Guest Rants, Lawn Reform

My Favorite Turfgrass? Sheep Fescue!

sheep fescue path

Guest post by Thomas Christopher

Enhancing biodiversity is fundamental to transforming lawns from the polluted green deserts that they now are into the sustainable, environmentally constructive landscape features we desire.  For that reason, in my plantings I’ve avoided becoming too reliant on any one grass.  Instead, I try to include many different grasses (and increasingly, wildflowers) in my seed mixes – I combine not only different species of grasses, but also several different cultivars of any given species.   But if I were to nominate a favorite turf grass, it would probably be sheep fescue (Festuca ovina).

This overlooked species has traditionally been regarded, in the East at least, as useful only for soil erosion control on difficult and inaccessible sites.  It’s what highway departments plant on a steeply sloping highway shoulders that are difficult to mow – sheep fescue is so slow growing it requires only one or two cuttings a year and if left uncut forms a low, meadow-like carpet.  And sheep fescue is tough.  It flourishes on poor soils.  In fact, fertilizing sheep fescue is usually a mistake since the extra nutrients will benefit weeds more than they will benefit the grass.  Sheep fescue also thrives on acidic soils, something that few other turf grasses can do, and once established, it’s almost invulnerable to drought, at least in the Northeastern climate.

Traditional turf managers, whose standard of beauty was the plush, emerald green of force-fed Kentucky bluegrass, dismiss sheep fescue as homely, but I like the soft texture created by its long, thin leaf-blades, and its delicate bluish-gray color.  And if I want a richer look, I can resort to one of the two commercially available cultivars:  ‘Azay’, which is a darker green than the species type, and ‘Azay Blue’, which offers an attractive blue-green.

Actually, genetic testing has suggested that these two cultivars may be types of hard fescue (Festuca longifolia) rather than sheep fescues, but for me the important point is that they look and behave like sheep fescue.  In addition to their self-sufficient hardiness, ‘Azay’ and ‘Azay Blue’ are both bunch grasses: they do not spread by stolons to form a solid web like a bluegrass but instead grow in tufts that expand outwards to eventually merge into a single carpet.  Bunch grasses are much better at sharing their territory with other low-growing plants, which makes them good partners for the perennial wildflowers I want to incorporate into the lawns I plant.

Late last summer I created a turf path to bisect the cobbled courtyard I created in front of our house in the Berkshire Hills of southwestern Massachusetts.   For aesthetic reasons I wanted this small strip of greenery to have a uniform height and color, so I planted it solely with ‘Azay Blue’.  The effect of this soft turf juxtaposed with the rugged glacial cobbles (I’d collected and set these myself) was as dramatic as I had hoped.  I planted the grass in late August, and by late September when I began punching holes in it to plant bulbs, I found the ‘Azay Blue’ had already sent its roots down five inches.

Early next spring the grass will be scattered with blue flowers of species crocuses and chionodoxas.  I’m starting bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) from seed this winter to provide follow-up color.  If the wood sorrel takes, this will significantly enhance the total population of its species in Massachusetts.   This native wildflower, which requires good sunlight, has been disappearing from Massachusetts as the second growth forest grows denser, so that now only five limited colonies survive.  I’m hoping to add a sixth.

I’ve identified two other sheep fescue cultivars, a European type called ‘Quattro’, and another identified only as ‘MX-86’ which is especially low-growing and is inoculated with endophytic fungi, so it should prove especially insect and disease resistant.  I’m going to try both this coming spring and I would love to hear reports from anyone who has experience with either one.

You won’t find seed of any of these grasses at your local garden center, but all are available at competitive prices by mail order.

Posted by Thomas Christopher on February 13, 2014 at 7:42 am, in the category Guest Rants, Lawn Reform.
11 Comments

11 Responses to “My Favorite Turfgrass? Sheep Fescue!”

  1. Chris Baswell says:

    Thanks for this! I’d love to read another guest column on the other wild flowers you include with these grasses. How do the sheep fescues do on clay soil?

    • Chris: Sheep fescue needs a well-drained soil, and preferably a relatively infertile one. If your clay is on a slope so that it doesn’t stay wet, that should be fine, especially if, before you plant, core aerate and top dress with sand. Poorly drained soils, ones that stay consistently moist, aren’t suitable for any of the fine fescues. Buffalograss prefers clays, so you might investigate that.

      • Tibs says:

        So what happens if you plant it in really fertile soil? Gives up the ghost or grows like crazy?

        • On fertile soils, it cannot compete with weeds and other grasses, and is soon crowded out. I suspect that the excess fertility also makes for soft, overly-lush growth, which makes it a target for pests and diseases, too.

  2. Tibs says:

    At last a reasonable solution for grass as a ground cover. But I want more info on “needs little mowing”. Every other week? Once a month? Twice a growing season? Depends on how much rain you get? I have tried alternatives to grass and all have been duds because of misrepresentation by the industry. Ground cover roses. They get 2′ by 6′. They were 4′ by 12′ and eating unwary pedestisns. Creeping myrtle. “Oh you only have to trim it back 2 or 3 times a year.” You couldn’t find the sidewalk if I only did it that often. And it is a s-o-b to get the leaves removed. So this sounds perfect. I can keep all my minor spring bulbs cause it won’t need mowed til their leaves are brown and I will be able to rake leaves. Yes! I have been looking at Appalachian sedge as a solution but could only find a source for plugs which is too $$. But this comes in seeds. I see this years project. Rip out all myrtle. Salvage the hundreds of spring bulbs. Ooh I can get more too! Plant grass. Watch my husband roll his eyes as a change this area one more time.

    • I, too, like the sedges as a turf alternative, but you can’t start them by direct seeding — that is, sowing the seed right where you want it to grow — and buying enough plugs to fill any considerable area is horribly expensive. I’m starting some sedges from seed this year, but obviously that’s going to be a slow-moving project.
      About sheep fescue and mowing: if you like a somewhat shaggier look (as I do), then you only mow this grass maybe twice a year, once in mid to late spring, and again in fall. For a neater look, you’ll have to mow maybe four times — a couple of times in the spring, once in early to mid summer, and again in the fall. Mow this grass high, no shorter than 4 inches.
      Another thing to keep in mind is that if you let the sheep fescue lawn become infiltrated with tall-growing weeds or other faster growing grass species, then it will need more mowing. The key to keeping out these invaders is to never fertilize or irrigate (after the grass is rooted in; the seed needs to be kept moist while it is germinating). It’s also essential to kill ALL existing grass and weeds before re-sowing an area with sheep fescue seed (smothering works well, as does a combination of spraying with concentrated vinegar (10% acetic acid in water), tilling up and grading the soil, waiting a couple of weeks and then spraying with vinegar again. Plant in the early fall — this gives the grass a head start on annual weeds which prefer spring and early summer weather — and be vigilant to eliminate weeds as they pop up in the first spring and summer. Once the fescue knits together, it’s good at excluding weeds on its own — as long as you don’t water, fertilize, or mow it short.

  3. Tibs says:

    I can do that!

  4. Chris Maciel says:

    Where can I buy Sheep Fescue seed?
    I’d like to try a patch of this.

    • You’ll find seed at Outsidepride.com

      Some local suppliers also stock it. For example, I can buy it in bulk at Charles Hart Seed in Wethersfield, CT — they carry the cultivars ‘Azay’ and ‘Azay Blue’.

  5. Sheila says:

    How does sheep fescue perform in Zone 9? Any suggestions (besides St. Augustine, Bahia, and Zoysia) for environmentally-friendly turf grass in central Florida?

    • Sheep fescue is a “cool season” grass, which means that it grows most vigorously in cool, moist weather — it won’t flourish in zone 9. I’m not versed in southern turf grasses, although I do know that carpetgrass and centipede grass are supposed to be good low-maintenance choices for parts of zone 9. Check with your local Cooperative Extension about this.

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