Grasses for Cooler Times and Climates

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


Grasses for Cooler Times and Climates

I don’t know about you, but it was hot and dry in my part of the world last summer. If you didn’t have an irrigation system, or watering plan of some kind for your shade grass, there is probably now a bare patch of earth where Fescue once grew. I hope that’s not the case.

Now that fall breezes are reawakening our garden senses, we must take stock of what survived last summer’s onslaught and give it proper care. The turf growing beneath our trees always requires TLC — this year especially — and knowing what to do when, is essential.

• When to water and how much;
• Over-seeding in the spring and perhaps the fall; and
• Fertilizing

Grass yard

All of these are necessary to have a successful shady lawn.

If last summer slackened your enthusiasm, you may be dreaming of a decomposed granite front yard instead of grass, and it’s an option more people in the south are considering.

For myself, I like the look of a cool, green space on a hot summer’s day, and although most of the paths in my garden are gravel, I want just a bit of lawn outside my front door and under my feet. Some people want their lawns to look like pristine, golf courses, but all that perfection comes with a high environmental price I’m not willing to pay. I don’t use chemical fertilizers or weed killers on my little patch of green. The weeds just don’t bother me that much, and nitrogen-fixing clover is good for both your grass and pollinating insects like bees. So, I say, let the clover grow.

grass pathway

For shade, Tall Fescue is beautiful, but thirsty. Scientists are continually working to hybridize and test grass cultivars to see which are more disease resistant and heat tolerant, require less water and are slower growing. According to Oklahoma State University’s testing facility, the following Tall Fescue cultivars are best: ‘Crossfire,’ ‘Trailblazer,’ ‘Austin,’ ‘Guardian,’ ‘Chieftan,’ ‘Hubbard 87,’ ‘Jaguar II’ and ‘Olympic II or Tribute.’ All of these perform better in the heat than ‘Rebel II’ and ‘Kentucky 31. Fescue establishes better from seed than sod.

In fall, there are also certain chores to be performed.

Fertilize in early fall as soon as weather cools. Grasses are heavy feeders and need one pound of nitrogen for every square foot. I use Milorganite in the spring and fall and employ a spreader, but any type of nitrogen fertilizer will work. I have even used composted, chicken manure in the past. Be careful not to overfertilize because runoff pollutes lakes and streams.

Fescue can be mowed shorter now. Set your mower for 2.5 inches in October and then down to two inches during winter months. If our winter is particularly cold, you may not need to mow at all. When you mow, let clippings fall in place where they will decompose and feed the soil. You can also remove clippings and mix them into your compost pile. Their small size will decompose faster providing green matter. However, if you do use chemical fertilizers and herbicides, don’t compost.
Although you don’t have to overseed in the fall, I often do because the weather is prime for covering up bare patches left after summer.

Water is a precious resource everywhere, but especially in the south. We are expected to have drought conditions at least through next year and perhaps longer, so keep this in mind when establishing your lawn. Before I had a sprinkler system, in the hottest part of the summer, I hauled two sprinklers back and forth, but I could never keep up with watering so my shade lawn was a red patch of dirt. A few years ago, my husband and I installed an irrigation system. I’ve found it to be very efficient, and now, I don’t waste water.

As you can see, having a lawn requires care and foresight, but autumn is a great time to work on creating or maintaining your cool-season lawn. Just keep in mind there is a cost to having that patch of green in time, effort and the environment. How big a cost is determined by you.