A Word about Fescue Lawns: Batters Up!

By Davie P. Lowe, EMGV

Our lawns need our attention! With the oppressive summer heat finally receding we once again venture out into our yards. We find that the lush lawn of spring is gone and in its place is a dry brown dust bowl. Your lawn needs an advocate, you need a pep talk and in the ninth inning, Coach Lowe is here to help.

Our lawns face numerous challenges, akin to a baseball game where harmful “pitches” are continuously thrown their way. Personally, my lawn has encountered fungi, destructive insects, soil compaction, and drought. Despite these challenges, it’s still in the game because I’m determined not to let anything strike it out.

Staten Island University Hospital Community Park Photo by: Lia Manos

Your lawn might be looking less than good, but now is not the time to give up. This is the perfect moment to step up to the plate – it’s, “Batters Up” time. Even if your lawn appears to be losing in the bottom of the ninth inning, remember, the game isn’t over; there’s still hope. As lawn owners, it’s our turn to step into the batter’s box.

I live in the Piedmont area, where it’s often recommended to grow cool-season grasses. Personally, I cultivate Fescue blends. There are various Fescue varieties available, but I prefer a blended Fescue that thrives in both sunny and partially shaded areas. You can find these blends at your local stores, and I’ve had excellent results with them.

Tall Fescue Image: Matt Lavin, Flickr  CC BY-SA 2.0

Let’s take a moment to differentiate between blended grass seeds and mixed grass seeds. Mixed grass includes different species of grass seeds, possibly with multiple varieties of other plant seeds.  In contrast, a blend should consist of one predominant grass species with several other added grass varieties. The key takeaway here is that mixed grass is more likely to contain unwanted seeds (weeds), whereas a blend doesn’t. I always opt for the blend as it provides a broader base and enhances grass uniformity.

Regardless of your choice of grass, it’s crucial to conduct a soil test prior to seeding. Why is this important? A soil test removes the guesswork surrounding your soil’s condition and nutrient requirements. Please, don’t assume that what works for your neighbor’s yard will work for yours. Soil composition can vary significantly even in close proximity. A soil test will guide you in making informed decisions about seed selection based on your soil’s condition. For a free analysis of your soil profile, reach out to your local Cooperative Extension office.

There’s an optimal time for planting or reseeding lawns. Fescue thrives when reseeded during the cool, rainy months. Aim for air temperatures consistently around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit, typically that is between August and October, although this may vary due to current climate change. Consult your local weather service for trends and forecasts.

Last year, I reseeded my Fescue lawn in October, and with the arrival of rain, the grass flourished beyond my expectations. It was like hitting a home run with the bases loaded!

When purchasing grass seed, only buy what you need for the area to be reseeded. More isn’t always better and a crowded field can lead to weak grass that’s susceptible to disease. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest mechanism. If your lawn is thinning, overcrowding could be the issue – remember, everything needs room to grow!

Regarding fertilization, the best time to fertilize Fescue grass is in the fall, particularly if you plan to fertilize just once a year. This provides the necessary nutrients for growth and recovery from the summer heat. Spring fertilization is also an option, and it can be done in March or April. Before you fertilize, make sure you test your soil to know what it needs.

Before we wrap up, remember that Fescue is best mowed at a height of approximately 3.5 inches, though I sometimes opt for 4 inches, depending on the specific Fescue variety and time of season. During the dry summer heat, aim high. It will increase the lawn’s strength and density and shade out lower-growing grass such as Bermuda grass. Cutting it too short introduces stress. The short blades are left with little room to photosynthesize, especially if your lawn is in the shade.

Reel lawn mower. rseigler0, Pixabay CC BY 0

Gardeners, consider the baseball player called up from Minor Leagues to the Major League. That’s me today as I’ve been asked to write this blog. It’s my first, however, I’m making no apologies and I hope I scored with you.  As the player steps up to the plate, he doesn’t apologize for his debut; he just says, “Batters up” and starts swinging!

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Starting Cool-Season Annuals for Early Spring Blossoms

By Marcia Kirinus, EMGV

Fall is rapidly approaching, and for me, it marks the start of spring planting. The shorter days and cooler nights inspire seed starting of cool-season hardy annuals. I have a particular fondness for early spring annual flowers because they are the first to bloom after a dreary winter. They fill empty spaces with vibrant blossoms and serve as a crucial food source for early-season pollinators. I’m referring to flowers like Centaurea, poppies, Digitalis, snapdragons, larkspur, and Calendula. While the list is much longer, these are just a few of my personal favorites.

All photos by Marcia Kirinus

From left to right, top to bottom: Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus), Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) Bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), Annual Monarda (Monarda hybrida), larkspur (Consolida ajacis), Strawflower (Bracteantha bracteata), Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus).

Cool-season annuals thrive in cool to cold conditions and bloom early in the spring through summer. Planting them now instead of in the spring has substantial benefits. When planted in the fall, they get a significant head start. Throughout the winter, they develop deep root systems, resulting in larger and more robust plants come spring. Their stems are longer, and they produce more blossoms. They also become more resistant to diseases and insects. However, my favorite reason to plant now is that after you sow seed or plant transplants, there is little else the gardener must do but occasionally water. In contrast, when you plant in the spring, your plants will remain small and require more attention.

To determine if a plant is a good candidate for fall planting, there are a few things you need to know.

  • Your USDA winter hardiness zone.
  • Your average last frost date.
  • The hardiness survival zone of the plant you want to grow.

This knowledge enables you to sow all kinds of plants in the fall, not just cool-season annuals. Herbaceous perennials, ornamental grasses, and shrubs can be treated the same way.

In Durham, NC, we reside in USDA winter hardiness zone 7b (although we’re occasionally a bit cooler in the northern part of the county). This means I can plant anything that is winter-hardy up to zone 7. Anything that survives the winters of zones 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1 can be either transplanted or seeded directly. To determine when to plant, you need to know your first average frost date. Currently in Durham it falls between November 3rd and 9th.

Once you have your winter-hardy seed, your USDA winter hardinesss zone, and your first average frost date, sit down with your calendar and plan accordingly. If a seed packet says to start seed 4-6 weeks before maturity, count back from November 15. Ideally, this puts you at sowing seeds between October 15-25. You can start them indoors or sow them directly in the garden. Often, the seed packet will tell you if one method is preferred. If you are putting transplants in the ground, you have a little more wiggle room, and they can go into the garden later than 4-6 weeks. Last year, I experimented with putting transplants in the ground in late November, into January. I then covered them with a light fabric row cover, and most did just fine. I’m not sure how they would have survived without the row cover. The covers are mostly to protect the young plants from the harsh wind, not the temperature.

Some plants do better when started indoors and set out as transplants, while others thrive best when seeds are sown directly. Directly sow seeds of: nigella, poppies, bupleurum, agrostemma, larkspur, centaurea. Flowers that do better as transplants include snapdragons, digitalis, and calendula.

From left to right: Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Soapwort (Sapornaria ocymoides), Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amiable).

When directly sowing seeds, read the back of your seed packet or get seed germinating info online from the distributor. Many of the cool season annuals require light to germinate – meaning you do not cover the seed with soil. Toss them and walk away. Many want cool nights when the air temp is 65-70 for two weeks, and the soil is still warm. Last year in Durham, that time was around Halloween. That was when I scattered poppies, bells of Ireland, orlaya, cynoglossum.

Plants from scattered seeds of Orlaya grandiflora, California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Soapwort (Sapornaria ocymoides).

Lastly, keep in mind that not every seed will germinate, especially with direct sowing. I typically start with three times more seeds than I need for direct sowing and one and a half times more for indoor starting. This way, you can select the healthiest transplants and compost the rest. Don’t expect every seed to germinate or thrive.


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