fescue grass guide: everything you need to know

Fescue Grass Guide: What It Is & How To Grow It

In Lawn & Garden, Lawn Care by Jamie

A key step in creating an amazing lawn is picking the right grass species for your needs. If you’re looking for a low-maintenance lawn that can withstand frigid winters and blazing hot summers, and even grow in shade, fescue could be the option for you.

What Is Fescue Grass (Festuca spp.)?

Genus Name Festuca
Zone Cool-Season, Transition Zone

Zones 4-9

Seed Mix Sold in seed mixes either containing multiple species or multiple fescue varieties
Sun All can tolerate shade, while Chewings Fescue rates outstanding
Soil All (Tall Fescue), Sand or Silt Loam (Other Fescues)
pH 5.3 – 8.0 (varies slightly depending on species)
Water Requirement Low
Growth Habit Bunch-forming
Height Keep mowed to 3 to 4 inches.
Maintenance Low
Wear Good (Tall Fescue), Low (Other Fescues)
Tolerance Heat, Cold, Drought, Disease-Resistant
Germination Time 14 – 21 days

Until the mid-20th century, people thought of fescue only as a pasture grass. But with the development of the tall fescue Kentucky 31, they started to recognize fescues’ inherent advantages — it can withstand heat, cold, and drought, and is fairly low maintenance. It’s an excellent option for both cool-season and transition zone lawns.

Its high tolerance to extreme temperatures and drought comes from its extensive root system. Tall fescue burrows its roots down as far as 2 to 3 feet deep! Before sowing fescue, ensure that your lawn has 12 inches of topsoil or you’ll find your lawn has more trouble weathering extreme weather and will need more water. Also avoid using cardboard sheet mulching, as the grass won’t be able to dig its roots down deep enough in the first year to become resilient.Outsidepride Legacy Fine Fescue Turf Grass Seed - 5 LBSTheir major drawbacks are their rough textures and their clumping growth habit which can make lawns look uneven, but you can address these drawbacks through careful cultivar selection. Fescues are typically sold in seed mixes, not as a single variety. These mixes add to their resilience, as at least one species in the mix will tolerate whatever weather nature throws at it.

New cultivars of fescue have created finer leaves that feel softer than older generations, so if you expect a lot of rolling around on the lawn, look for one of these cultivars.

If an even lawn is important to you, then adding creeping red fescues or rhizomatous tall fescue (which can spread by rhizomes) to the seed mix will help create a uniform lawn that can self-repair.

As a bonus, you can grow fescues as either a turf lawn or as an ornamental. A tall fescue plant with blue-tinted leaves can add interest in garden beds, while you can leave creeping red fescues to grow long to create soft cascading waves.

Pros and Cons of Fescue Grass

Pros Cons
Hardy to heat, cold, and drought Clumping growth habit means it’s not great at self-repair, leaving bare soil. May require overseeding.
Insect and disease resistant Some fescue cultivars are rough-textured
Clumping growth habit makes it easy to keep out of garden beds
Sold as mixes to increase resilience

Fescue Grass Varieties

Turf-Type Tall Fescue (Festuca arun-dinacea)

Outsidepride Combat Extreme Turf Type Fescue Grass Seed for Transition Zone - 10 LB

Otherwise known as tall fescue, turf-type was added to the name to distinguish between varieties cultivated for lawns from those cultivated for pasture. Kentucky 31 was the first fescue to make the jump from pasture grass to lawn grass, but later varieties gave tall fescues finer texture and denser growth.

Tall fescues tolerate traffic better, have higher insect resistance, and can tolerate a wider variety of soil conditions than other fescues.

If you love the idea of tall fescues but are put off by the bare spots, check out Rhizomatous Tall Fescue (RTF). RTF was bred as a rhizomatous grass, which will send off rhizomes to knit together into a uniform lawn. It will get into your garden beds, though, while regular tall fescue stays where you planted it.

Creeping Red Fescue (Festuca rubra)

Creeping Red Fescue Lawn Grass - 5 Pounds

Creeping red fescue is a rhizomatous fescue that can help fill in the gaps left by other fescue species. In fact, all-fescue seed mixes will have some creeping red fescue in it, and it’s also used in bluegrass mixes. Creeping red fescue grows shorter and has more shade tolerance than tall fescue, but it doesn’t tolerate as much foot traffic and suffers in extreme heat. Don’t worry, it’ll bounce back when the weather cools.

Chewings Fescue (Festuca rubra var commutata)

Somarac - Chewing Fine Fescue Grass 1 LB Seed

Chewings fescue is hands-down the best grass variety for shade. Given loam soil and plenty of organic matter, it only needs just two hours of sun. It doesn’t tolerate much foot traffic. In shade, it requires more maintenance and more compost, but when grown in full sun, it’s low maintenance.

Hard Fescue (Festuca longifolia)

Outsidepride Hard Fine Fescue Lawn Grass Seed - 5 LB

If you need an extra hardy grass, then hard fescue is for you. Hardy to Zone 3 (USDA), it grows slower than other fescues, but once established, it requires the least amount of maintenance.

How To Grow Fescue Grass

Seeding

The best time to sow fescue grass is in the fall after the summer heat has abated but with at least six weeks until the first frost of the year. If that’s not possible, then sow in early spring. Follow the seeding rate guidelines specified by the seed mix. Keep moist while the seed is germinating, usually between 7 and 14 days, then start cutting back as the grass establishes itself.

Mowing

Once your fescue lawn is established, regularly mow your lawn to 3-4 inches in the summer and 3 inches in the fall and winter. Mowing your lawn will encourage the fescue to spread out through its tillers, creating a thicker lawn.

Weeding

As bare patches develop during the summer, weeds will take advantage. Depending on the weed, you may wish to leave it there to increase the biodiversity of your lawn. The weed species can also tell you a lot about the soil conditions, like a lack of nitrogen, so you can correct these issues. The best way to remove weeds is to pull weeds by hand.

If you allow the grass to grow to 4 inches before cutting it back to 3, the fescue grass can shade more soil and suppress weed germination.

Fertilizing

The best time to fertilize fescue is in the fall. Do not fertilize when fescue goes dormant in the summer heat. When dormant, fertilizer won’t make the fescue green but can cause irreparable damage to the grass. Using compost in the fall will provide nutrients all year round while also improving the soil and water retention.

Watering

Fescues are pretty drought-hardy, requiring less water than other species because of their deep roots. But they do still need water in the heat of the summer when they’ve gone dormant, around 1 inch per month. How often you need to water depends on the weather, the heat, the location of your lawn (south-facing lawns need more water than north-facing), soil type, organic matter content, and your particular lawn.

In general, it’s better to water deeply to encourage the fescue to grow deep roots, although sandy soil will require more frequent and shallow waterings.

Aerating

Core aerate the soil before overseeding and adding amendments to help the seeds and fertilizer reach the ground. The best time to aerate is in the spring or fall, when the fescue grows most vigorously.

Dethatching

One benefit of clumping grass is that they seldom have thatch problems, as the slow rate of rhizome decomposition causes most thatch problems. Creeping red fescue may have more thatch problems.

Overseeding

Because of its clumping growth habit, fescue can’t reform as easily over bare patches as other grasses. Mowing will help encourage growth, but you may need to overseed in the spring or fall to fill in the gaps.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Fescue Hard to Grow?

Fescue grass is pretty easy to grow, as they are hardy to drought, heat, and cold. They also have excellent resistance to disease and insects. Some fescue grass mixes only need to be mowed a few times a year. Tall fescue, red fescue, and chewings fescue are pretty fast to establish, while hard fescue isn’t too far behind.

How Long Does It Take for Fescue Grass To Grow?

Fescue grasses typically germinate within 10 to 14 days, with red fescue, chewings fescue, and hard fescue able to germinate in as little as 6 or 7 days, given the right conditions. Soil temperatures need to reach 60F to 75F in order to allow for germination (about 70F to 80F air temperature).

What Temperature Does Fescue Stop Growing?

Fescue grass grows when temperatures are between 50F and 90F. Any lower or higher, fescue grass will go dormant. When in doubt whether it’s too cold or too hot to start fescue grass, test the soil temperature — soil temperatures around 65F are ideal.