That narrow window of perfect temps for fescue lawns is near

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 6, 2013

SALISBURY — Fall is the best time of the year to seed cool season fescue lawns. This narrow window of opportunity during the fall promotes optimum root growth and development in fescue lawns. Soil temperature for fescue root growth is 60 degrees, yet research has found that roots continue to actively grow when the soil temperature is 34 degrees. Seeding now provides optimum growth before the arrival of cold weather since seed germination is slow during cold weather and often produces weak, thin turf.
More than 50 cultivars of turf-type fescues are on the market, providing more than an ample selection for homeowners, however, most retail outlets and garden centers only carry four or five different cultivars. Most seed companies are now selling fescue blends or fescue/bluegrass mixtures in an effort to provide maximum seed quality. Some garden centers will custom blend turf seed to homeowner’s needs — you can design your own blend.
Try to plant a blend of turf-type fescue. Turf-type fescues often come in blends. Try to use a blend of three or more different types of turf-type fescue. These seem to adapt better and help reduce the spread of brown patch. Single cultivar plantings allow the fungus to spread freely, whereas a mixture limits its spread.
Shady areas should be seeded with blends containing bluegrass, creeping red fescue or hard fescues. Shade blends or mixes do rather poorly in full sun, however a new bluegrass cultivar offers some heat tolerance. Bluegrass does well in the shade, spreading by stolons. Oddly enough, turf-type fescue and bluegrass will coexist to form a dense, well-matted lawn.
Avoid planting turf blends that contain ryegrass. Annual and perennial ryegrass is very competitive and weakens fescue stands. These are often sold as “quick start” lawn seed. Check the contents carefully before purchase.
Apply fescue seed at 5-7 pounds per 1,000 square feet (220 pounds per acre). Apply half the seed to a given area, and then apply the remainder of the seed at a right angle to the previous application in an effort to guarantee thorough coverage.
Use half the normal seeding rate (3-4 pounds per 1,000 square feet) when over-seeding thin or bare areas in existing turf. Core aerating before over-seeding is beneficial, allowing the seed to make contact with the soil, improving germination.
New lawns need to be plowed and raked to a depth of at least 6 inches to ensure good seed penetration. Make sure lime and fertilizer are tilled at least 4 inches deep in an effort to put nutrients in the root zone of emerging grass seed. Simply tossing grass seed on hard, untilled soil always ends as a disaster.
Apply clean wheat straw as a mulch to cover bare ground areas. I really want to emphasize clean wheat straw with no seed heads. Germinating wheat in fescue lawns can be rather unattractive and may compete with emerging fescue.
Wheat straw mulch holds moisture, allowing seed to germinate quickly. Gently shake one to two bales of straw per 1,000 square feet. Be careful not to apply too much straw. After application, you should be able to see the bare ground through the mulch. Over-mulching produces thin, weak stands of turf.
Keep the soil moist for adequate germination. Water deeply to prevent sparse, inadequate root development. Irrigation may be needed two or three times per week during dry fall weather. Water less frequently when turf becomes established.
Fescue normally germinates in 14 days; however, as the soil temperatures begin to decline, so does seed germination. Fescue germination begins to slow down in late October and November, especially when hard frosts occur. Seeding within the next few weeks is essential for maximum turf growth.

Darrell Blackwelder is Rowan County Extension director, North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Call 704-216-8970.