Buffalo grass is undemanding and drought-tolerant.
Zoysia grass and buffalo grass have a lot in common.
Buffalo grass forms a naturalistic, not neat, lawn in low-traffic areas.
Weeds can take over a buffalo grass lawn when over-managed.
Not a fan of regularly mowing, irrigating, or fertilizing your lawn? Then low-maintenance and adaptable buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) could be a contender. If you’ve got the patience to get this grass type started and don’t necessarily need a super bright green lawn, you may have found the perfect match. This drought-tolerant species is also ideal for anyone looking to conserve water.
Learn more about buffalo grass and how to grow and care for this natural-looking North American native prairie grass.
What Is Buffalo Grass?
Buffalo grass is a warm-season grass that does well in hot, dry climates and typically grows from late May to early September. This means your lawn will be green for the summer before turning brown and going dormant when fall frosts arrive.
This prairie grass spreads via above-ground stems called stolons (also known as runners), forming dense gray-green mats. The spread of the grass is not as rapid as the likes of Bermuda, and buffalo grass is low-growing and finely textured.
What Does Buffalo Grass Look Like?
By now, you’re probably wondering what buffalo grass looks like. After all, if the look isn’t for you, it’s not worth planting it.
During growing seasons, buffalo grass primarily has a green color with hints of blue or bluish-gray. During the winter, when buffalo grass goes dormant, it turns a light brown color.
The stem can grow to a height of up to 12 inches if you choose not to mow. After blooming, the stem will have compact seed heads on top. The blades of the grass, which sprout from the stems, tend to curl over as they grow.
Because buffalo grass turns brown after the first frost and does not green up again until mid-spring, some people decide to go in a different direction with their yard’s foliage. However, some newer varieties of buffalo grass have a shorter dormancy period and achieve a deeper green color, which some people prefer.
Is Buffalo Grass Good for Lawns?
As with any grass, buffalo grass has its pros and cons. You’ll need to weigh whether it's right for your climate and conditions and if it has the right look for your landscape.
Doesn’t require frequent mowing, fertilization, or watering
Copes well in periods of high heat and drought
More cold-tolerant than many types of warm-season grass
Adaptable to poor soils
Not bothered by many insects or diseases
Weeds can be problematic, especially while establishing, when over-managed, and in areas of high rainfall
Short growing season (prepare for a long brown period)
Doesn’t produce a lush, neat green lawn color (more naturalistic)
Not tolerant of shady conditions
Needs good drainage
Can be tricky and slow to establish
Doesn’t cope well with high traffic
Not suited to areas with high humidity
Types of Buffalo Grass
There’s a wide selection of buffalo grass varieties available for you to choose. If you’re looking for seeded varieties that establish more easily into a dense lawn, you could try bison, bowie, or top gun. You’ll have an even easier time establishing vegetative types that form from sod or plugs.
Some good examples of the different varieties of buffalo grass include winter-hardy legacy, prestige, and turffalo. Avoid varieties designed for pastures and revegetation of wild areas; they grow longer and are less green than lawn-suitable types and might not compete with weeds very well.
How to Plant Buffalo Grass
Use 1 to 2 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet, planting them 1/4- to 1/2-inch deep. Keep the area moist and free from weeds to encourage successful germination and establishment.
Although the cost to lay sod made with buffalo grass seed may be a bit less wallet-friendly, using sod may help establish your lawn more quickly. You can also plant plugs of cold-hardy varieties to speed up the overall establishing time.
When to Plant Buffalo Grass
Planting buffalo grass seeds in late spring (after the rainy season so that the seeds aren’t overwatered) or early summer is best.
If you’re looking for a lawn that will sprout thick, lush, bright green grass within a month or two, buffalo grass is not for you. Despite a quick germination time of 15 to 21 days, in many cases, this type of grass can take a year or more to fully establish and become a true lawn. Keep this in mind when you begin to plant your seeds.
How to Grow Buffalo Grass
The key to good buffalo grass lawn care is to go easy on the maintenance. Over-management isn’t a friend of this native prairie grass, and it can result in competitive weeds becoming a problem. When in doubt, a professional lawn care company near you can help you strike the right balance with maintenance.
Typically, buffalo grass performs best in areas with full sun exposure. However, you can plant it in areas with as little as six hours of direct sunlight per day. Because buffalo grass is a drought-tolerant grass, the fact that it works well in full sunlight is no surprise.
Partial shade is OK, but the turf density will be thinner if the grass doesn’t get a lot of direct sunlight. A thin lawn probably isn’t what you’re going for, so avoid buffalo grass if your lawn has any major shady patches.
North American buffalo grass can tolerate climates with limited rainfall, hot summers, and cold winters. It can thrive in a variety of locations throughout North America.
Buffalo grass is native to America’s Great Plains area, which typically includes locations west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains in the north and Texas and New Mexico in the south. Central Canada also has native buffalo grass.
Buffalo grass is perfect for those who live in water conservation areas or who may not have time to water the lawn every day. Once established, this drought-tolerant grass can survive with no supplemental watering. In fact, overwatering promotes weeds.
However, in hot, dry summers, a deep soak every two weeks or so helps keep a dense cover and prevent early dormancy, color loss, and weed invasion.
Although a well-drained, loamy soil encourages the healthiest growth, buffalo grass can handle compacted clay and dry soils. However, when you’re planting, avoid sandy soils and those with poor drainage, which can lead to the development of plant fungi.
Buffalo Grass Fertilizer
When it comes to fertilizing your lawn, well, you might not need to do it at all. Buffalo grass doesn’t need a lot of additional feeding (if any), but one or two light, slow-release applications (one in late May or early June and one in mid-July) can help improve color and growth rates.
Avoid over-fertilization and using too much nitrogen to prevent weeds from taking control of your lawn. One pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet is usually more than enough.
Buffalo grass typically reaches heights of 4 to 12 inches. For a naturalistic, low-maintenance ground cover, you can get away with not mowing at all. Even if you want a slightly neater lawn with a height of just 3 to 4 inches, you won’t need to mow frequently.
If you do mow, however, make sure you’re not mowing too close to the ground, as this can make the grass more susceptible to drought and weeds.
Soil for buffalo grass does not need regular aerating, although you can aerate it, if desired. The Turfgrass and Landscape Research and Extension Department at Kansas State University recommends aerating buffalo grass when applying phosphorus or potassium to the soil. Because buffalo grass needs very little fertilizer, you may never need to aerate.
Typically, insects do not tend to cause damage to buffalo grass, meaning you likely won’t need to apply any insecticide to the lawn. In fact, buffalo grass often serves as a home to beneficial insects that control unwanted insects.
The Colorado State University Extension reports that chinch bugs occasionally cause minor damage in Nebraska to buffalo grass lawns, but reports of insect damage in other places, including Colorado, are extremely rare.
Once you establish your buffalo grass lawn, problems with weeds are typically minimal. However, because buffalo grass is not as thick and dense as some other hearty grasses, you may notice issues with weeds occasionally. Overwatering can encourage weed growth, as well.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension recommends using a spray weed killer on specific weeds only after the buffalo grass goes dormant with the first freeze and turns light brown. Do not spray weed killer if the buffalo grass is retaining any green color, as this could damage the grass for the rest of the season.
If you plan on using granular herbicides for weed prevention, avoid using them when the buffalo grass is just beginning to turn green in early spring. Additionally, only use a brand that clearly states that it’s safe for buffalo grass.
Carefully follow the instructions for the application and concentration of the herbicide to avoid damaging the buffalo grass, and don’t forget to wear safety equipment, like gloves, a face mask, and goggles, when applying any herbicide.
As a hearty, natural grass, buffalo grass simply doesn’t succumb to disease easily.
The University of Missouri Extension reports that disease may appear when you overwater buffalo grass, potentially leading to the introduction of fungus. Regardless of the fact that this is a rare occurrence, you should still take steps to prevent it from happening.
As always, do not overwater your buffalo grass, and if you do see signs of any fungus or disease attacking your grass, treat it immediately with the help of a local lawn treatment specialist.
Buffalo Grass Yearly Schedule
One of the advantages of buffalo grass is how little maintenance it requires. However, you can take a few actions throughout the year to keep it in the best shape possible.
Spring: The buffalo grass will begin to turn green in mid-spring. There is no care required during this period unless you had an extremely dry winter and early spring. You can start watering at this point to encourage the buffalo grass to green up faster. If desired, begin mowing every one to two weeks once the grass is actively growing. If you plan to allow the buffalo grass to grow without mowing all summer, a single cut in late spring will help to remove old growth and promote new growth.
Summer: If you want to apply crabgrass prevention granules, you can do this in early summer and late summer. If desired, you can apply fertilizer in both early and late summer, as well. Mow throughout the season to keep the buffalo grass at the desired height. Water as needed during dry periods to prevent the grass from going dormant and turning brown prematurely.
Fall: Continue treating the buffalo grass as you did during the summer throughout the fall until the first freeze. At this time, the buffalo grass should go dormant and turn brown. If you want to spray weed killer after the grass turns brown, this is the safest time to do it. You don’t need to water the lawn after it goes dormant.
Winter: Buffalo grass does not require any care during winter months after it goes dormant.
Buffalo Grass vs. Other Types of Grass
Buffalo grass tends to work well as a lawn grass in areas where people want to perform less maintenance and use less water than they would with other types of grass. Here are some tips for choosing the right grass for your lawn.
Buffalo grass versus Kentucky bluegrass: Kentucky bluegrass requires a more consistent water source than buffalo grass. Bluegrass will stay green longer in the late fall and will green up faster in early spring. Its density makes it softer to walk on than buffalo grass.
Buffalo grass versus Bermuda grass: Bermuda grass requires regular care, including fertilizing and mowing, while buffalo grass requires very little maintenance. Bermuda grass is far denser and feels softer underfoot than buffalo grass.
Buffalo grass versus fescue: Fescue is a popular choice because it can remain green most of the year, especially in areas with mild winters, while buffalo grass is brown for quite a few months. Fescue grass requires more maintenance than buffalo grass.
Buffalo grass versus Zoysia: These two grasses have a lot of similarities, as they are both hearty grasses that don’t need a lot of water. Both spend quite a few months in dormancy. Zoysia is denser than buffalo grass, but it grows more slowly. Buffalo grass is native to North America, but Zoysia is not.
Gemma Johnstone contributed to this piece.
Frequently Asked Questions
Because it’s native to the central United States and Canada and is drought-tolerant, it typically is not difficult to grow. It requires very little maintenance and minimal watering beyond rainfall. Its hardy nature and unique look make it a favorite choice among people living in the western United States and other dry regions of the country.
Buffalo grass spreads through both underground roots and above-ground stolons. The widespread root and stolon system makes up for this grass’s overall lack of density. It’s a hearty grass, so it spreads on its own slowly, especially considering that most of the male (no staminate) varieties of grass are sterile. You may think about over-maintaining your lawn to encourage growth, but this would have the opposite effect.
Buffalo grass is not a dense grass, so weeds can grow between the buffalo grass plants. However, as long as you don’t overwater your lawn, weeds have a hard time growing. If you do notice weeds, you can use granular herbicides that are safe for buffalo grass in early and late summer.
Buffalo grass does not turn green as early in the spring as some other grasses. If you have a heavily shaded yard, buffalo grass may not receive enough sunlight to thrive. It’s not as dense as some other grass varieties, so it may not feel as comfortable on bare feet.
Buffalo grass starts to turn brown when encountering drought during the normal growing season. You can water the grass when you begin to notice some browning to prevent it from going dormant. Additionally, buffalo grass turns brown after the first freeze of late autumn or early winter, and this is a natural time for the grass to go dormant.