by Sam Bauer (former UMN Extension Educator)
Fine fescues represent a category of low-input grasses that are often utilized in northern climates for creating aesthetically pleasing lawns under minimal maintenance. The successful creation of attractive fine fescues in a lawn setting requires proper establishment and management practices, which can often differ from traditional species such as Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue. This protocol is meant to serve as a basic guide for the conversion from existing cool-season grasses to new stands of fine fescue. This process should be completed no later than the recommended planting date in your location. In St. Paul, MN our last date for planting is September 15th.
Steps for Establishment
- Identify an area that will be suitable for converting to fine fescues. This area will probably contain existing cool season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass that will be killed off during the conversion process.
- Non-selective vegetation control (1st application): Approximately 2 weeks before the initial planting date, an application of glyphosate should be made to control the existing grasses. Follow all label procedures for a proper application, which will include water carrier volume, active ingredient rate, rainfast period, wind restrictions, etc. Use the label application rate for the most difficult grasses that you are trying to control. For example, the Roundup Pro Concentrate label recommends a rate of 1.6 QT/A to control Kentucky bluegrass and up to 4 QT/A to control fescues; in this case the 4 QT/A application rate should be used if your stand contains fescues.
- Non-selective vegetation control (2nd application): Approximately 7 days after the initial glyphosate application, apply a 2nd application at the same label rate.
- Seedbed preparation: Preparation of the seedbed can begin approximately 7 days after the 2nd application of glyphosate (assuming that complete control of the existing grasses was achieved). For this, initially mow the dead vegetation down to a height of approximately 1 inch and removed all of the debris and cut leaf tissue. Soil disturbance can be conducted by the use of a power rake or aerator. Power rakes have vertical blades that cut into the dead canopy to disturb the soil. Video examples on how to use each piece of equipment can be found at the following links: Power rake and aerator. If you choose an aerator like the one shown in the video, be sure to go over the area several times such that spacing between holes is no greater than 2 inches.
- Seeding: Evenly apply the fine fescue seed provided by the use of a drop spreader, such as a Gandy. Fine fescue seed is fairly large and broadcast spreaders will also work if a drop spreader is not available. Seeding rate should be 5 lb/1000ft2. Lightly incorporate the seed into the soil by the use of a leaf rake.
- Fertilizing: A starter fertilizer should be applied following raking of seed at a rate of approximately 1 lb nitrogen, 1 lb phosphate, 1 lb potash per 1000ft2. Fertilizers with balanced nutrient percentages will work well for this; for example - 10-10-10 or 14-14-14. If your starter fertilizer contains a greater percentage of phosphorus compared to nitrogen and potassium (ex: 12-24-14), apply at a rate of 1 lb phosphorus per 1000ft2. A 10-10-10 product should be applied at 10 lbs of product per 1000ft2 to achieve the 1 lb rate of nutrients, and a 12-24-14 should be applied at approximately 4 lbs of product per 1000ft2 to achieve 1 lb of phosphorus. Make a second application at the same rate of starter fertilizer approximately 2 weeks after seeding.
- Erosion control: Protecting the seed from erosion should not be a concern for flat areas with dead vegetation present. The dead vegetation will serve as a control for erosion. For sloped areas with significant soil exposed, you will want to protect the seed from movement by the use of erosion control blankets. There are many options on the marketplace for erosion control, choose the one that you are most familiar with and have used in the past. Most blankets will contain wood or straw fibers.
- Irrigation: The seedbed must be kept moist during the germination process. This is critical. To maintain moisture, irrigate the area multiple times per day during the first week. Generally we suggest three irrigation cycles spaced evenly throughout the day. For example, set up irrigation to run at 8am, noon, and 4pm. Application rates should be approximately 0.10 inch of water during each irrigation cycle. Fine fescues will germinate anywhere from 4 to 8 days. Following good germination, reduce irrigation initially by adjusting the frequency to 2 times per day for 5 to 7 days, followed by 1 time per day until irrigation can be withheld. This assumes no rainfall - be sure the area does not stay constantly wet (maintain moisture but not saturation) and withhold irrigation when rainfall is sufficient.
General Timeline for Establishment
Day 1: 1st glyphosate application
Day 7: 2nd glyphosate application
Day 14: seedbed preparation, seeding, fertilizing, watering
Days 14-21: irrigation 3 times per day
Days 22-27: irrigation at 1 to 2 times per day
Day 28: 2nd fertilizer application
Day 28 and on: maintain moisture such that seedlings are not overwatered (this will help them mature) and not drought stressed. If drought stress occurs at this point, recovery will be slow.
The following link will direct you to a series of 7 short videos on this process.
Maintenance of Newly Planted Fine Fescues
The first maintenance conducted will be the initial mowing in the fall. Maintenance practices for the next growing season will include mowing, fertilizing, irrigating, handweeding, and possibly aerating.
- Mowing. Initially mow the seedlings when they reach the desired height of cut. For this area, heights of cut can range from 2.5 to 4 inches (do not mow at less than 2.5 inches). Mowing in the fall will help to improve density of the stand and control weeds. Continue to mow into the fall until this area stops growing - do not lower heights before winter. In the spring, if significant dead leaf growth appears on the surface, consider raking this up prior to the initial mowing.For mowing frequency, follow the 1/3 guide - do not remove any more than 1/3 of the stand at any one mowing. For example, if the height of cut is 3 inches, mow before the height of cut reaches 4.5 inches. Fine fescues do not like to be mowed in the heat of the summer and they will not be growing much. Do not mow when temperatures are forecasted to exceed 85°F for extended periods - significant stand loss can occur if this happens. We find that fine fescues maintained at 3 inches only need to be mowed 1 to 3 times in the month of July.
- Fertilizing. Fertilizing should be conducted two times during the growing season. Each application should provide 1 lb of nitrogen per 1000ft2. Make one application in the spring (late May in Minnesota) and one in the fall (early September in Minnesota). Fertilizers chosen should contain at least 50% of the nitrogen in the slow release form. Water fertilizer applications in with approximately 0.10 inch of water. All other nutrients, such as phosphorus and potassium, should be applied based on a soil test.
- Irrigating. Fine fescues are surprisingly drought tolerant and require very little water in the right environment. However, since this is a new stand, irrigation must be managed to prevent dormancy or dieback. If rainfall does not occur for approximately 5 to 7 days, consider irrigating to maintain stand integrity.
- Weed control. Assuming adequate establishment and no spring overseeding required, consider applying preemergent herbicides for the prevention of summer annual weeds, like crabgrass. All post-emergent applications should be avoided on this new stand. Broadleaf and grassy weeds should be removed manually by hand.