Time to Seed Tall Fescue

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Bags of grass seed.

Turf seed are available from many garden centers, hardware stores, farm supply, and DYI warehouses.

This week’s rain and cooler temperatures are providing the perfect conditions for cool season grasses such as tall fescue to germinate. If you plan to establish or renovate your lawn with a cool season grass this fall be sure to seed before the end of September for best results. The following tips and advice for sowing tall fescue are adapted from a Turf Alert, posted Sep 15, 2014 by Dr. Grady Miller on NC State Extension TurfFiles.

Tips For Success: Seeding Cool Season Turfgrasses

Fall is the best time for renovation and seeding of tall fescue and other cool-season lawns. Remember that spring-established tall fescue is more susceptible to drought, heat, fungal diseases, and weed encroachment. With normal summer weather patterns, spring seeding is not likely to result in a year-long stand of healthy tall fescue. So do not delay, seed today!

Young seedlings normally emerge and grow best when air temperatures are between 70 and 80 degrees. Soil temperatures need to be greater than 60 degrees for good germination. It is generally better to go a bit early than to seed late. If tall fescue is seeded in less than ideal conditions (too cool or no soil moisture), you may experience a thin turf stand going into the winter. So try to get your seed out in September. If you must wait until October there is an increased likelihood of slow/low germination.

A typical tall fescue seeding rate is 5 to 6 pounds of seed per 1000 square feet. Germination normally occurs within 7 to 21 days under suitable moisture and soil temperatures conditions.

For best results and to make the most of your investment, select cultivars recommended on the Turffiles website. Cultivar names should be listed on the seed bag label. If you buy a tall fescue blend, try to find one with at least one of the cultivars from the list of recommended cultivars. These grasses were chosen because they produce a high quality turf in North Carolina and have been shown to be less susceptible to brown patch. Some like to mix in a little Kentucky bluegrass (darker color and finer texture) or fine fescue (for shady areas). Do NOT add ryegrass to the mix.

Turf seed label.

Label on a bag of tall fescue seed.

Important information to look for on the seed bag label includes:

  • Name of grass cultivars included in the mix (for example, Mystix, Legitimate, and Arisotle on this label) – look for varieties recommended by NCSU based on their turf variety trials. Top performers include Wolfpack II, Talladega, Faith, 3rd Millenium, and Gazelle II.
  • Germination % (85% on this label for all three varieties) – higher germination rates mean more seeds come up.
  • % Weed Seed – choose mixes with very low weed seed levels (ideally less than 0.25%).
  • Sell by Date – fresher seed generally have higher germination rates. Choose seeds packaged for sale this year or next year. Avoid seed that have already passed the sale by date.

Before seeding, core aerification is recommended to reduce soil compaction. Getting good soil to seed contact is paramount to maximize available soil moisture. The core aerification holes will capture seed and hold moisture – as a result the tall fescue seedlings often come up as a tuft of turf from the aerification holes.

Apply fertilizer and lime before planting based on soil test results. If you did not perform a soil test, follow fertilization practices outlined on NC State Extension TurfFiles. Before additional fertilizer or lime is added, conduct a soil test.

If irrigation is available, irrigate to keep the top 1.5 inches of soil moist after seeding. This may require light watering once or twice a day for 7 to 21 days depending on your soil type and weather conditions. As the seedlings grow and root, water less often but for longer periods, working up to the recommended fall irrigation rate of 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch water per week (via rainfall or irrigation). Irrigate early in the morning to reduce water loss due to evaporation.

Since seeds and seedlings may be damaged by some herbicide applications, fall seeded cool-season grasses should not have any herbicides applied (including “weed and feed” products) until they have been mown at least 3 times. If applying herbicides to kill weeds before seeding, be sure to check the label for any waiting periods that should be followed before sowing new seed.

It is very important that tall fescue be maintained at the proper mowing height to allow it to mature before winter and to minimize weed incidence. Studies have shown that a 3.5” mowing height provides the best growth condition while minimizing disease incidence and weed encroachment. Mow newly seeded fescue back to 3” when it reaches 4.5” in height. How often you need to mow will depend on how quickly the turf grows, which will vary with temperature, fertility, and moisture levels. Allow clippings to fall into the turf where they will decay and release nutrients. This can reduce the need for fertilizer by 20-30%.

Note that warm-season grasses such as bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, centipedegrass, and St.Augustinegrass can be sodded in the fall in the Piedmont, but it is generally not recommended due to the increased chance of winterkill. Warm-season grasses should not be seeded in the fall as there is inadequate time for maturity before the first expected frost. Ideal seeding times for warm season grasses is April-May in the NC Piedmont.

Learn More!

Visit the TurfFiles website for more information on turf selection, care, and pest management

Use Extension Search to find research based information from Cooperative Extension systems across the U.S.

Visit your local Cooperative Extension office to learn more about gardening and landscape care. Find your county Extension center

Subscribe to the Chatham Gardener email list to receive timely updates on sustainable lawn, garden, and landscape care for the central NC Piedmont.