The Amazing Shade Tolerance Of Fine Fescue Grass

Fine fescue is not native to the U.S., but originated in Europe. They are probably best known for their exceptional shade tolerance and their very thin blades. The blades often appear to be rolled like a string instead of a flat blade. The widest blades are not much more than 1/16 of an inch wide.

In the U.S. fine fescues are mostly restricted to being a "shade grass". Common grass species include Creeping Red Fescue, Chewings Fescue, Hard Fescue, and Sheep Fescue.

The blades are so thin they simply cannot take the summer heat when planted in full sun, even in many parts of the northern U.S. However, in many European countries where the grass originated, the conditions are more favorable and these fine fescues have even been used as a primary turfgrass.

Important Note About "Fine Fescue" and "Fine Leaf Fescue": I occasionally hear about someone planting their lawn with Creeping Red Fescue, for example, and are upset that it completely died in summer. In southern Missouri, summer temps are far too hot for fine fescue to survive in full sun. I believe there is a lot of confusion about fine fescues. Even some professionals get it wrong. I hope this helps solve the problem.

Fine Fescue grasses are not the same species as the "Fine Leaf Fescues". Fine Fescues are the types listed on this page, while Fine Leaf Fescue is an older name for "'Turf-Type' Tall Fescue".

Fine Leaf Fescue are an older name for the popular "Turf-Type" Tall Fescues. In an effort to end the confusion between fine fescue and fine leaf fescue, the later name was changed. Turf-type Tall Fescue are actually improved varieties of Tall Fescue. Are you thoroughly confused now?

How Fine Fescues are Labeled

There are a few different species of fine fescues. Each species will be able to tolerate slightly different conditions. They are often labeled as "Shade Grass Seed Blend" or something similar. A good blend should contain each of the species of seed to cover the different types of growing conditions. The grass species that will prevail will be the ones that are best suited for your conditions.

If planting seed in the fall the grass will grow as normal. However, any seed growing in full sun will probably be lost the following year. As the temps climb in late spring, the grass will start to suffer and eventually die. Plant a different species in the sun, such as a Turf-type Tall Fescue.

Click here to see a map of the U.S. climate zones for grass adaptation.

Fine Fescue Grass Types

Creeping Red Fescue

Creeping red fescue prefer cooler, damp climates. Their best range of adaptation is in the north/central to north/eastern areas of U.S and Canada and has exceptional cold tolerance. It is strictly a shade grass and will not survive long in the sun. Tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass should be used in the full sun portions of your lawn.

Creeping red, as the name implies, is a slowly spreading grass. It creeps along by way of short underground stems called rhizomes. This grass can also develop thatch. Core aeration can help reduce thatch, especially if the cores are left on the grass. See Plant Structure for a better understanding of rhizomes.

I have heard many times where homeowners planted Creeping Red Fescue in sunny area because a store clerk recommended it. Clerks are often poor sources for advice. Be sure to read the bag ingredients carefully, so you don't waste your money. Creeping Red will die in sunny locations as temps heat up in summer in most U.S. locations. Only a few places in the U.S. have acceptable conditions. Keep it as a shade grass and you will do okay.

Chewings fescue

Chewings fescue prefers a little drier climate than does creeping red fescue. It prefers the north/central U.S. It will do best in shade, however, has the ability to survive in the sun as long as it is not too hot. It has a bunch type growth habit and does not spread.

Hard fescue

Like the other fine fescues, hard fescue has very fine blades and is very shade tolerant. One difference is in the color. It tends to have more of a gray/green color similar to the color of buffalograss. It prefers northern areas with drier climates. It will perish in soils that are consistently moist.

Sheep Fescue

This species is especially useful in shaded areas that will receive little maintenance. It is considered to be a common variety with few cultivars. It doesn't require much maintenance. On shaded areas, including steep shaded hillsides or other difficult to mow places, this is a perfect choice. Just let it go and don't worry about mowing it.

Maintenance Requirements

Fine fescues should not be used in high traffic areas. It won't hold up due to low wear resistance. All grasses, including fine fescue, grow slower in shade. There isn't enough sunlight to support rapid growth, due to lower photosynthetic rate.

Since shade grasses grow slower than sun grasses, any damage that occurs will take longer to repair. Turf-type tall fescue has good shade tolerance and is a better choice for those areas with moderate to heavy traffic.

Planting Fine Fescue

Planting fine fescue lawn grass seed is easy and is best done in the fall when high temps are in the eighties or lower. Remove any fallen leaves and make sure the soil is damp. Since it will be planted in the shade, use a steel rake to scratch and loosen the soil surface. You can also use a pull-behind dethatcher, as well. Scatter the seed and use the back side of the rake to lightly cover the seed. Keep it watered lightly, so soil remains moist until germination. Only 3 to 5 lbs per 1000 sq. ft. are all that is needed.

Click here for more information on Grass Seed Germination to better understand the process and the best methods.

You can also check out this page for more information on Overseeding a Lawn for the best methods and techniques.

Fertilization

Fine fescue is low fertility requirement. It needs only about 1 to 2 lbs. of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. per year. The best time to fertilize is in the spring and fall. However, if the grass is to remain unmowed, fertilize only once a year in fall.

Mowing

It can be mowed as low as 1.5 inches, but 2 to 3 inches is better. HIgher mowing rate produces deeper root growth and maintains longer blades for maximum photosynthesis.

Irrigation

Most fine fescues prefer drier soils. Creeping red will do well in moist soil, but not prolonged wet soil. It may become diseased under prolonged wet conditions.

On the up side, shaded soil will retain moisture longer than soil in sunny areas. If you are experiencing drought conditions the grass will still need to be watered. A half inch or more of water a couple times a week in summer should do well depending on soil type. Sandy soil may require more in high heat periods.

Insect damage

Insects such as billbugs and grub worms can occasionally be a problem. Lawn insecticides containing carbaryl (seven) or trichlorfon (dylox) will have the quickest results on insects. Granular insecticides are the easiest and fastest method of application if you have a broadcast spreader. If not, a hand-held or drop spreader will work. Do not broadcast by hand unless you have latex gloves on. Since the insecticides are often small flakes, it is best to spread on a calm day.

You can also use liquid insecticides if that is easier for you. You can use a pump sprayer or other types of spray equipment. The label will advise on many types that are acceptable.

Products containing imidacloprid or halofenocide as the active ingredient do not have quick killing action. These are preventative products meaning they need to be applied a considerable time before any damage occurs. If applied at the time of damage, it will have no effect.

Disease problems

Dollar spot is a fungal disease that can be an occasional problem. Dollar spot occurs when nitrogen levels are too low. The best method of preventing dollar spot is to make sure there is sufficient nitrogen levels. (But not excessive.) There are several fungicides labeled for dollar spot if necessary.

Red thread and leaf spot can also affect the grass. They are most common in humid, damp, cool spring weather. When environmental conditions change to less humid, warmer weather, the disease should stop. If the disease is only in the grass blade, it will grow out. If it persists, it may affect the crown. The use of a fungicide may be warranted. See the Disease section for detailed information.


Kentucky Bluegrass and other bluegrass varieties
Kentucky bluegrass is one of the most popular of all grass type. It is used on lawns, fairways and athletic fields in the cooler areas of the U.S. Find out what makes this grass so special.

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Tall fescue is an exceptional cool season grass. It is preferred by many because of its dark green color, wear resistance and heat tolerance. Click here to find out everything you need to know about tall fescue.

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