Plants & Gardens Blog

Low & Slow Fescues

For years fescues languished as obscure players in the turfgrass pantheon, relegated to second-class status as components of shade-tolerant seed mixtures. These attractive, fine-textured grasses are finally coming into their own.

Today, fine fescues are being hailed for their low maintenance requirements. They grow slowly and if left uncut reach a mature height of only 8 to 12 inches. They don't like a lot of fertilizer, and thrive in dry, infertile soil. They tolerate not only partial shade but also drought. In fact, irrigation and fertilizer actually restrict their development. Fine fescues can withstand the cold of northerly climes and the heat of the upper South. They have fine, narrow leaves to boot.

The two main types of native fine fescues are red fescue (Festuca rubra) and sheep fescue (F. ovina). Many subspecies and cultivars of red fescue have been developed for use in turfgrass blends. A natural variety of sheep fescue commonly known as hard fescue, F. ovina var. duriuscula, is sometimes listed as F. longifolia. Hard fescue is described in some sources as native to open woods and stony slopes from North Dakota and Washington to Alaska; it apparently was introduced and naturalized eastward. It is also native to Europe. Many states have other indigenous fescues, although these have not been cultivated by nurseries or horticulturists and seed is not commercially available.

Left unmowed, the 'no-mow' mix of hard and creeping red fescues forms a soft carpet of grass for cooler, medium-rainfall areas of the Midwest and Northeast.

Left unmowed, the 'no-mow' mix of hard and creeping red fescues forms a soft carpet of grass for cooler, medium-rainfall areas of the Midwest and Northeast. (Photo: Neil Diboll, Prairie Nursery)

Both red and sheep fescues are bunchgrasses, meaning that each plant forms a small clump. Consequently, if you plant the pure species, you will need to sow thickly to get a dense cover (6 pounds per 1,000 square feet). The subspecies and cultivars of red fescue that have been developed for use in turfgrass mixtures send out runners and therefore form a sod. These include creeping red fescue (F. rubra subsp. trichophylla), spreading fescue (F.r. subsp. rubra), and chewings fescue (F.r. subsp. commutata). They do not need to be seeded as thickly, so use 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

The popular, small ornamental grass blue fescue is a cultivar of sheep fescue. You may see it labeled F. ovina 'Glauca' or F. cinerea. In fact, dozens of blue fescue cultivars have been developed, ranging in height from 5 to 15 inches, and most send up silvery green seed heads in early summer. These inflorescences turn beige and shatter by midsummer.

Growing Fine Fescues

Fine fescues are cool-season grasses that do best in the middle Atlantic region and farther north or in high-altitude regions of the middle to lower South. They prefer slightly acid soil (5.5 to 6.5 pH). They green up early in the spring and stay green longer in the fall than warm-season grasses do; they're even evergreen in some situations. They germinate rapidly (in five to twelve days), and seedlings establish quickly.

Prepare the ground before sowing (see "Planting a Native Grass Lawn Step by Step"). The best time to sow is August to September.

All blue fescue cultivars are propagated solely from division (not from seed) to maintain their characteristics. Therefore, if you want to use them as a groundcover you will need to start with plants. They look their best when trimmed in fall or early spring before new growth begins. Clip the foliage 3 to 4 inches above the crown but do not cut back hard, especially in the heat of summer. Sometimes old clumps die out in the center after three to four years. You can divide and replant the sections or plant new plants. Keep in mind that if you start with a cultivar propagated by division and let it go to seed, the new seedlings may not be exactly like the original plant. For instance, the foliage may not be as blue.

No-Mow Mix

One commercially available fine fescue seed mix was developed by Neil Diboll, chairman of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin. Diboll, known for his expertise in designing and establishing prairie plantings, realized that although many people may not want to fuss with a highly manicured lawn, they still want some kind of low-growing, green play area—one that does not require mowing or applications of fertilizers and herbicides. He experimented with various fescues and came up with a "no-mow" lawn mix suitable for the cooler, medium-rainfall areas of the upper Midwest and northeastern United States, and southern Canada. The mix contains hard fescue and creeping red fescue. He recommends sowing 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet. The no-mow mix will not do well in poorly drained soil, wet soil, or heavy clay.

Left unmowed, the no-mow lawn will form a soft, 4- to 6-inch-tall carpet of grass. If you prefer a more cropped look, mow once a month to a height of 3 to 4 inches. Never remove more than one-third of the top growth; cutting lower may damage the grasses. Water only during dry periods—occasional thorough soakings are better than frequent light sprinklings. Fertilizer is not necessary.

Turfgrass Cultivars

Some special fine fescues were developed by Jan Weijer, a plant geneticist retired from the University of Alberta. He collected all sorts of native grasses growing on the cold and dry eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. The cultivars he developed, which are not yet named or available on the market, are frost and drought tolerant and grow only 6 to 7 inches a year. They are not naturally sod forming, so they must be seeded heavily to get a closely spaced lawn.

The easiest way to achieve a thick lawn is to let the grass go to seed the second year of growth, according to Weijer. "Let the grasses reseed themselves, filling in whatever gaps there may be," he advises. He says in the test plots that he established, only two annual mowings were necessary—one early in spring to remove debris, and one after flowering to remove spikelets.

Some good fine fescue varieties to seek out at your local garden center are 'Jamestown II' and 'Warwick', both types of chewings (red) fescue; and 'Falcon', 'Spartan', 'Reliant', 'Waldina', and 'Scaldis', all types of sheep fescue. They are all creeping or spreading grasses and should be sown at a rate of 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Stevie Daniels is the director of publications for Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. She is the the author of The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the Traditional Front Lawn (Macmillan, 1995) and gardening columnist forPennsylvania Magazine. She has been a Penn State Master Gardener since 1988. Daniels has spent the last three years replacing the grass in her own yard with native plants and a front lawn of native grasses.

Image, top of page: Antonio M. Rosario