A lush green lawn is something to take pride in. It can improve the look of your home and actually increase its value. Of course, a nice lawn can be a lot of work. There are some types of grass, however, that require very little maintenance and Centipede Grass is one of those types. But how hardy is it when it comes to not getting proper watering?
Is centipede grass drought tolerant? Yes, centipede grass is drought tolerant compared to many other types of grass but that doesn’t mean that it can go without water. Centipede grass can sustain longer between watering, but the moisture is needed for it to thrive. There is a big difference between drought tolerant and drought resistant.
Centipede grass is a type of grass used primarily in the southern part of the US due to its low maintenance nature. One of the biggest issues that can come with centipede grass is where low maintenance and no maintenance get confused. Centipede grass will require some maintenance, including watering, just not as much as some other types like Kentucky bluegrass.
Drought Tolerant Vs Drought Resistant
Some may use the terms tolerant and resistant like they mean the same thing when they are actually two very different terms.
Drought tolerant means a plant that can survive and grow with less water than most other plants, but it still requires regular watering. It can just go longer between waterings. Plants like Lavender or Thyme are drought tolerant.
Drought resistant plants can thrive in minimal water situations and go a much longer time between waterings, once it has had a chance to get established. A cactus is considered drought resistant.
Centipede Grass is drought tolerant but it certainly would not withstand desert-like dryness.
One important thing to note, however, is that centipede has a lot of shallow roots. It is not good for the grass to let these dry out so it is ideal to maintain some level of soil moisture within the top couple of inches of dirt.
It is this shallow root system that causes many to claim that centipede grass is not drought tolerant. But I have had centipede grass in various yards for the past 15 years and despite the long, hot, and often dry summers that we encounter in Southeast Texas, I have rarely had issues with my grass dying except in locations where the soil directly below it was poor.
And that’s a key distinction when determining how well centipede grass will handle dry spells. The quality of the soil below it will have a direct and noticeable impact on the health and drought tolerance of centipede grass.
What is Low Maintenance Grass?
Low maintenance grass is a type of grass that requires very little work in the ways of upkeep. Centipede Grass is one of these types in that it is a slow-growing, low-growing grass, so it does not need to be cut as often to maintain its manicured appearance. This also means that due to its slow-growing nature it does not need as much water as other types of grass.
Again, common sense must play into the equation. If the soil below the grass is so dry that it is absent of moisture, then no grass is going to thrive.
Encourage Deeper Root Growth For Increased Drought Tolerance
As explained in this report from the Texas A&M University Agriculture Extension, watering frequently in mild amounts actually promotes shallow root growth of Centipede grass. By using a low maintenance approach to Centipede Grass, you can ensure that it can handle dry spells.
The following is needed to help grow the longer roots needed for drought-tolerance:
- Going longer between watering.
- Soak the ground to around four to six inches down.
- Fertilize lightly during the growing season.
- Try to avoid frequent watering. If it rained recently, let nature do what it does best without interference.
If treated as a high maintenance grass, Centipede Grass will start to act like one. This is because it won’t grow the deeper roots needed to survive infrequent watering. It will only grow shallow roots that will need more frequent watering and can be more easily damaged. Just mowing it with a riding lawn mower could potentially damage it if the roots are not deep enough.
You can help your centipede grass to be more drought tolerant by using proper watering practices.
If fertilized too much or watered too often, it will start to grow faster, which will then require more frequent mowing which will lead to a sort of burn out in your lawn. In a few years, you will begin to get brown patches in your lawn, and that will require even more work to get rid of. It is best to help it grow the longer roots from the beginning to prevent the issues that can occur later.
By allowing nature to do most of the watering and only assisting when it looks like your lawn is starting to dry out too much, you can help it learn to grow the deeper roots needed to gain access to deeper water and be able to sustain itself a bit better.
Again, the type of soil you have will be a major contributing factor in how drought-tolerant your centipede grass is. So, while these guidelines are useful, consider the soil underneath, not just the grass.
Let’s dig into this a little deeper.
The Impact Of Soil Type On Drought Tolerance
I want to share my own experience with the influence that soil has on the drought tolerance of centipede grass. As I’m writing this, I have hearty, lush green centipede growing in some areas of my yard while several patches are dying from lack of water.
What’s important to note is that I have not done any manual watering in the past month. They have received the same amount of rainfall, are just a few feet from each other, yet are handling the dry spell remarkably different.
Here’s what the healthy grass looks like right now:
As you can see, the grass is thick, bright green, and showing no signs of distress from lack of watering. Compare that to this picture taken just a moment later a few feet away:
So what’s going on here? Why is one area thriving while the other is dying? It’s the same type of grass growing in the same yard.
The difference in drought tolerance is not so much the grass as it is the soil underneath.
I have red clay soil that this grass was grown on. Clay is excellent at maintaining moisture to a certain point but when it dries out, it cracks like concrete and gets very hard and dense. As a result, grassroots can be strangled by the compact soil.
I have done a few things differently in the area that is healthy. I have been incorporating organic material into the clay soil for the last couple of years. I’ve done this through a variety of approaches including:
- Dig and drop composting,
- Aerating regularly
- Drilling holes and filling them with kitchen scraps, and most recently
- A 5 step approach to improving clay soil that incorporates established best practices and my own modifications to maximize the texture, quality, and drainage of the soil.
This, above all else, has made the biggest difference in the drought tolerance of the two areas. Centipede grass offers a certain level of drought tolerance but the quality of the soil beneath it is what allows it to survive through dry spells.
This is the only difference between these two areas. They receive the same amount of sunlight, rainfall, everything.
I can put my fingers down into the soil and tell an immediate difference in the texture of the two areas. The soil under the dying grass is very dry and hard, almost like concrete. I can push my finger a couple of inches into the soil of the healthy grass.
Review the 5 step approach if you have clay soil under your centipede lawn.
Thatch And It’s Impact On Drought Tolerance
One of the major issues that homeowners ask about with centipede grass is the need for dethatching. This is where the dead plant material (roots, blades, etc) will bunch up between the blades and the roots. This can cut the roots off from water and prevent insecticides from being able to reach the soil.
You can usually rent gas-powered dethatchers locally or buy an electric one online. Amazon carries the Sun Joe 12 amp electric dethatcher (click here to read reviews of this dethatcher). Regardless of where you get the tool, a dethatcher can make a positive improvement.
But you don’t want to dethatch too frequently as Centipede does not tolerate it well when repeated often (source). I’ve actually found that aerating is an effective alternative. It pulls up some of the thatch but it also helps to open up the soil and allows it to breathe, giving the roots of your grass a better chance of extending deeper into the soil as it loses compaction.
It’s also important to remember that some thatch may actually be helpful in drought tolerance of centipede because it can help to hold in moisture. In addition, as it breaks down (and it will eventually break down) it will add more nutrients to the soil, limiting the need for fertilizers. This is just nature’s way of recycling old plant material. So long as the blanket of thatch is not so thick that it is inhibiting the growth of your grass, a better solution is likely to aerate the soil.
If the thatch in your yard in less than ¼ inch thick them just breaking it up a bit would be fine. Core aeration can help to remove thicker thatch, but that doesn’t mean it will go to waste. You can put it into a compost pile that can then be used to fertilize your lawn next year. Recycling at its best is when you can take something that is impeding your grass growth and use it to feed it later.
One recommendation I often see for preventing excess thatch buildup is the use of a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer rather than a rapid release one. I’ve not tested this myself but lawn care nuts swear by the Milorganite brand of this type of fertilizer.
Spring is generally the best time to dethatch (see our Centipede Grass Care By Season guide) as it will facilitate the emergence of fresh grass blades.
Grass Clippings Can Help With Soil Moisture
There is a common misconception that grass clippings from mowing contribute to thatch buildup.
The truth is, grass clippings break down and help keep the existing grass healthier, as long as the clippings are not covering the blades of the grass. Sure, a blanket of grass clippings with block out light and cause grass to start dying but small pieces of grass clippings from a mulching blade can be an excellent nitrogen source for your lawn.
So, don’t worry that grass clippings will cause thatch. The only real concern with grass clippings is they can potentially prevent the grass from getting enough light. But if you mulch the clippings so that they are small they can actually help hold in moisture in the soil, just like the thatch.
How drought-tolerant centipede grass is will depend just as much on the type of soil that it grows on as the grass itself. Remember that It has a tendency for shallow rooting so some level of moisture is helpful to prevent it from drying out. That said, centipede can handle dry spells and continue to thrive if it is grown in nutrient-rich, moisture-retaining soil that does not compact and strangle its roots.
Proper watering practices can also help your centipede grass to remain healthy during dry spells. Less frequent, thorough soakings of the soil will encourage deeper root growth, allowing the grass to sustain better when the soil surface is dry.
I know there are “experts” who claim that centipede grass does not handle droughts well but I have owned homes with centipede grass lawns for years and have seen firsthand how hearty this grass can be when given the right soil to grow in.
I recommend using a product like Drought Defense to help retain moisture in the top layer of soil if your grass is showing signs of distress from drought.