There are 3 primary choices for turf grass in Memphis, bermuda, zoysia and fescue. Bermuda, usually a hybrid known as Tifway 419 in Memphis, generally requires a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight and Zoysia requires a minimum of 4-6 hours of sunlight, depending upon the cultivar (we recommend Meyers Zoysia almost exclusively). Bermuda and zoysia are warm season turf grasses, meaning that they engage in photosynthesis during the spring and summer months, going dormant in fall.
In contrast, fescue is a cool season grass, meaning that it engages in photosynthesis during the fall and spring, only slowing during the coldest months in Memphis, January and February, and the hottest months in Memphis, July and August. Many people wrongly say that fescue is a shade grass. That statement is misleading. Fescue does well as an under-canopy grass because it wakes up as deciduous trees are losing their leaves and going dormant. This distinction is important because if you plant fescue under evergreen trees, trees that do not lose their leaves in the fall, it likely will not get enough sunlight to survive. Fescue, like zoysia, requires at least 4 hours of sunlight but it can get it during the fall and spring during the period that zoysia is dormant and not engaging in photosynthesis.
Another important fact about fescue lawns in Memphis is that Memphis’s heat and humidity is very hard on it in July and August. You will lose a percentage of it each year during this time period and you will need to over-seed every fall.
A final distinction between fescue and the warm season grasses, like zoysia and bermuda, is that fescue is usually installed by seed, while zoysia and bermuda are usually installed by sod in Memphis. This is because the best types of zoysia and bermuda are hybrids and/or sterile cultivars, propagated vegetatively, some still in patent, and are only available from sod farms. Though it is possible to get common bermuda and common zoysia seed, the seed produces turf that is unattractive, leggy, and without the self-repairing quality and other improved qualities possessed by the types available at sod farms.
In contrast, though some sod farms offer fescue sod, the resulting plants are no better than that you could grow yourself from seed. You will still have to over-seed it every year. Thus, when smart Memphians choose a fescue lawn, they usually install it by seed rather than by sod.
So, what are the steps to creating a fescue lawn?
Choose the Location
It is important to remember that, contrary to what is commonly said, fescue is not a “shade turf grass.” In truth, there is no such thing as a true shade turf grass that would succeed in Memphis. Your fescue will still require at least 4 hours of sunlight after leaf drop. So, if you try to use it in areas that are deeply shaded by evergreen trees, the results will not be great. Fescue can be used in open areas or areas under deciduous trees.
Get Rid of Whatever Is There Now
Invariably, the area you are looking to turn into a fescue lawn will have a combination of mostly failed turf grass and weeds. You should kill all of it before you apply the seed. There are a few options for doing this.
The first option, the one I like best, is to spray all the plants with a glyphosate based herbicide. It was originally sold under the brand name, Roundup, but is now off-patent and sold under many different brand names, including one that we carry, a glyphosate concentrate called, “Eraser.” Glyphosate is a good way to get rid of the unwanted plants because it is a systemic that is absorbed through the foliage, killing the entire plant, rather than just the canopy. It is not absorbed through the roots and does not “sterilize the soil” or in any way make the area unplantable. You can, in theory, plant or seed the next day.
It is important to remember that, because you have to over-seed fescue at least once annually to keep it looking full and green, you won’t be able to make use of pre-emergent herbicides to the extent that you would with a turf grass that did not require annual over-seeding. You might be able to do one application of pre-emergent in the spring but that’s it for the year. Any more than that and you risk the failure of your fall over-seeding efforts. So, making sure that all weeds and existing grass in the area are dead before seeding will give you a much better start.
One big drawback to using glyphosate as a weed killer is that, if you are attempting to kill existing warm season turf grass, like bermuda or zoysia, it will only work when the grass is green. Once the grass has gone dormant, i.e. turned tan, glyphosate will not kill it.
But, some people are ideologically opposed to using Roundup. We believe it is a safe chemical when used correctly and it is kept off of your skin and is not ingested. However, reasonable minds may disagree. Accordingly, if you are one of those people, you must use an alternative approach.
First, you can use some herbicide as an alternative to glyphosate that you find more acceptable. The trouble is that the only ones I know about tend to be only a contact herbicide, rather than a systemic, meaning that it takes repeated applications to truly kill the plant. The most common alternative is usually homemade, using cleaning vinegar as its base. If this approach interests you, there are numerous recipes online. Just keep in mind, whereas glyphosate does not “poison the soil,” you’ll want to research the half-life and toxicity of any ingredient you use in a homemade herbicide to determine whether it will make growing other plants in that area more difficult in the future. Since I’ve never used this approach, I’m not qualified to provide further advice.
Second, you can till the ground up completely, an effort that would help with soil preparation any way, and then use a garden rake to rake out all the weeds and undesired plants. The advantage of this approach is that you will aerate the soil in the process, improve seed-soil contact, a critical factor in seed germination, and you can level the surface in the process if it has hills and valleys you want to eliminate. Depending upon the size of the area and level of compaction, even if you use an herbicide, you might still want to till, rake out, and level the area anyway.
The disadvantages to tilling are twofold. First, even a small part of the root system of a perennial weed left behind will very likely grow back into a new plant, meaning you have not really gotten rid of existing weeds. Second, every square foot of land on the surface of the planet is a seed bank. Seeds germinate when they are at or near the surface. If stored below the surface, they can remain dormant for many year, even thousands of years in some places, reawakening when brought to the surface by tilling. So, though your fescue may germinate very well when applied to freshly tilled ground, so will the weed turned up from the seed bank just below the surface.
Now, to be sure, you can kill the broad leaf weeds that emerge with a selective herbicide after a couple of months but just know that it is something you will have to contend with if you till heavily. Besides, if the soil is severely compacted, you may have to till anyway.
Third, you can cover the ground in plastic tarps for a few weeks, a technique called “soil solarization” to heat up the soil and kill not only weeds but even sterilize some of the seeds. My reading suggests this would take 6-8 weeks when hot or 8-12 weeks when cool or in shade. Since I’ve never actually used this technique, I am not in a position to give much advice but there is a tremendous amount of information about it on the internet.
The advantages to this method are that it allows you to avoid chemicals you may not be comfortable using and, if internet logic holds true, it kills turf grass even if it is dormant and sterilizes seed near the surface. The disadvantages are that it takes a lot of plastic, which in and of itself is not environmentally friendly, is costly, , and takes a really long time, a process you should have started weeks ago if you were going to install a fescue lawn this fall. It also might damage the root systems of desirable ornamental trees that would normally share that area with your turf grass. If you are interested in learning more about using this approach to preparing the soil, I found the article at this link to be informative and it is from a reliable academic source.
Prepare the Soil
The best way to prepare large areas of soil for turf grass seed is to till it at a depth of at least 3-4 inches, tilling in compost or soil conditioner (a mix of finely ground pine bark called ‘pine fines’, sand, and leaf compost), at the rate of about 1 cubic yard per 500-1000 square feet. Roots need oxygen and moisture to grow and this is the best way to give it to them, relieving compaction, exposing the soil to oxygen, and improving the moisture infiltration potential of the soil.
But, tilling the soil is not always practical or necessary. Sometimes, if the area is small and not excessively compacted, after killing off weeds and competing grasses, simply adding a half an inch to an inch of soil to the surface is adequate preparation for good seed soil contact and germination. For example, a 10×10 feet area, 100 square feet, would typically only need about 8 cubic feet of some sort of a loose growing medium added to it. One could use “soil conditioner,” some sort of “top soil” or our 4-8 bags of our Fox Farms “Original Planting Mix” as a loose medium for the seed to germinate in.
But, even for this method, I like taking a garden fork, which has stiffer and stronger tines than a pitch fork, dropping it in the ground every six inches or so, and rocking it back and forth to loosen the soil, before putting the additional soil down. The key is that if the soil is not loose enough and there is not enough oxygen in the soil, the seed will germinate but the grass will not perform as well when it heats up in July and August because it was not able to develop deep enough roots.
Put Down the Grass Seed
Most tall fescue seed is sold in blends with improved varieties/cultivars that send out rhizomes, that have a more pleasing color, etc. included. The fescue seed blend that I like best, for now, and what we sell the most of, is “Five Star Fescue.” It is a blend of 5 of the best varieties/cultivars of turf type fescue. Apply it at the rate of 6-8 pounds per 1,000 square feet for a new lawn or 3-5 pounds per 1,000 square feet for over-seeding.
As a cautionary note, many brands of fescue seed, including Five Star, also offer a “deep shade mix” alternative that will purportedly perform well in heavily shaded areas, i.e. under evergreen trees. I recommend that you do not use this. The supposed shade tolerance is achieved by adding in some variety of creeping red fescue and the tradeoff for using it is too great, namely a loss of tread tolerance. The weight of a squirrel running across it is likely to kill it!
Fescue seed germinates best when soil temperatures are between 50 degrees and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, corresponding to daytime temperatures of 60 degrees to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally, I like to wait until I see a 10 day forecast with no day higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit and most days no higher than 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In my experience, in Memphis, that is usually around October 1. Putting down the seed much sooner than that risks subjecting it to heat stress that will cause it to stall and die before it develops a deep enough root system. Doing it after November 1 risks not giving it enough time to develop a deep enough root system before the following Memphis summer, decreasing the percentage of your fescue turf that makes it through July and August.
Generally, I also like to hold back about ten percent of the seed I put down so that I can fill in the inevitable gaps 2-3 weeks after the initial dispersal of seed.
Note that “damping off disease” is often a problem when growing anything from seed. Damping off disease is when a seed is subjected to excess moisture after it has passed the initial germination stage, causing fungal problems. (For more information about damping off disease, try the article at this link.) The two factors for damping off disease seem to only occur in fescue it is put down too early in the fall or if it is seeded in the spring, something I advise against doing anyway.
Recently a customer asked if Five Star Fescue is coated in an anti-fungal chemical to prevent damping off disease. This is a common approach to preventing damping off disease and many product labels, usually those with flashy labels sold in big box stores, indicate their product has such a coating. Five Star Fescue says nothing about such a coating so I asked my supplier representative. He said he felt sure it did but has yet to get back to me with evidence that it does. Regardless, the strains of fescue in Five Star are known to be especially resistant to disease of all kinds and I have never had a problem with damping off disease when using Five Star Fescue. In contrast, I have seen much lower success rates when using big box store brands that clearly state on the front their seed has an anti-fungal coating.
Cover the Seed in Pine Needles
The seed needs to be kept moist and shaded in the first 5-15 days. Earlier in my career, I took the advice of others and used wheat straw to accomplish this objective. But, I found that it contains too much weed seed and holds moisture a little too well, leading to an unsightly rotting mess down the road. So, I switched to pine needles and I have gotten much better results. You will too.
It doesn’t take a lot, maybe 1 or 2 inches. Most of it will get sucked up into the mower when you give the grass its first cut. Just don’t put it down as heavily as you would if you were using it as mulch in a planting bed.
Keep It Constantly Moist for 5-15 Days
Ideally, you would have flooded the area you are seeding a few days prior to seeding so it develops a deep reservoir while allowing it to dry out enough so the surface is not muddy when you are putting down the seed. Then, after installing it, keep it constantly moist until the grass seed has come up at least an inch and appears mostly germinated, gradually tapering the water over the next few weeks. Subjecting it to torrential downpours of water will cause pooling of the seed so that the turf does not grow evenly. Though it is not always practical to do so, when I can, I like to lightly mist it 3-5 times per day during the first few days. Otherwise, a morning and evening irrigation can be sufficient for the first 5 days, dropping to once daily after that, then tapering off even more after it begins to develop. Because new turf has a very shallow root system, in the first 3 weeks, at least, it is entirely dependent on the moisture level in the top ½ to 1 inch of soil.
Many people recommend fertilizing at the same time as or before you put down the grass seed. I don’t and I eschew soil testing too unless there has been some kind of historic problem with not being able to grow things in your soil. I can get a good read on soil by feel and texture.
However, others swear by soil testing and say it should always be done before planting anything. To get your soil tested professionally, in Memphis, call or email the University of Tennessee extension office for Shelby County or reach out to Waypoint Analytical in Bartlett, Tennessee for private testing. I tend to prefer the latter but many people swear by the former. I like the format of the test results that I get from Waypoint Analytical and have a friend who works there.
When the grass gets to be about 2 inches, I like to fertilize with a ½ pound per 100 square feet 12-6-6 time release fertilizer called “Grower’s Special,” made by Hi-Yield. You could probably fertilize before then but I tend to think the grass won’t benefit from fertilization before then. The following late February or early March I will increase that to 1 ½ pounds per 100 square feet for the spring fertilization and do the same every year around that time and again in early October.
There are more aggressive fertilizing regimen, if one is striving for perfection, that will produce marginally better results, but require much more effort. This simpler method has always served me well.
Cut the Grass
I like to wait until the grass gets to about 5 inches and then cut it back to 3 or 4 inches. Many say cut it back to 2 or 2.5 but I prefer keeping it longer. Fescue doesn’t send out lateral runners as aggressively as warm season turf grasses and seems to benefit from
having longer blades. Cut it high and cut it frequently.
Fescue turf thins and experience some dieback in Memphis every year in late Summer. Therefore, unlike in areas farther north, we have to over-seed our fescue lawns every fall, usually at the rate of 3-5 pounds of fescue per 1,000 square feet. Many say that you should also over-seed in early spring, when soil temperatures are briefly in the correct temperature range again for seed germination. But, my reading and experience suggests that spring seeding of fescue is wasteful in that the grass that emerges from spring seed does not have enough time to develop a deep enough root system to withstand our heat and humidity in July and August. Of course, if you do over-seed in early spring, you’ll likely enjoy a thicker lawn in late spring, at least.
As previously mentioned, I like to apply 1.5 pounds of 12-6-6 time release fertilizer each spring and fall.
Also as previously described, getting a weed free lawn is a little more challenging with a fescue lawn in our part of the country. The primary weapon for weed elimination in turf grass is granular pre-emergent but you really can’t use that weapon with fescue turf in Memphis. You might be able to use it in early spring but I tend not to do so because I worry that, even though the labels say it only lasts for 3 months or less, it might interfere with seed germination when I over-seed in the fall. I am also generally more tolerant of weeds in turf than others too.
In fact, I like to add drifts of Durana White Clover seed in the fall to my fescue turfs I install. Durana White Clover is a patented variety of white clover owned by Pennington. Like all leguminous plants (those in the pea family), it has the unique ability to pull nitrogen from the ambient air and fix it in the soil through a symbiotic relationship with beneficial bacteria in the soil. I like the look of occasional drifts of white flowering plants and the Durana White Clover is a dwarf that never gets too tall.
Of course, any selective post-emergent herbicide is going to kill it but I find I only have to use that stuff every 2-3 years when the weeds get really bad and I want a fresh start. Then, I just buy another quarter pound of Durana White Clover and toss it out, like I’m feeding chickens, as Greg Touliatos is fond of saying, the randomness of the application method contributing to the beauty of how it interacts aesthetically with the fescue turf.
The author, John Jennings, has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016. Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School.