Whether you’ve dreamed of a meadow-like grass or simply need a solution for the moderately shaded areas in your lawn, fine fescues may be the answer. These low-maintenance cool-season grasses need little fertilizer, can be left unmowed (as long as your Homeowners’ Association agrees), and do well in full sun or moderate shade. If you live in a humid, cool-season grass zone, fine fescues are worth considering for your home lawn.
- Fine fescue at a glance
- What is fine fescue?
- Pros and cons of fine fescue
- How to establish fine fescue
- How much does fine fescue cost?
- Caring for fine fescue
Fine fescue at a glance
Classification: Cool-season grass
Spreads by: Bunch-type grasses with one exception: creeping red fescues possess rhizomes
Shade tolerance: Moderate to high
Drought resistance: Moderate to high
Foot traffic tolerance: Low to moderate
Maintenance needs: Low mowing frequency
Mowing height: 1.5-3 inches
Potential for disease: Moderate
Soil pH: 5.5-6.5
Soil type: Good drainage is a must; tolerates infertile soils; sandy soils generally work well
Other notes: Often used in a mix with other cool-season grasses, especially in sun/shade mixes
What is fine fescue?
Fine fescue is a group of five different fine fescue grasses: Chewings fescue, hard fescue, sheep fescue, slender creeping red fescue, and strong creeping red fescue. Fine fescues are known for their shade tolerance and low maintenance requirements. These easy-care grasses are often used in cool-season grass mixes that are designed for sun/shade lawns. The fine fescues will eventually establish more in the shady areas while the other more sun-loving grass (like Kentucky bluegrass) will die out in the shady sections and establish mostly in the full sun areas.
These shade-tolerant grasses prefer the cool, humid climates north of the transition zone in areas such as New England and the Pacific Northwest. If you’re slightly outside of these areas, fine fescues with high levels of endophytes may succeed in some parts of the transition zone. If summers are too hot, tall fescue is a better choice for partially shaded areas.
Fun fact: Golf history scholars may know that fine fescues are found in similar climates in Scotland and Northern Europe on undulating links golf courses.
Here is a quick highlights reel of the outstanding points for each of these grasses:
Chewings fescue is a light to darker green grass that has the best shade tolerance among the five fine fescues. It has a moderate tolerance to salt and a low to moderate nitrogen requirement. For homeowners with sandy, infertile soils in drought-prone climates, chewings fescue works well.
If you live up North, this grass is sometimes used on putting greens as some cultivars can be cut as low as ¼ of an inch.
Hard fescue is known among the fine fescues for its relatively good heat and drought tolerance. This grass develops a wide root system and has good tolerance for the seasonally dry periods you find in dry summer climates. (Although supplemental irrigation may be required during the dry season.) Think of this fescue as a “hardy-y” fine fescue option that stays greener longer and thrives in infertile soils.
Along with a low nitrogen requirement and low salt tolerance, you can expect a dark green-gray color to this grass. Hard fescue and the three remaining fescues (sheep, slender creeping, and strong creeping) all have moderate shade tolerance.
Sheep fescue may be the most drought-tolerant of all five fine fescues and is often used in home lawns or other landscapes where a low-mow or un-mowed lawn is desired. This fescue type has a gray to bluish color, low nitrogen requirement, and low salt tolerance. Love a wild, meadow-y look? This grass works well mixed with wildflowers.
Note: These last two fescues are called “creeping” because they have rhizomes (underground stems) that help the grass to spread and recover. Note that these rhizomes will not spread to the same degree as other grasses with rhizomes, such as Kentucky bluegrass and aggressive warm-season grasses. The other three fine fescues, which are bunch-type grasses, must be re-seeded if wear or damage occurs. Bunch-type grasses do not have rhizomes or stolons (above-ground stems) that help the grass repair itself.
Slender creeping red fescue
Slender creeping red fescue is the most salt-tolerant of all the fine fescues and contains short rhizomes. This light to medium-colored grass has a limited commercial market in the U.S. but is more widely available in northern European countries. Its adaptation to cool, moist climates and low mowing heights means it is often used on putting greens in northern Europe. Its high salt tolerance means it is also found along coastlines and salt marshes in the same countries.
Strong creeping red fescue
This rhizomatous, fine-textured grass has longer rhizomes than slender creeping red fescue and a medium green color. As with slender creeping red fescue, this grass prefers the cool, humid weather as in Europe and the northeastern and Pacific Northwestern United States. This creeping red fescue is often included with perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass in cool-season grass mixes and has moderate salt tolerance.
Note: “Strong” creeping red fescue may indicate an improved cultivar. Otherwise, you may see this grass referred to as simply creeping red fescue.
Pros and cons of fine fescue
Before planting fine fescue in your yard, decide if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
✓ Moderate to high shade tolerance (not full shade); also tolerates full sun
✓ Variety among species means you can choose which suits your lawn best
✓ Infrequent mowing
✓ Works well in sun-shade cool-season mixes
✓ None are aggressive spreaders
✓ Ideal for cool, humid climates
✓ Low nitrogen requirement
✓ Some have moderate to high salt tolerance (great for climates where road salts are a concern)
✓ Moderate to high drought resistance (may go dormant, though)
✓ Often used in high elevations
✓ Soft to walk on barefoot
✗ Not a high-traffic grass
✗ Low heat tolerance (may go dormant)
✗ Susceptible to some diseases
✗ Excessive fertilizer leads to high thatch levels
How to establish fine fescue
Fine fescue is most often established by seed, although sod is available in some areas. If you’re seeding, plan to do so in late summer or early fall at normal elevations. In some cases, you can seed in spring or early summer if you live at a high elevation. Dormant seeding is an option in late fall in some areas.
How much does fine fescue cost?
Fine fescue seed: Around $3-$6 per pound
Fine fescue sod: Runs from 30 cents to 80 cents per square foot
Caring for fine fescue
Fine fescue lawns may be mowed from 1.5-3 inches, depending on the species and intended use. Low mowing heights are usually reserved for golf courses and other high-maintenance areas. In a home lawn, leave unmowed for a natural, meadow look. (Note: Check your specific species or seed mix for the recommended mowing height.) Have a sharp mower blade for the best quality cut.
Irrigation requirements depend on your climate, your grass type, and your soil type. It is best to call your local Extension office or look at their state resources online to determine how much water these fescues need in your state. In some areas, fine fescues require supplemental irrigation to keep them out of dormancy during the hot season.
Note that fine fescues prefer dry soils over wet; they will die in soils that are too moist. Too much watering also may increase thatch levels.
If you prefer not to irrigate this grass, it may go dormant. While in a dormant state, keep heavy traffic off of the grass.
These low-maintenance grasses need about 1 to 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year under average conditions. If the grass gets more use, if you want a higher-quality turf, or if you have soils with higher sand content, you can fertilize up to 4 pounds per 1,000 square feet per year. Unmowed lawns will require less fertilizer than mowed lawns. If you leave your grass clippings on the lawn, fertilize on the lower end of this range. Fertilize newly established lawns on the higher end of the range.
As with all cool-season turf, apply most of this fertilizer in fall. Do a soil test to ensure you’re not over- or under-applying the fertilizer. Over-fertilizing fine fescues can lead to excessive thatch, which may cause disease. High nitrogen levels also may mean less heat tolerance during the hot months and may increase insect issues.
Dethatching and aeration
If your fine fescue lawn has developed a thatch layer over ½ inch, it’s time to take action. There are two main ways to dethatch the lawn: Use a hand dethatching rake or use a dethatching machine (these come in many shapes and sizes). Dethatching the lawn will remove this layer of debris on top of the soil that prevents air, water, fertilizer, weed granules, etc., from reaching the soil surface.
If your lawn also has compacted soil, consider core aeration. (Both dethatching and aeration should be done if you have too much thatch and compacted soil.) Rent a core aerator to pull plugs of soil from the lawn. This increases air and water circulation and in the process will remove some of the thatch, as well.
Cool-season grasses respond best to dethatching and aeration in the fall as they start to grow again after the hot summer months.
Disease, insects, and weeds
Pest problems tend to vary by location, but here are a few common issues.
Disease: Good lawn care is the best defense against disease. Remember, fine fescues don’t like to stay too wet, and too much shade is detrimental to any grass. Here are a few common diseases you may see among the fine fescue species:
Insects: As with diseases, good lawn care is essential: Manage thatch levels and don’t over fertilize or over water, and you’ll prevent many insect problems.
Endophyte-enhanced fine fescues often show greater insect resistance than fine fescues without these fungi.
Weeds: Weeds can be problematic for homeowners who establish fine fescue from seed. Annual and perennial weeds will easily germinate as the turf grows and establishes itself. However, it is not recommended to use pre- or post-emergent products during the first year and perhaps even during the second year. The best way to control weeds during the first and second growing seasons is to mow at or above the height of the grass to remove weed stalks before they produce seeds.
In years three and beyond, use pre- or post-emergents or spot-spray as needed. By this time, though, the grass should fill in to a point where the density of the grass shades the soil and out-competes most weeds.
Sod is available in some areas. Establishing this grass from sod will virtually eliminate weed issues during the establishment process.
Some information taken from Fundamentals of Turfgrass Management, 5th ed. by Christians, Patton, and Law
If you think a fine fescue lawn may be right up your alley, contact one of our local lawn care professionals. They can help you select, install, and care for your grass so you can spend your free time doing what matters most.