Everything About Fescue Grass
Fescue grass is a favorite choice of lawn grass for homeowners in the northern parts of the United States.
However, fescue is flexible enough to suit any area that receives warm as well as cool seasons.
Published: October 21, 2022.
What is Fescue Grass?
Fescue is a cool-season perennial grass belonging to the family Poaceae and genus Festuca with excellent tolerance against heat, cold, and drought. It has originated in a vast area including the Himalayas, North Africa, China, and Europe.
Its growth pattern is bunch-forming that hardly needs dethatching. It develops a deep root system that is capable of absorbing nutrients from a vast perimeter of soil and so, it typically needs less fertilizer than other cool-season lawn grasses. These factors make fescue a low-maintenance grass and a preferred choice of gardeners.
Fescue has always been popularly referred to as ‘shade grass’.
However, the genus ‘Festuca’ to which it belongs contains more than 300 different species that have many outstanding qualities besides shade tolerance like very little to no winter maintenance, excellent tolerance against heavy wear and tear, and no need for extensive dethatching.
Moreover, research has developed even better fescues with heat and drought tolerance, disease tolerance, and even insect resistance. These improved cultivars are able to offer lawns as beautiful looks as any other kind of grass with added benefits of low input requirements, shade tolerance, and an ability to survive further south better than its other cool-season counterparts.
The US plant hardiness zones suited for fescue grasses are from 3 to 8.
Types of Fescue Grass
There are more than 300 different types of fescues. They have different uses from forage grass to lawn grass.
Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
Turf-type tall fescue (TTT fescue) grass is popular lawn grass. Its leaf blades are wider than that of fine fescue. Its improved cultivars grow and look like other popular lawn grasses, but have added benefit of being heat and drought tolerant.
TTT fescue is grown in high-traffic areas such as commercial sites and baseball fields since it’s sturdy and shade tolerant. It’s also used in seed mixes where a slow-growing, drought-resistant, and shade-loving lawn is required.
Tall fescue turfs are known to need mowing only once a month and need much less water and nutrients than traditional turf grasses like perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass.
Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca)
Blue fescue is an ornamental colorful grass with icy blue blades and pale yellow flowers. It grows up to 12 inches in height and is different from the tall fescues that are typically used for lawns.
It has excellent drought tolerance and it performs well in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 8. With its fine texture and easy maintenance needs, it’s popular among gardeners.
Fine fescue is distinguishable with its fine narrow blades. It further includes sub-types like sheep fescue, chewings fescue, hard fescue, and creeping red fescue.
Shade grass mixes usually contain a blend of many fine fescue species.
However, they are also able to thrive in hot, sunny locations. Fine fescue varieties can serve as a standard, frequently mown lawn, but they also look great when left un-mown to create a dune-type effect.
Sheep Fescue (Festuca ovina)
Sheep fescue grass is mainly used to inhibit erosion. It also improves soil conditions.
Chewings Fescue (Festuca rubra commutata)
Chewings fescue has a similarity with tall fescue which is its upright growth. But it also has thin leaves. It’s drought-resistant and performs well in the northern USA and Canada.
Hard fescue is a part of grass seed mixes to reduce the need for mowing and increase fertility. Hard fescue is most commonly used on golf course roughs.
Creeping Red Fescue (Festuca rubra)
Creeping red fescue is known for its deep green color and fine blades. It’s often added to other grass seeds to reduce fertilization requirements and improve shade tolerance.
Benefits of Fescue Grasses
Fescues have an ability to thrive even in poor soil conditions (sandy, clay, or rocky), fine leaf texture, moderately quick germination rate (however, slow to fully establish), low nitrogen requirements, and high leaf density.
Fescues go dormant with continuous excessive heat without enough irrigation. However, it recovers when rains and cooler temperatures return.
Fine fescues secrete an amino acid named meta-tyrosine through their roots into the soil. This amino acid acts as a natural herbicide. When competing plants like a broadleaf weed and crabgrass seedlings absorb this amino acid, they die off or suffer stunted growth, and fescue gets an opportunity to overcrowd the weeds.
Slender creeping red fescue is famous for its salt tolerance and is a perfect roadside grass.
Blue fescue and sheep fescue are perfect for naturalized, unmown settings. Blue fescues are used typically as a stand-alone landscape feature.
Symbiosis with Endophytes
Fescues are one of the rare lawn grasses that can host endophytes – a kind of fungus that lives symbiotically with the plant. The endophytes don’t harm the grass. On the contrary, they are beneficial for the health of the lawn.
They help the grass better withstand stresses like heat and drought, and provide better resistance against insects and mammals.
Sometimes endophytes are naturally present. But grass seed can even be inoculated after harvesting as a natural way to provide another level of defense against pests, diseases, and other stressors.
Endophyte-inoculated seed should be stored in a cool, dry place, or else the benefits will be lessened. Therefore it’s important to order such seed from a reputable supplier that can provide fresh stock.
When to Plant?
Fescues should ideally be planted when the soil temperatures range from 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This usually occurs when daytime temperatures range from 60 to 75 degrees. If planted properly, fescue starts germinating within 10 to 14 days.
Seeding can be done in fall or spring. For fall seeding, the grower should wait until the soil cools to the desired temperature, while for spring seeding they should wait until the soil warms. By planting during these seasons, the gardener can also take benefit of fall and spring rains which means less watering and less labor for the grower.
Fescue can be planted even in summer. However, irrigation should be carefully provided for its survival.
How to Plant?
Choosing the Seed
Seeds to be planted should be of high quality and should be bought from a reputable supplier.
Planting rates vary among different grass types. Thus for tall fescue, it should be 8 to 10 lbs. per 1,000 sq. feet, whereas for other varieties it requires 4 to 6 lbs. per 1,000 sq. feet as they have smaller seeds.
Preparation of Soil
The gardener should first test the soil to check if it’s acidic or alkaline. They can do so with a DIY pH checking kit. Fescue prefers acidic soil with a pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.0.
If the soil test shows that the soil is excessively acidic (pH 6 or below), the gardener should add lime to bring it to the ideal pH level. If it’s found to be too alkaline (pH 7 or more), they should add granular gypsum to the soil.
However, the gardener should note that lime, as well as gypsum, takes 2-3 months to start working well.
Therefore the application can be repeated until the required level of pH is attained. Hence the application should be scheduled appropriately before planting seeds.
If the land is uneven, the gardener will have to till it well. Tilling the ground will also help in better root growth and water absorption.
The gardener also should rectify any grading issues because they could cause complications in mowing or send water towards the gardener’s home instead of away.
A gentle grade of around 1 foot per 50 feet is good for proper drainage, i.e. neither too fast nor too slow. But if the land has steep grades, the gardener should consider taking professional help to prevent erosion and potential mowing issues.
Gardeners living in the south should use fire ant killers to prevent destructive fire ant mounds.
Once the gardener brings the soil condition to a satisfactory level, they should spread seeds evenly on the land.
Several growers cover the seeds after sowing to help retain moisture. One can choose to cover the seeds with peat moss or soft top soil of about ¼ inch thickness.
The gardener should water the seeds gently until they start sprouting. The top 1 inch of soil should remain moist. This may need several waterings per day. The gardener can reduce the frequency of watering as the grass begins to grow.
They should water deeper and less frequently until they reach their norm for an established lawn.
The gardener should avoid mowing for at least 4 weeks from the planting time. They should wait till the new fescue lawn grows around 4 ½ inches before mowing.
It’s also advisable to apply fertilizers only after 10 weeks of planting.
Once the fescue grass lawn is established, the grower should weekly water it up to 1 inch. They should make sure to wet the soil 4 inches deep.
It’s advisable to water in the morning as it enables the soil to absorb maximum moisture and also prevents the burning of grass.
As such, all fescues are not fussy about their nutrient needs. Still, if the grower adds fertilizers to the soil, it definitely helps the grass grow better and healthier.
Thus, the grower should apply 3 lbs. of a nitrogen-based fertilizer once or twice a year per 1,000 sq. feet.
Fertilizer application should be done during the fall and spring months and application in the warmer months should be avoided.
Aerating the lawn before fertilizer application is also a good idea.
The rule of never cutting more than 1/3rd of the grass blade applies to fescue too or it can stress out the grass.
Ideally, the fine fescue blade should be kept at around 2-3 inches of height. Mowing should be done every 2 weeks.
However, in the spring months when the lawn grows in full swing, it should be done once a week.
Overseeding the lawn is recommended for keeping one’s lawn healthy and dense all year round. It should be done ideally in the fall. Overseeding will also help fill any empty patches that develop over time.
For overseeding, the gardener should:
- First test the soil to check the pH level
- Mow the turf at about 1 ½ inch
- Remove the debris and other vegetation
- Spread the seed evenly over the whole area
- Water the soil right after sowing the seeds
- Keep watering every day until seeds start sprouting (in around 2 weeks)
- Slowly reduce watering to once a week after the grass begins growing
These steps will help the gardener achieve a lush, dense lawn in around 5-6 weeks.
Common Problems and Solutions
The fescue has a tendency to face problems like a weed and some diseases that are common in cool-season grasses. However, most of these problems resolve when the weather changes and when the gardener provides extra care.
Weed often thrives in summer as during this period fescue lawn becomes weak. To control weed, the gardener should apply pre-emergent weed control twice a year (possibly once in the spring) that will kill immature weeds before they get a chance to sprout.
However, this application should be avoided if the gardener plans to overseed the lawn.
If weed is already present in the lawn, the gardener will need to apply post-emergent weed control. They should make sure to get one that’s labeled particularly for tall fescue lawn.
After each weed control application, the gardener should water the lawn.
Fescue is commonly attacked by fungal diseases. They are typically caused by accumulated water in the roots in the summer months. Most of the time, the problem resolves when the weather changes.
However, unfortunately, fungal diseases cannot be easily identified in a fescue grass lawn. The best thing to do is to observe the grass carefully every couple of days for any abnormalities, like brown or damaged patches.
If such a patch is found to be expanding, the gardener should spray a fungicide specified for the fescue every 15 days until the disease fades away.
Insects that commonly live on fescue lawns are grasshoppers, beetles, worms, millipedes, and crickets. However, they don’t harm the lawn. Also, as the fescue grows very quickly, there is nothing to worry about.
However, some other insects may be problematic for the fescue lawn. The best solution for such insects is to apply an insecticide once a year, preferably in late July or early August.
Fescue is safe for one’s furry friends. However, dog waste is harmful to the lawn. In case of accidents, the gardener should water the area completely so the grass gets a chance to recover.
Growing a fescue grass lawn is rewarding as it gives the grower a lush, green, and dense lawn that’s durable and dependable and has several benefits for the environment.