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 into developing better fescues is incredible, with new cultivars bred for disease tolerance, drought and heat resistance, and even insect resistance. 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 Fescue Grass
Fine fescues are a subgroup of fescues distinguishable by their narrow, fine leaf blades. Most fescues suitable for lawns are fine fescues; 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 attractive when left un-mowed for a dunes-type effect—a true, low maintenance lawn.
Tall Fescue Grass
Turf-type tall fescue (TTT fescue) has gained popularity as a lawn grass. Improved cultivars look and grow like other popular lawn grasses, with the added benefit of being 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 but also be able to withstand heat and drought. It provides homeowners with a 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—a type of fungus that lives symbiotically with the plant. The endophytes do not harm the grass; instead, 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 provides an element of insect and mammal resistance.
Endophytes are naturally occurring in some instances, but grass seed can also be inoculated after harvesting. This is a safe, natural way to provide another level of defense against diseases, pests, and other plant stressors. Endophyte-inoculated seed needs to be stored in a cool, dry environment or the benefits will be reduced, so it is important to order seed from a reputable source that has fresh stock.
Benefits of Fescue
Fine fescues emit an amino acid called meta-tyrosine through the roots and into the soil. This acid acts as a built-in herbicide. 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.
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, the ability to thrive in 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.
New fescue cultivars are constantly emerging on the market, improving on fescues' innate hardiness and desirable features. As with endophyte-inoculated seed, retailers may not always sell the best varieties available, so do your research and buy from a reliable source.