Fescue may not be the answer
By Tracey Payton Miller
OSU Horticulture Educator
In Oklahoma, it seems most meteorologists could take a break during the summer. If you are a native Okie, you expect May through late August to have hot temperatures, dry soil, and mostly humid air. Cruel conditions for a plant to tolerate. Natural resources are already becoming limited. Therefore, it is important to keep conservation in mind and select the best plants for the landscape. A knack for tolerating high heat and drought conditions are a must when selecting plants to put into use. Unfortunately for those with a shady lawn, fescue turf grass does not fit into that category.
I am always amazed at the work that is acceptable to a homeowner when considering a fescue lawn. Fescue demands twice the water and fertilizer of other grass types, has abundant disease problems, plus yearly overseeding. If any other plant in the landscape entailed so much maintenance, most of us would gladly let it die. But a lush green lawn is worth it to many. As a cool-season grass, fescue must have more water to even try and survive the summer. In the end, most fescue lawns end up spotty or dying due to harsh conditions. This is why yearly overseeding, and possibly complete re-establishment, is required. In contrast, bermudagrass is a warm-season grass and performs better in high temperatures. Bermudagrass can also go dormant for a month or more and typically bounce back when water becomes available.
In many cases, fescue lawns are installed in a yard because the trees have matured and shaded bermudagrass. Because cool-season grasses are more tolerant of shade, fescue is a better choice for those areas. However, fescue is not a viable option where water is scarce and temperatures high. You may also have issues in areas of deep or complete shade with fescue. Like most grasses, it does need some sunlight to thrive.
Another implication to consider is the shade tree may be in competition with the grass for the water. The fescue may hoard the water and cause the tree to suffer if excess water isn't applied.
So what solutions do you have for a shaded yard? One option is to make the area a shade garden. There are many perennial plants that can tolerate shade, some traffic, and require moderate to no maintenance. Be cautious if you add soil around trees, any more than a few inches can cause problems. In addition, avoid tilling around the tree, as the majority of the roots are in the top 12 to 18 inches of soil.
Another option is to apply a mulch circle, in a 2- to 3-inch layer, just out to the drip line. At this point, the bermudagrass can grow. I've seen this frequently during travel in the northeast and southeast. Personally, I find mulch circles more pleasing to the eye, as well as better for the tree. Mulching will help the tree absorb the optimum amount of water, help keep weeds at bay, and moderate fluctuating soil temperatures. Add a bench or picnic table and you have a great resting place.
If you still want green under your shade trees, fall is the ideal time to start fescue grass from seed. Contact your Extension Office for details on establishment. Droughty conditions and water rations are only going to get worse. Be sure and think twice before reseeding fescue.