Fescue grasses have become one of the most prevalent grasses in the United States. Across its several hundred different species, fescue has proven a durable and adaptable grass variety that thrives through the broad season spectrum in the U.S. Different species have cultivars for shade tolerance, drought resistance, and disease tolerance. Many varieties are even able to withstand insects, lowering the need for pesticides.
Fescues are also very low maintenance and will look great with little effort on your part. Planting fescues or blending them into your yard can keep your lawn green all year long.
There are different varieties suitable for different seasons and locales. Fescues are officially cool-season grasses, and are popular as shade grasses, though certain cultivars are good in heat.
However, this grass type is generally less capable the further south you go. Fescue is not ideally suited for lawns in hot southern climates like the Southeast or Southwestern U.S.
History of Fescue Grass
Fescue grasses originated in Europe and made their way to the United States in the early 1800s.
Their use in Europe was as a forage grass, used in pastures and agriculture. Some cultivars were also used as ornamental grasses in England.
Fescue grasses became popular for lawns in the U.S. during the mid-1900s after over a century of use as pasture grass.
Since then, researchers hae cultivated over 300 varieties of Fescue, each with their own strengths and characteristics.
Many modern varieties have dark green colors and narrow blades, in addition to being more tolerant of heat, cold, or drought.
Why You Should Grow Fescue Grass
Fescue became popular as a shade grass in the cooler, northern regions of the United States.
However, shade tolerance isn’t fescue’s only selling point. The many varieties of fescue grasses have unique strengths, including drought tolerance, and pest resistance.
It’s important to know which type works best for your lawn’s needs, and I’ll try to explain some of these differences in this guide to help you make an informed choice for your lawn.
First let’s look at some of the main selling points of this type of grass, and why you might choose it for your yard:
Fescue Grass Stays Green All Year Long
This type of grass grows across a wide swath of the country and is the key grass type in the climate transition zone that cuts through the center of the U.S.
Fine Fescue is included in grass mixes for the warmer south and the colder northern states.
Fescues remain green year-long in cooler climates and turn a paler green during the hotter months.
Fescue is a cool season grass, which makes its shade tolerance unusual. Most cool grasses, like Kentucky Bluegrass, need full sun to thrive. The ability of certain varieties of Fescue to thrive in shade is one reason you’ll find it in almost all grass seed mixes you’ll find.
Different varieties of Fescue exhibit this ability to perform in shade more so than others. That said, it’s a trait shared with all fescue grasses and a key difference between Fescue and Bluegrass.
Fescue Grass is Resilient to Drought and Heat
Fescues also grow very deep root systems, which makes them particularly resilient in drought conditions. These extensive roots, which in some cases can reach up to 2 to 3 feet deep, allow fescues access to water and other nutrients that most other grasses can’t reach.
Fescues can stay green for so much of the year because they’re still able to retrieve nutrients even during the dry seasons.
Their roots are deeper than those of other cool-season grasses found in the United States.
This unique characteristic of fescue grasses make them ideal for environmentally friendly seed blends.
Lawns of Fescue grass require the least amount of water and fertilizer to keep your lawn looking good.
Fescue Grasses are Unbothered by Insects
These grasses require fewer pesticides than many other types of turf grass because they have shown a strong resilience to insects.
Fine Fescue in particular is unbothered by lawn insects.
This is due in part to fescue’s close bond with endophytes, which naturally deter pests from destroying your lawn.
Types of Fescue Grass
Fescue’s many varieties are suited to different types of land and climates.
Some types, like Tall Fescue, are often used on their own.
Others, like the shade-loving Creeping Red Fescue, function better when used in a seed blend with other cool season grasses.
In this section of the guide I’ll introduce you to some of the most popular types of Fescue Grass used in lawns. I’ll highliht their unique characteristics and explain the yards they’re best suited for. I’ll cover:
- Tall Fescue,
- Turf Type Tall Fescue,
- Hard Fescue,
- Fine Fescue,
- Chewings Fescue,
- Creeping Red Fescue, and
- Fescue Grass Blends.
Let’s start with:
Tall fescue is typified by its finer texture than traditional grasses, like Kentucky Bluegrass, and it has a dark green color. It grows best in heavier soils that are rich in organic matter and thrives in the transitional climate areas.
Tall Fescue grass has more heat tolerance than most cool season grasses and more cold tolerance than most warm weather grasses (why it’s perfect for the transitional zone which sweeps across the center of America.
It has significant tolerances for heat, drought, and shade, as well as disease resistance.
This variety of Fescue grass grows most vigorously during the spring and fall months and is best suited to northern lawns.
It grows quickly and establishes itself into the ground easily.
How Tall Fescue Grows in Lawns
Tall Fescue is a bunch-forming grass, meaning it does not produce rhizomes or stolons. Instead it spreads through “tillers,” which are shoots that stem vertically from the base of the plant. Because of this, it’s a non-aggressive grass that won’t take over other grasses or flower beds.
However, it is does not self-repair and benefits from annual overseeding.
This also means Tall Fescue does not develop thatch easily, so you won’t need to dethatch your lawn very often.
Its recommended mowing height is 2 to 3 inches.
Tall Fescue grass requires less fertilizer and less water than standard grasses because of its deep root systems. In addition, it adapts well to many soil types and thrives well in soil that is slightly acidic with a pH level between 5.5 and 7.5.
It is also resilient to foot traffic, which makes it ideal for athletic fields or school lawns.
Turf Type Tall Fescue
Turf-type tall fescue is a coarser variant of the fescue plants, and it is thinner than the other tall fescues. However, turf-type tall fescue is not as thin as fine fescues.
It is most commonly used as a pasture grass. Some of the newest varieties have a rich green color.
Like other tall fescues, turf-type tall fescue is a bunch-type grass. It is also highly resilient to foot traffic and is growing in popularity for athletic fields and campus lawns.
This type of Fescue stays green for 8 to 9 months out of the year and has similar shade, heat, and drought tolerances.
Turf-type tall fescue grows best in spring and fall, though fall is the best time to plant new seed, overseed, or aerate your existing lawn.
Its ideal mowing height is 3 to 4 inches tall, and its deep root system helps it efficiently make use of water and nutrients in the ground. It requires less fertilizer and water than other cool season grasses.
Hard fescue is a dark green, cool season grass that’s known for its durability.
It grows very well in soils with low fertility and a lot of shade or cold temperatures.
Hard Fescue is less tolerant of heat than other fescue varieties. However, it works well in non-mowed and untended areas, like unused areas of parks or median strips between buildings.
Hard Fescue has a very fine blade that grows in bunches. It is a variety that can come with endophytes, which aid in insect tolerance. A resilient variety, it has strong tolerances to disease, drought, and foot traffic.
Hard Fescue grasses can go long periods without being mowed, so it is low maintenance. In fact, it cannot be mowed close to the ground, so if you prefer taller lawn grass, this might be a good choice for your lawn.
Fine Fescue Grasses are a broad sub-family of fescues with distinctive narrow leaf blades.
Both Chewings and Creeping Red Fescues (which I’ll cover in a moment) are both fine fescue varieties.
These grasses are often found in seed mixtures because of their high shade tolerance. Like other fescues, they require less water and less fertilizer than other cool season grasses.
Fine fescue is a bunching grass with leaves that are medium to blue green in color. Their resilience to adverse growing conditions, and low maintenance requirements make them a popular, environmentally friendly choice for lawns. They also grow well in adverse soil conditions, like rocky, sandy, or heavy clay soils.
More Considerations When Growing Fine Fescue in Lawns
Fine Fescue grasses have less heat tolerance and will go dormant in high heat temperatures. Once it cools off, this type of grass will quickly bounce back in your lawn.
Fine Fescue grass is not resilient to heavy foot traffic due to the fine leaves. They work well in standard lawns in homes, but should not be used in high traffic lawns or athletic fields.
Fine Fescue grows well in acidic soil of 5.0 to 6.5 pH so it’s unlikely you’ll need to add lime to your lawn. It has a tolerance for being mowed low and is tolerant of insects.
This is one type of Fescue grass for which thatch can become an issue, and in wet climates fungus can be a potential issue as well.
Fine fescues do require some nitrogen treatment and I recommend applying a quality, slow-release organic fertilizer early in spring to support these grasses through the summer.
Chewings Fescue is an aggressive variant of fine fescue that is a bunch-type fescue. In spite of the fact that it does not spread through rhizomes, it does have a tendency to overtake lawns and spreads well. This quality makes it attractive in thin lawns with poor light and growing conditions.
Chewings Fescue has adapted to the infertile soils of the northeast and northwest United States and grows well in sandy, rocky, and acidic soils.
Though it is a fine fescue, Chewings fescue looks a lot like tall fescue because it grows more upright while maintaining a thin blade. Its primary use is in seed mixtures and it’s rarely the predominant grass in any grass seed mix.
Its adaptation to adverse conditions also allows other grasses to grow better. Generally you’ll find that this grass fills in areas where other grasses struggle, and recedes where other lawn grasses thrive.
It has high tolerance to shade and drought, and it requires infrequent mowing and can withstand being mowed low.
Like other fine fescue grasses, it is not resilient to heavy foot traffic, so if you have pets that tear around your lawn it may not be a good choice for you.
It is used in low fertility soils, such as golf course roughs.
Creeping Red Fescue
Creeping Red Fescue is another fine fescue that, like Chewings Fescue, is typically mixed with other grasses for best performance.
It’s not something I recommend seeding in your lawn by itself, though it can work well in certain areas of your lawn where other grass types struggle.
It grows quickly and spreads laterally through rhizomes, covering a lot of ground. Usually, it’s used to cover bare spots in landscaping due to its ability to grow in infertile soils.
Characteristics of Creeping Red Fescue Grass
Creeping Red Fescue is known for its deep, emerald green color which is most vibrant when it’s well watered.
It does not withstand heat particularly well and grows best during spring and fall.
It has significant drought tolerance due to its deep root system.
Creeping Red Fescue is more wear resilient than other fine fescues. It’s grown regularly on golf courses and playground fields, in addition to home lawns, cemeteries, and on golf course fairways.
There are a few different types of creeping red fescue, though its overall properties remain similar. Its different types are observed through thinner blades, darker color, or slower spread.
Slender Creeping Red Fescue has a significant salt tolerance. This makes it popular for roadsides that require regular maintenance during the winters.
Fescue Grass Blends
Fescues are regularly blended with Kentucky Bluegrass and Perennial Ryegrass. These share a similar green shade, but each lack the fortitude of Fescue grasses.
Those are both cool season grasses that don’t grow well in warmer, more southern states. They’re commonly mixed in environmentally friendly seed blends, as well as shade tolerant blends.
If you buy a blended grass seed at your local box store, chances are you’ll find Fescue as part of it with Ryegrass and Bluegrass mixed in.
Why Fescue is Great for Mixed Seed Products
Many seed companies mix different Fescue grasses with each other. This allows you to get the most benefit from their unique strengths. It’s not uncommon to see Hard Fescue, Creeping Red Fescue, and Chewings Fescue blended together in a seed mix.
The ratio of different Fescue grass types can be adjusted to match various landscape conditions. If you do choose a Fescue grass seed blend for your lawn, use some of the information in this article as a guide about the types of grasses that will thrive in your yard.
For instance, Hard Fescue and Chewings Fescue, which are sturdier and more resilient, can be used in higher amounts in sunny or sandy soils.
In shadier spots you can instead use grass seed blends with higher amounts of Chewings and Creeping Red Fescue vs the Hard Fescue or Tall Fescue-heavy mixes.
Fescue grass is the topic of ongoing research and development. New and improved cultivars are always being released.
Sheep Fescue and Blue Fescue are new varieties. These are used for unmowed areas to provide a natural, sweeping meadow look. They also work well as landscape features in low traffic areas of your lawn.
The Best Time of Year to Plant Fescue Grass
Fescue is best planted during September and early October in most parts of the country.
New seedlings often can’t stand up to the stress caused by the excessive heat of summer, but they still need time to take root prior to winter.
Planting early in the fall offers Fescue sufficient time to take root and mature before going dormant for the winter.
If You Can’t Plant Fescue in Fall
Planting during early spring is a less preferable option since it does not give the new grass time to develop the extensive root systems to survive the summer.
You can have success seeding in Spring, but you’ll have to support your new grass with more water during the heat of summer.
You’ll also have to choose a good pre-emergent herbicide for your lawn during the spring. This will block germination of aggressive annual weeds which will try to crowd out your Fescue seedlings.
I use and recommend this starter fertilizer with crabgrass preventer from Scott’s when planting grass seed or overseeding in spring.
Best Fescue Grass for Overseeding
Fescues, especially Red Creeping Fescue or Chewings Fescue, work very well while overseeding since they are quick to fill in the gaps of your lawn without aggressively overtaking your existing grasses.
They spread primarily through rhizomes, though they also spread through stolons.
Fescue Lawn Care
One of the benefits to fescue plants is their low maintenance requirements. A Fescue lawn is generally easier to care for. I find that Fescue lawns look better with less maintenance than many other types of lawn grass.
Fescue grass’ resilience to disease and heat means they can withstand adverse conditions without much effort on your part. While it’s still best to apply fertilizer early in the spring, Fescue requires little regular maintenance throughout the season beyond regular mowing.
Fescues do require a lot of water when newly planted. Once their root systems form, they require less water than most grasses. You should water infrequently, but deeply to encourage deep root growth.
While Fescue grass can survive without regular watering, they’ll be healthier if they have at least an inch of water per week.
Fescues, like Hard Fescue, tolerate drought and heat best when left at 3 to 4 inches high. However, varieties like chewings fescue can withstand being mowed as low as 1 ½ inches high.
When planting new Fescue grass lawns, sow 4 to 5 pounds of grass seed per 1,000 square feet. When overseeding, sow 2 to 2 ½ pounds of grass seed per 1,000 square feet.
What are Endophytes?
Another advantage that’s common to Fescue grasses is that they can have endophyte reinforcement.
Endophytes are a fungus that grow inside plants. But endophytes do not harm the grasses. Their highest concentration is in the leaf sheath. It’s also found in all parts of the plant (except for its roots).
They have an almost symbiotic relationship with Fescue grass and help the grass develop a resistance to insect infestations.
Endophytes are found most frequently in Tall Fescue, Hard Fescue, Chewing Fescue, and Creeping Red Fescue. This helps to explain why these varieties are some of the most frequently used in Fescue Grass lawns.
Let’s look a bit more closely at the advantages lawn grass with endophytes have over other turf grass varieties.
Increased Insect Tolerance
It’s not entirely understood how endophytes cause insect resilience. What is known is that this beneficial fungus produces a chemical that keeps the insects away. It’s believed to either be toxic to insects, or it simply repels them.
The amount of insect resistance is proportional to the number of endophytes living within the grass.
The advantage of growing a lawn grass with endophytes is that you lower the necessity for pesticides in keeping your grass intact without sacrificing the quality of your grass.
The increased stress tolerance also lowers your need for fertilizers to keep your grass green throughout the summer months.
I’m a huge fan of supporting my lawn in natural ways. This is one reason I like to overseed my lawn with a Fescue grass seed blend. I try to look forseed mixes with Fescue varieties that have endophytes.
Increased stress tolerance is also correlated with the prevalence of endophytes.
Grasses enhanced with endophytes survive better in the summer and recover better after droughts. They’re also able to better wisthstand weed pressure, and they are less likely to be overtaken by other grasses.
There is not yet a clear understanding why this occurs. But the fact that it does makes Fescue lawn grass an attractive choice for many homeowners. It’s one of my top picks for homeowners looking for a low-maintenance (but beautiful) lawn.
How do Endophytes Grow?
As new grass grows from endophyte enhanced plants, the endophytes spread into the new plants through their seeds. When the new seed germinates, the endophytes grow with the new grass, reinforcing it as it grows.
Endophytes do require viable conditions to grow.
At consistent 70-degree temperatures, endophytes will survive for 15 months without issue. In consistent colder temperatures, like at 40 degrees or lower, endophytes will die off within a year.
Should You Choose Fescue Grass for Your Lawn?
Fescues are a sturdy and resilient strain of grasses that thrive in the transitional climate zone. They also perform well throughout the northern United States.
Fescue is adapted well to harsh and infertile climates, which makes them a great pairing to other types of grasses. They’re popular grasses found in many seed mixes.
Most Fescue lawn grasses are an incredibly low-maintenance lawn grass option. Not only does that make less work for you to keep your grass looking great, it’s also better for the environment. Fescues require less water, less fertilizer, and less mowing than similar turf grasses.
Most purists won’t choose a purely Fescue lawn. But every lawn can benefit from having Fescue grass sown into it via overseeding.
The resilience and hardiness of Fescue lawn grass will help it to fill in bare spots. Where other grasses find growing conditions unfavorable, many Fescue grasses thrive.
My opinion is that whether you’re planting new grass or overseeding, Fescue grass will help your lawn look better. Fescue will enhance the beauty and performance of most transitional zone and northern lawns.