Fescues have always been popular as a shade grass but within the genus Festuca there are over 300 different species of grasses with many different uses and benefits well beyond shade tolerance. The research and science being put forth into developing better fescues is incredible with new cultivars bred for disease tolerance, drought and heat resistance, and even insect resistance. Modern, improved fescue grasses are capable of providing lawns as beautiful as any other type of grass with the benefit of shade tolerance, low input requirements and the ability to survive further south than it's cool season contemporaries.
Fine fescues are a sub-group of fescues distinguishable by their narrow, fine leaf blades. Most fescues suitable for lawns are fine fescues and they include creeping red fescue, chewings fescue, hard fescue and sheep fescue. Shade grass blends often contain a mix of several fine fescue species but they are also capable of thriving in sunny, hot locations. Fine fescues can serve as a regular, frequently mowed lawn but they are also very attractive when left un-mowed for a dunes-type effect - a true, low maintenance lawn.
Turf-type tall fescue (TTT fescue) is gaining in popularity as a lawn grass as improved cultivars look and grow like other popular lawn grasses but are very heat and drought tolerant. Turf-type tall fescues have a wider leaf blade than fine fescues and are often used in seed blends where a shade loving, slow-growing or drought resistant turf is desired. Tall fescue lawns have been known to only need mowing once a month and require much less water and nutrients to thrive than traditional lawn grasses like Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass.
A lawn planted with a majority of turf-type tall fescue will not only look great, it will be able to withstand natures extremes like heat and drought while providing the homeowner with a low maintenance, low input, easy to maintain lawn. Not many kinds of grass can deliver on that claim.
Fescues are among the rare turfgrasses that are able to host endophytes. Endophytes in grasses are a type of fungus that lives symbiotically with the plant. The endophytes do not harm the grass, in fact, their presence has been found to be beneficial to the health of the turf. The presence of endophytes enables the grass to better withstand stresses like heat and drought, and provide an element of insect and mammal resistance. Endophytes are naturally occurring in some occasions but grass seed can also be inoculated after harvesting and are a safe, natural way to provide another level of defense against diseases, pests, and other plant stresses. Endophyte inoculated seed needs to be stored in a cool, dry environment or the benefits will be greatly reduced so it is important to order seed from a reputable source using fresh stock.
Other Benefits of Fescue
Fine fescues emit an amino acid called Meta-tyrosine through the roots and into the soil. When the amino acid is absorbed by the roots of competing plants like emerging crabgrass and broadleaf weed seedlings, it causes them to die off or suffer stunted growth - giving the fescue an opportunity to overcrowd the weeds. A built-in herbicide so-to-speak.
Other desirable traits in fescue grasses include a moderately rapid germination rate (although rather slow to fully establish), fine leaf texture with a high leaf density and the ability to thrive n poor soil conditions (rocky, clay, or sandy), and low nitrogen requirements. Fescues will go dormant with excessive continuous heat without supplemental irrigation. Recovery from dormancy occurs after rains and cooler temperatures return.
Sheep fescue and blue fescue are ideal for unmowed, naturalized settings and blue fescue is often used as a stand-alone landscape feature. They are hardy in many conditions and easy to maintain. Slender creeping red fescue is known for its salt tolerance and makes an excellent roadside grass or other conditions that can be salty.
New fescue cultivars are constantly emerging on the market, improving on fescues' innate hardiness and desirable features. As with endophyte inoculated seed, seed retailers may not always sell the best varieties available, always buy from a reputable source.