Which fine fescue should you use?

September 3, 2018

by Eric Watkins

I often get asked what I’d recommend for a good fine fescue mixture for Minnesota. I usually recommend a mixture of the three fine fescue species that are most readily available: hard, Chewings, and strong creeping red. The tricky part is determining the final components of a fine fescue mixture that will result in a high-performing turf.

Full Sun

In the full sun conditions our research plots experience, there are consistent and clear differences in performance.  When I was rating plots recently, hard fescue was the top performing species, and all the hard cultivars looked really good. They had very few weeds, weren’t affected by disease pressure, and had a nice, uniform appearance. I can’t recall a summer in Minnesota when the hard fescues weren’t the top performing species. The poorest performing fine fescue this summer in Minnesota is strong creeping red fescue. This species doesn’t handle summer stress very well, and is susceptible to a number of diseases. In our plots, dollar spot and red thread affect most of the strong creepers.

fine fescue research plots

This picture shows these differences pretty well. You can see that the hard fescue plots have excellent turf density and a nice green color, while the strong creeping red fescue plots have significant damage from disease and are allowing weeds to become established. As you can see in the picture, Chewings fescues were intermediate to the hard and strong creeping red fescues. They can also get dollar spot and red thread, but not to the same degree as the strong creepers. The Chewings fescues seem to handle heat and drought better than the strong creepers as well. In recent years, we have noticed that Chewings fescue is more susceptible to damage caused by prolonged ice cover than are the other fine fescues.

If these same grasses were growing in a different location, the results would probably be quite different. For instance, hard fescue seems to be quite susceptible to summer patch, a disease that is infrequent in Minnesota but a major problem in areas with higher levels of summer heat and humidity, such as the Mid-Atlantic region. This is a problem that researchers at Rutgers University are working on as part of our SCRI fine fescue research project.

Shade

If these grasses were growing under tree shade, I’d expect the hard fescues to lag behind both the Chewings fescues and the strong creeping red fescues. Hard fescue can handle one aspect of tree shade quite well (lack of water due to tree root competition), but it doesn’t fare as well when experiencing the decreased light quality present under a tree canopy. Dominic Petrella, a postdoctoral researcher in our group, is currently investigating the effects of light quality on these grasses.

Recommendation

In summary, for a full sun lawn in Minnesota, I’d recommend approximately (by seed weight in a mixture):

  • 40% hard fescue
  • 40% Chewings fescue
  • 20% strong creeping red fescue

If tree shade is a significant issue, I’d recommend:

  • 40% Chewings fescue
  • 40% strong creeping red fescue
  • 20% hard fescue

Regardless of the type of grass you choose to seed, it is important to consult locally collected data and make wise purchasing decisions.