Fescues are an easy-care alternative to traditional Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye grasses.
By this time of year, you might be tired of mowing, fertilizing and watering your lawn. Fortunately for you, there are grasses that require a lot less TLC than what may be growing in your yard right now. What's more, you could plant one of the lower-maintenance grass mixes this fall.
Most Twin Cities lawns are made up of a mix of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye. These are attractive varieties because they tend to grow quickly and lushly. But they also use a lot of water and fertilizer and need to be mowed fairly often.
If you went to the garden center to look at grass seed, you'd probably find that the lawn mixes contain bluegrass and perennial rye as well as annual rye (the latter makes your yard look green when you first plant it, then quickly disappears). There may also be another type of grass in the mix: a fescue.
According to Eric Watkins, a turf breeder and assistant professor of horticulture science at the University of Minnesota, fescues can make for easier-care lawns. Watkins has been working with low-maintenance grasses for almost 10 years. Among his favorites are:
• Strong creeping red fescue (often called red fescue or creeping red fescue)
• Hard fescue
• Chewing's fescue
• Sheep fescue
These grasses take less water, less fertilizer and require less mowing than the traditional mix of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye. And the fescues also tend to stay green longer than other grasses, even during a summer drought.
In fact, if you planted fescue and didn't water consistently, you'd be more likely to have a green lawn than someone else in the neighborhood who planted Kentucky bluegrass and didn't water consistently. The one drawback is this: If one of these fescues does go dormant (the technical term for when grass turns brown during the summer), it will be slower to recover than Kentucky bluegrass.
Another grass that needs less water, though not necessarily less fertilizer, is tall fescue. Tall fescue has deep roots, which makes it better able to soak up water when other grasses can't. And, because it's more tolerant of heavy foot traffic than other fescues, it can be a good choice for lawns that get heavily used.
Finding these fescues will take some effort. You may want to call several garden centers or check online for vendors that sell mixes with fescues. Instead of just asking for a low-maintenance or low-input grass mix, read the label to find the contents of each seed mix.
Right now, fescues are probably the best choice for a low-care lawn grass. But there may be other, better grasses coming onto the market soon. Watkins' team at the university is working on a breeding project designed to develop junegrass, a native prairie grass, into a viable turf grass. That's particularly important because most of the turf grasses we use today were introduced from Europe and aren't as well adjusted to our climate as junegrass is.
Fall is the best time to plant grass, whether low-input or traditional. If you want to make the leap to a lower-care grass, you can till up your existing grass with a rototiller and plant seed -- or even sod -- of a low-input grass. To make a more gradual conversion, consider overseeding your existing lawn with a fescue mix. If you cut back on the water and fertilizer over several years, the low-input grass will take over.
Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota. He's also the author of three books, "How Trees Die," "The Truth About Garden Remedies" and "The Truth About Organic Gardening" (Timber Press, $12.95).