DALY: Fall is the time to renovate fescue lawns

Tall fescue is a popular grass in our area and is easily established either by seed or sod.

Being a cool season grass, it holds its green color during the winter months. In contrast, warm season grasses, such as bermuda and zoysia, go dormant turning brown during cold weather. Tall fescue grows rapidly during fall and spring.

It thrives in a wide range of soil conditions. During the summer, 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 in 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 winter. Overseeding in 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 compacted by rain, irrigation, equipment and foot traffic. Also, combined with theintense summer heat, compacted soil decreases the ability of the roots to grow. Compacted soil also inhibits the infiltration of air and water.

To reduce compaction, use a core aerator with hollow tines that poke holes into the ground and pull out small cores that are one to two inches long. They are often available at rental or garden centers. Prior to aerating, mow the grass to a height of two inches. 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 rows.

Purchase quality seed 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. Use seed that is certified by the Georgia Crop Improvement Association 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.

Kentucky-31 is one of the most common varieties of tall fescue which has been around for decades. However, newer and more attractive varieties frequently referred to as "turf-type" tall fescues, such as Southeast, Rebel, Plantation and Millennium have a finer leaf blade, darker green color and a greater density and shade tolerance.

The upper one inch of soil needs to be kept moist during the time the seed is germinating. This usually requires a light application of water on a daily basis. As the seed begins to grow, reduce the frequency of watering to a couple of deep, thorough applications per week. After applying the seed, refrain from mowing for two to three weeks and then mow at a height of two to three inches.

With proper preparation, planning and using the appropriate cultural methods to maintain fescue, you can have an attractive and healthy lawn.

Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu