How to make and maintain a beautiful green and healthy fescue lawn

The following is expert advice on creating and maintaining a beautiful, healthy fescue lawn. It is appropriate for you if your lawn is within about 50 miles of Interstate-85. I assume that some methods are relevant to other areas. However, my expertise is based on the Greenville-Spartanburg, SC area. I85, from Montgomery, AL to Virginia has a similar climate and soil to my specific area – and so my specific advice will apply. Why listen to me? I first started mowing yards 38 years ago (I was 13). Since then I have received “a lot of education” regarding fescue. This education includes college (Clemson), first-hand experience (over 2,000 lawns), advice from golf course greenkeepers, advice from high-quality fescue nurseries, and advice from other professionals in the lawn care industry.

First, realize that you need to do WHAT you need to do WHEN you need to do it. Garden centers and the like will sell you seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, etc. at any time of the year. That does NOT mean you can apply or run these things at any time of the year. Imagine a farmer planting his crop or reaping his crop on a whim. It does not work. He knows the season or time of year when he has to perform certain tasks. Your next step is to measure the area in which you want your fescue lawn. The AMOUNT of seed, fertilizer, etc. you use is almost as important as when. I will give you quantities to use per 10,000 square feet.

THE BEGINNING: Installing your new fescue lawn should be done around September 15th. Never before September 1 or after October 31. If your soil needs lime to correct the PH (they usually do), now is not the time. Lime can inhibit the germination of your new seed. We like to spread lime in July. Another “pre-seeding” task is eliminating competition for your fescue. August is a good time for this. If your lawn is over 50% Bermuda grass and weeds, you may want to use roundup and kill it all. If it has a reasonable amount of fescue, you can treat the weeds with 2-4-D or another type of weed killer. 2-4-D should not be used after about mid-August, as it can inhibit the germination of your fescue.

The next step is the preparation of the soil. The best method is to work the soil thoroughly and then rake it smooth. A close second is using a core aerator. You can rent a self-propelled type (5hp gas engine) from your local rental company or maybe from your local home improvement store. I find that most homeowners (and many landscaping companies) don’t aerate enough. You want your lawn to look like it has a million holes in it. As a guideline, let’s run an aerator for 3 hours on about 10,000 square feet of lawn.

Applying seed and fertilizer is the next step. Relative to the overall cost of your lawn and its maintenance, seed is inexpensive. Buy the best you can find. An Oregon blue label seed is a sure bet. You should apply 5 lbs of seed per 1,000 sf for new lawns or 3 lbs for existing lawns. You want to make sure you have even coverage. We like to spread 1/2 of our seed north – south and the other 1/2 east – west (relative direction). Your fertilizer should be about 8 lbs of nitrogen per 10,000 sf. We like 16-4-8. A 50 lb bag of 16% nitrogen is 8 lbs of nitrogen. Many types of “starter fertilizer” are available. We have found them to be more expensive than 16-4-8 and no more effective. As with the seed, extra care should be taken to ensure that the fertilizer is spread evenly. It is a good idea to “roll” your lawn with a sod roller after spreading. This ensures good contact of seed with soil.

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Water. Allow me to step back and explain why you should sow by September 15th. Fescue thrives in mild weather. It doesn’t like it when it’s above 85 or below freezing. That gives us two good growing seasons – fall and spring. Winter slows fescue growth, but doesn’t really harm it. The long hot summer days can be unforgiving for fescue. Before summer begins, you want your fescue to be as mature and healthy as possible with long roots. The way to achieve this is to let your fescue grow as much as possible during the fall and then let it grow as much as possible again in the spring. If July’s 100-degree days hit you, your fescue can survive. So plant seed as soon as it is cool enough (15 Sep) and now you need to water to get it to germinate as soon as possible. Ideally, you have a properly installed irrigation system. We like to run our irrigation system very briefly (3 – 5 minutes per zone) 3 times a day. We do this until we see that the seed has germinated. Normally it takes 10-15 days. For the next 2 – 4 weeks, or until the grass is about 3-4 inches tall, we water once a day. If at any point you can walk on your lawn and your feet sink as if the ground is too muddy, turn off the water for a few days. If you get a good rain, turn off your water for 2 – 3 days. When your new grass approaches 4 inches, it’s time to mow. You don’t want to have had any water in the last 36 hours. You want to set your mower HIGH. institution. 3.5 to 4 inches is a good height. You can then water your lawn after mowing. For the rest of the fall and then again in the spring, we recommend watering your lawn heavily, but only 1-2 times a week. About the equivalent of 1 inch (2.5 cm) of rain per week is a good guideline.

Here’s a good schedule (amounts are per 10,000 sf):

  • Sept 15 – 50 lbs seed, 50 lbs 16-4-8 fertilizer
  • Oct 30 – 25 lbs fertilizer (with something close to 30% nitrogen)
  • February 15 – Apply a pre-emergence weed control (crabgrass preventer). Quantity varies, read instructions
  • Mar 15 – 50 lbs 16-4-8
  • May 1 – 25 lbs 16-4-8, apply pre-emergence
  • July 200 pounds of lime

I will write more about general care, weed control and insect control for your new beautiful fescue lawn in a future article.