Tall fescue is a popular grass in our area, and is easily established through seed or sod. Being a cool season grass, it holds its green color during the winter months while warm season grasses, such as Bermuda and zoysia, go dormant and turn brown.
Tall fescue grows rapidly during the fall and spring months. It thrives in a wide range of soil conditions. During the summer months it slows down and can suffer from extended periods of hot, dry weather. Fescue lawns require the addition of supplemental water in hot weather to remain green and healthy.
The best time of the year to plant fescue grass is between Sept. 15 and the end of October. Overseeding it too early in the season, such as August, can cause the seedlings to suffer heat stress and seedling diseases. Overseeding late in the season may prevent the grass from becoming fully established prior to the winter cold. Doing so in the spring is not advisable. Although it will germinate and grow, it has insufficient time to become established before the hot, dry days of summer.
Most established fescue lawns need to be periodically re-seeded since they have a tendency to thin out over time. Since our soils are mostly clay, they are easily packed tightly by rain, irrigation, equipment and foot traffic. Also, combined with the intense summer heat, the soil can become compacted decreasing the ability of the roots to grow and for air and water to penetrate into the soil.
To reduce compaction, use a core aeration machine with hollow tines that pokes holes into the ground and pulls out small 1- to 2-inch long “cores.” They are often available at rental or garden centers. Before aerating, mow the grass height to 2 inches to help improve the ease of aerating the soil and for the seed to make soil contact.
Core aeration roughs up the soil before seed distribution. It breaks up the compacted areas and helps improve the seed to soil contact, which improves the success of germination. When aerating, do so in a criss-cross direction by first going over the entire lawn, back and forth in one direction and then using the machine to go back and forth at right angles to the first series of trips.
The seed purchased should be of good quality to ensure a high percent of germination and minimal weed content. Using cheap seed can be quite expensive in the long run due to poor germination and purity. Make sure the seed is certified by the Georgia Crop Improvement Association (www.certifiedseed.org) with a blue tag on the seed bag. Apply the seed to the fescue lawn at the rate of three to five pounds per 1,000 square feet. Resist the temptation to apply more since closely growing seedlings compete with each other for water and nutrients, as well as become susceptible to disease.
One of the most commonly used type of fescue seed has been Kentucky-31. It is the old common cultivar of tall fescue that has been around for decades. However, new and more attractive varieties, often referred to as “turf-type” tall fescues have a finer leaf blade, darker green color, and a greater density and shade tolerance than K-31. Examples of the newer types of fescue are “Southeast,” “Rebel,” “Plantation” and “Millennium.”
After over-seeding has been completed, the upper one inch of soil needs to be kept moist during the time the seed is germinating which usually requires a light application of water on a daily basis. As the seed comes up and begins to grow, cut back the watering to a couple of deep, thorough applications per week. Refrain from mowing for a few weeks after the seed has been applied, and then mow at a height of two to three inches.
With proper preparation, planning, and using the appropriate cultural methods to maintain the fescue plot, you can have an attractive and healthy fescue lawn.
Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.