. They tolerate partial shade conditions well. They can also withstand insects and diseases well, but they are also easily damaged by herbicides.
Centipede, in particular, has a rugged underground root network, which helps it repair damage and crowd out competitors. Like Zoysia, it is a low-maintenance grass that as long as it rains semi-frequently you might not have to do anything to keep it up.
Lawns are meant to be enjoyed and not just something that requires work. So, it also comes down to the question of when you’ve put in the time, work, and money growing the grass, how will it look.
Cool weather and warm weather grasses are on different annual cycles. Cool weather grasses, of course, grow well during the autumn, winter, and spring. During the heights of dry, hot summers, they go into dormancy.
One great thing about the creeping red fescue is that its underground root structure allows it to bounce back quickly after the hottest part of the summer. Just a little rain and it will get green again.
Warm weather grasses are on the opposite cycle. They stay green during the hottest parts of the summer but turn brown during cooler weather.
One advantage Zoysia has is that it’ll stay green longer than most other warm weather grasses, and turn green earlier during the growing season. It is also relatively pleasant to walk across and is tolerant of heavy foot traffic.
Bahai grass might turn yellow, but it has nothing to do with moisture. Lack of nutrients can cause the grass to start turning yellow in the fall before it would normally go into winter dormancy. It’s also worth mentioning that this kind of grass is only new to lawns. For decades, it was used in livestock pastures and for public works. Its coarse blades are not much fun to walk on.
Too much iron can cause discoloration in centipede grass. The primary cause of this is overfertilization. If this happens, you’re only recourse is to replace the grass in question. It is also not intended for heavy foot traffic and pets and small children can tear it up easily.
Here, again, the creeping red fescues rhizome-based roots sets it apart from other cool weather grasses. Other fescues grow in clumps, without interconnecting root structures. This allows it to bounce back faster in favorable weather and makes it a bit tougher to rip apart if children or dogs run around on it.