Fescue Grass Guide

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If you live in the transition zone where warm-season and cool-season lawn grasses grow, you may be familiar with fescue. Native to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, Festuca species are cool-season grasses that were introduced to America in the early 1800s.

They are popular as lawn turf due to their reliable drought tolerance, heat resistance, shade tolerance, and attractive medium-fine texture and dark green color.

Get to Know Fescue

As a cool-season grass, it grows best when daytime temperatures are between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It is well adapted to the hot summers and cold winters in the lower midwest and upper south of the United States. Throughout its range, it grows most abundantly in spring and fall, with a slowdown in the hottest part of summer and the coldest part of winter. It is mostly evergreen, unless severe heat and drought cause it to enter dormancy.

Although it can grow in a wide range of soil types, it grows best in clay soils that are high in organic matter with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5. During the growing season, it needs about an inch of water weekly.

Unlike true turf-type grasses that spread via rhizomes or stolons, most fescue types are bunching grass. New plants grow from seeds, and if damaged, the lawn has a limited capacity to self-heal. It must be reseeded or replanted as sod.

Turf-type fescue seed blends often include several different varieties that help improve the lawn’s overall durability. Where it overlaps with other cool-season grasses, fescue seed is often used in shady lawn seed blends to improve the performance of Kentucky bluegrass or perennial ryegrass in tough areas. It is also applied as an overseed to rejuvenate thinning lawns.

Varieties

Tall Fescue

Early versions of this tall variety were known for broad blades, tall foliage, and a yellow-green color. The turf-type seed blends used for lawns and other traditional turfgrass applications grow blades with a finer texture than those older cultivars, although not as finely textured as fine fescue types. It is used extensively for sowing lawns, athletic fields, business parks, and other places where dense, traffic resistant grass is needed.

Tall fescue lawns have better shade tolerance than most other cool-season grasses, like Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. It grows well in the warmer parts of the transition zone, where other cool-season grasses fail, and in the cooler areas where warm-season grasses won’t grow.

Hard Fescue

This variety is one of the best at dealing with adverse conditions. It exhibits better shade tolerance than other varieties and grows well even on poor soils with low fertility. Hard fescue is best for colder climates in the north or at higher elevations. It’s also salt tolerant.

An attractive blue-green color and slow growth habit set this species apart. It rarely needs to be mowed. Unmowed, it forms a clumping pattern and reaches a height of four to six inches. It is an excellent choice for slopes, conservation areas, and out of the way spots that are difficult to reach.

Creeping Red Fescue

This variety exhibits very fine blades with a deep green color and spreads by underground rhizomes. It is more shade tolerant than most other varieties. Creeping red is often used in seed blends with other varieties or bluegrass to add shade tolerance. It also has low nutrient and moisture requirements.

Chewings Fescue

This variety has very fine foliage, similar to the other fine fescues, and an upright growth habit like tall fescue. It is often used in seed blends with perennial ryegrass to boost shade tolerance. Chewings is well adapted to infertile, acidic, and sandy soils. It grows well in Canada and the northern United States, the Pacific Northwest, coastal Northeast, and other cool summer areas.

Chewings blends well with other grasses and exhibits good drought and shade tolerance. It also tolerates mowing at just 1.5 inches, which is much lower than other fescues. It is a good choice for overseeding into other lawns.

Sheep fescue

Sheep fescue is a bunching grass often used for erosion control and other soil conservation projects or drought-tolerant lawns. It is a cool-season variety with densely tufted blue-green foliage that grows to 16 inches tall.

Planting and Care

The best time to plant a new fescue lawn is in late summer or fall, six to eight weeks before the first frost date in your area. As a cool-season grass, it is best to give it two full cool seasons, fall and spring, to grow a deep root system before the heat stress of summer. Start with a soil test to determine the existing pH and nutrient levels in your soil. Soil tests through the Cooperative Extension Service typically take about six weeks. Follow the fertilization recommendations in the test results.

In the meantime, kill off the existing weeds and other vegetation in the lawn area. Use a non-selective herbicide, or rototill the area several times at two week intervals. Apply lime and fertilizer within the last week before seeding or laying sod.

Choose a seed or sod variety that is adapted to the sunlight conditions in your yard. Most sod growers use a sun and shade seed blend that tolerates full sun to a minimum of six hours of sunlight. For shady lawns, choose a shade-tolerant seed blend.

Spread seed at a rate of 5 to 10 pounds per thousand square feet. Spread a thin layer of straw mulch and water the area well, but not to the point of runoff. For the first two weeks, water lightly once or twice daily to keep the soil surface moist. After the seeds germinate, decrease watering frequency to three times per week, and increase the amount of water to one-third of an inch each time. If it rains, skip watering.

Lay sod parallel to the contour of the main slope, or parallel to the curb if the yard is flat. Stagger the seams in alternating rows like bricks in a wall to eliminate washouts. On the day of installation, water deeply to saturate the root zone. Water one-third of an inch daily for the next two weeks, unless it rains. After two weeks, decrease watering to one-third of an inch, three times per week.

Mowing

The recommended mowing height for fescue lawns is 2 to 3 inches. In periods of excessive heat or drought, mow a notch higher. Mow slightly lower ahead of overseeding to ensure good soil contact for the seeds and adequate sunlight exposure for the new seedlings. There is no need to bag the clippings unless the lawn has grown excessively between cuttings.

Watering

Fescue lawns need 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week during the growing season to look their best. The key to establishing deep roots and drought tolerance is watering deeply, but infrequently. After the early installation phase, water twice or three times per week if rainfall is not sufficient.

Control Weeds and Pests

Use caution with weed killers to minimize damage to the grass. Weed preventer also disrupts  seed germination. Pre-emergent applied in spring or fall helps to exclude annual weeds, but should be applied only if overseeding is not planned for the season. Post-emergent weed killers that are approved for use on fescue should be applied only when the grass is actively growing. Avoid spraying in hot, dry weather or when the temperatures are too cold for the chemical to work properly.

Some of the common turfgrass insect and disease pests occasionally affect fescue, but these problems are mostly avoidable. Test the soil annually to ensure the proper pH and fertilizer needs are being met for a healthy growing environment, and follow best practices for mowing and irrigation. If you suspect disease or insect damage, look for clues to indicate which may be the case.

Lawn fungus typically appears as an irregular brown patch in the grass. In hot, humid weather, these patches may grow and merge within days. Look closely at the individual blades and you may notice pale “bleached” spots with dark edges. Treat with a lawn fungicide.

Chinch bugs may become problematic in hot, dry conditions. These tiny black bugs feed at the soil line in warm, dry conditions. They may kill one section of the yard and move in a progression across the lawn. Look for the bugs feeding and moving around at the transition line between damaged and undamaged grass. If you find them, apply a lawn insecticide.

Fescue grass makes an attractive, durable lawn for cool-climate areas. In the upper south, it is the best lawn for lush, green winter coverage. Throughout its range, it is the top lawn grass pick for shady areas. Tolerance of heavy foot traffic, drought, and a wide range of soil conditions make fescue one of the easiest grasses to grow. With proper care, your lawn will be the envy of the neighborhood.

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About the author: Mark Wolfe is a lawn care expert and arborist with more than 20 years experience in the landscaping and nursery sector.

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