Monday 31 July 2017

Growing a pure stand of Chewing’s Fescue

An unusual way to grow grass

You would not expect to find a lawn-grass species here 
This is one of my more eccentric pieces and I need to issue a health warning. What I am attempting to do is inappropriate for most gardeners and my methods that essentially need glyphosate and a lawn herbicide such as MCPA might insult a gardener’s personal philosophy. It is actually possible to achieve the same result without using chemicals but only on a labour intensive small scale. I invite you to observe my own learning curve.
Worse, although I am keeping my description more straight forward today my real ambition is not to grow just a pure fescue sward but to use it as a backcloth within a flower border. I have described moves in this direction in last month’s post about Lyndi’s field and in my continuing series about Cathi’s grass verge. This in itself needs another health warning in that if you fail to establish pure fescue and only achieve course wild grasses or have wrongly sown a mix prepared for lawns, such grass is an extreme competitor for water.  I have posted how even trees planted in grass can be severely retarded for many years.

Lyndi's field this April. Will it be a green one next year?

Why grow a fescue sward and why use Chewings?

I have been scattering fescue seed at the edge of my garden in the adjacent farm field
This is not about making a lawn but if you are using fescues for this purpose or just attempting to create a wild flower meadow as conventionally practiced a mix of different fine fescues will do or might even be better.
For my own purposes the beauty of Chewing’s fescue is that it does not creep. It forms discrete tufts which of course do enlarge and coalesce together to produce a springy sward. The beauty for me is that because the tufts grow as discrete plants and if they are infiltrated by a course grass or in my own case compete with my plants I can spray out tiny sections without killing the whole sward!

Yuk...this is not quite what I mean
At first there might be some collateral damage
Nine months from the first of two sowings as a path on the village plot. I do not intend to mow it
A pure stand of Chewing’s fescue is a beautiful sight. A lovely dark green it will be one (or more) of the modern cultivars bred for disease resistance and colour for use in the turf industry. Without mowing it will generally grow at perhaps eight inches high. From its second year onwards it will (unfortunately) flower each year in June at about 18 inches. 

A two year old fescue flowers amongst younger specimens
Not the best thing since slice bread at that time although not entirely unattractive. Many gardeners will elect to cut old grass down to the ground. For me airy grass flowers can be really quite beautiful.
Being fine grass it is likely that a rotary mower with the blade set high will cut it back or perhaps other gardeners might elect to strim it. If you do cut back the grass flowers do not do so until the heads are mature or it will likely flower again. In my grass sections in Worsbrough cemetery I merely let my ‘wild zones’ of fescue seed heads flop down and fade away. I do not mow it nor do I intend to do so in Lyndi’s field.

My extending area of fescue at Worsbrough started with a single plant of wild fescue that I just sprayed around

Fescue will flower for the first time in its second year. If it sets seeds so much the better.

It takes patience and time to achieve a pure sward
When most gardeners sow a lawn they do not get what they sow! Apart from any impurity in low quality mixtures the main bugbear is endemic wild grasses that germinate at the same time as wanted species. There will be broad leaved weeds too but these can be handled by conventional methods and selective lawn herbicides. On  a small scale do not spurn a little hand weeding in any new lawn - but let me emphasise I am not  sowing a conventional lawn.
There are no herbicides that will selectively remove weed grass from lawn. I will in a moment describe how I exploit the tufty nature of Chewing’s fescue to precisely direct glyphosate to do so!

The key to getting a clean start is the stale seedbed technique. It helps if your weeds have not been seeding for several years and you have not dug up to the surface buried weed seed.  This is normally impractical but for me as a non digger and regular sprayer I have several such sites. In Lyndi’s field and Cathi’s verge I do not have such an advantage!
The idea is that you scratch out a seedbed  - or merely start a fallow period - in late Winter, and continue throughout the following Spring and Summer and regularly repeat-spray flushes of weed seed. The intention is that having depleted the surface weed seeds you get a relatively clean start when you sow in say, early September. Regular very shallow hoeing will achieve the same result, or even better as the stirring might hasten weed germination.

A stale seedbed alone will not work well enough for my extreme grass monoculture requirement in Lyndi’s weedy field if I use normal high densities of sowing.
You can learn to recognise early germinators such as annual meadow grass and can get down on your knees.

A different grass weed appears in a clump….
....and must be pulled out. Get a tight grip at the base and tug

My own aim is that eventually my stand of Chewings fescue is 100% pure with not a single weed grass. Failure at the first stage will never be recovered as native weed grasses will always outgrow delicate grasses. In different circumstances, perhaps sowing a ryegrass lawn - yuk - a dense sowing will help you to achieve your heart’s desire. In the case of my own project the strategy is different. It is to sow selectively and very thinly on several occasions over more than a year.  As clear gaps appear I scatter grass seed.

My unusual method
You do need to recognise any grass that germinates that is not Chewing’s fescue in order to weed it out or spray it or smear it. You do not  need to know what it is, you just know you don’t want it. You won’t be able to select out wild fescue species but that won’t really matter.

My extremely thin sowing enables me to select out the weed grasses more easily - and some of them can be hand weeded although most will be sprayed. I do not sow grass in one go over the whole target area. In Lyndi’s field there are many patches where weed seed is still germinating. I spray these again and only scatter grass seed in what appears to be bare patches. In some cases this is illusory and on my next visit I will spray the whole or part-patch and resow. I just walk and in selected places scatter seed without soil preperation. If in Lyndi’s case her heavy clay soil is cracked in dry weather so much the better!

I scattered some grass seed here this May
Small drifts of fescue gradually accumulate and later when fully established prevent most further grass weed germination. Be ever alert to exceptions.
The numerous broad leaved weeds that also germinate get similar treatment but amongst established grass they can also easily be taken out selectively by MCPA. I find when Chewings fescue is  - say -  two months established there is no 'lawn herbicide' damage. I have never seen such damage on fescue and perhaps lawn herbicide damage in newly sown grass is a bit of a myth - but do not take my word for it! 
I have not yet resorted to using MCPA’s selectivity in Lyndi’s field.

These broad leaved weeds are actually my own unwanted self sown plants. MCPA selectively killed them
When recently I had some spare lawn herbicide in my sprayer I did pop round to Cathi’s grass verge and drove down to the village plot but this is the only time I have bothered so far. On Cathi’s mixed verge there are many flowering plants and wild flowers which of course I avoid! 
Those of you who have read my post about Lyndi’s field will know this project started with a nettle overgrown patch last July. Now a year later and after a magnificent display of Spring bulbs other bits and pieces are are now being established, I have sown so little grass seed, that you would have to look very carefully to know any fescue at all was starting to grow. In a year’s time she will have a green field. Lyndi I hope you are reading! (whoops I wrote this sentence in my last post, perhaps I am feeling guilty?)

Methods of spraying
Please remember glyphosate is NOT of itself selective of grass. It will die if you spray it
Regular readers will know my methods. In my opinion only a professional knapsack sprayer will do. I do what is necessary to accurately directionally spray. The main variables will be height of spray head, angle of direction and pressure. I (unconventionally) use a cone nozzle which is the kind recommended for insecticide spraying. I will sometimes spray - albeit rarely - with zero pumping to squirt with only gravity flow. Even more rarely my tiny squirt will be delivered with the nozzle actually touching the weed. If appropriate my wellington boot might be used to create a barrier between desired plant and weed. (A tall weed grass can sometimes be trod down to spray the tips beyond the patch of fescue). Where any desired plants in my own mixed plantings becomes too aggressive, too numerous or in the wrong place they are immediately redefined as a weed. My usual glyphosate/water dilution is between 1 in 50 to 1 in 70 of commercial strength 360 gram/litre product.
You will not come away from any spray training course spraying as I do, and in my view you will spray with far too much pressure. I recently watched a council workman spray in a park…..

You must use pure Chewings fescue
(Unless you are sowing a lawn or sowing a conventional wild flowers/fine grass mixture).
When I started out with my woolly ideas I made the mistake of sowing a regular fine grass mixture of fescue and bent grass. The latter grass with it’s tiny-tiny delicate seeds looks that it must be be really petite. In fact with my method it is an absolute thug and gets too tall and flops all over. It is included in regular fine lawn mixtures because it is quick to establish, withstands regular close mowing and ‘acts as a nurse’ for slow delicate fescues (what-ever ‘nurse’ means).
Chewing's fescue is of antipodean origin and is usually the principle ingredient in fine turf mixtures. I just love it and for me its technical merit is that it does not creep.
I found two UK cheap sources of pure Chewings by surfing the net. I opted for Emorsgate Seeds and have been delighted by their seed quality, packaging, and speed of delivery.
Other than early and mid Winter I sow fescue when I choose. For lawns April or September is thought to be best. My actual preferences are mid March when my own soil tends to be still moist at the surface and September when wet weather is forecast. If a heavy depression is forecast for an extended spell in Summer for me that is also  ideal. With my  opportunistic regular sowings in Lyndi’s quarter of an acre I will just keep regularly pegging  away. Each occasion only takes me five minutes and if it is Summer dry the seed just takes a little longer to grow.

Circumstances where a gardener might use my methods
If you use them at all in twelve months time you may very well hate me
Lyndi’s field and Cathi’s verge are rather special projects and are not for new gardeners.

You might have existing areas something like mine. 
1. On the village plot there are access paths which were originally bark mulch which had been kindly donated by local firm ‘Rolawn’. The bark had rotted away and was largely superseded by liverwort and moss. It did have the advantage after eight years of regular spraying of having almost zero content of surface weed-grass seed. Last year in Autumn and also this February I scattered Chewings fescue and with just a little hand weeding is now looking a lovely green and uniform unadulterated fescue stand. It will not need mowing this year but perhaps next year it might be advisable to mow once at flowering time.

Liverwort proved to be avery suitable surface  in which fescue would establish
2. A very similar situation occurs all round the periphery of my garden where a metre or more strip of glyphosate sprayed soil was a barrier to farm field weeds. After eighteen months from sowing I am starting to enjoy a dwarf dark green unmown grass sward (together with wildflowers and overflow garden plants). It also serves as a nursery for tufts of fescue to repair patches in my mole and rabbit ravaged lawn.

3. There are other ways of starting a weed-grass free lawn. Forty years ago I made a small lawn sown on an inch or so surface layer of old John Innes compost. It had been free to me being a very long way beyond its sell by date. Never sow in a layer of sand*

4. Similarly having supped with the devil accepting free loads of municipal compost as a sweetener to me from the local recycling plant some Chewing’s fescue germinated very uniformly at the base of the old heap.

5. One wonders how seedsmen achieve pure seed of grasses before they blend them together. Similarly how such as local Rolawn provide turf to a precise specification of grass content. I wonder if any of them use soil sterilants which is the only way to kill weed seed in the soil?

I accept no responsibility for anyone who tries a pure fescue lawn. Mixed grasses melding together are needed to make a quality turf and the general feeling is that you don’t want all your eggs in one basket when it comes to turf disease and seasonal grass variation. On the other hand a fescue lawn can look gorgeous
I have recently seen a newspaper picture of a professional golfer looking very cross indeed caught in an un-mown fescue ‘rough’....

Reducing fertility to grow wild flowers in grass
Gardeners are quite correctly recommended to reduce fertility to enable wild flowers to compete with the grass. Regularly removing of annual mowings might be quite useful when practiced for a century or so. (It is also more tidy). The more extreme soil violence of removing topsoil works rather better but for me goes against the grain and is the reverse of soil conservation. Following Lyndi’s horses her field is quite fertile. In my cemetery ‘wild gardens’ I have always tried to maintain soil structure and recycled all my organic matter but have never brought in manure or fertiliser.
Numerous surveys show that wild flowers grow best in infertile meadows untouched by fertiliser. The culprit is phosphate which is not only overused by gardeners and farmers but remains in the soil for many decades. Where phosphate is high strong growing weeds such as nettles thrive - as well as coarse grasses!
Excess nitrate is equally damaging. Fortunately it is very rapidly lost from the soil profile and most is absorbed in the soil and plant biomass.
The popular conception is that nutrients damage wild flowers. I only partly believe this; the real problem is that fertilisers favour coarse plants that outgrow them. Undoubtedly some plants such as some of Antipodean origin find phosphate toxic (unqualified as British natives) and varying soil nutrient balances effect favoured plants and many plants need particular niches. Its all very subtle but in my view the real problem is competition from coarse vegetation.
I am still left with the fear that even delicate Chewings fescue might itself be too vigorous albeit in my own case I am mainly growing garden plants naturalistically rather than wild flowers.
Some wildflower gardeners sow the beautiful plant parasite yellow rattle to subdue the grasses.

This very morning I am off down to Peter’s garden to collect some yellow rattle seed from his wildflower meadow.It is now the exact time to sow them - amongst the grasses!

I sowed too few yellow rattle seeds in Cathi's verge last July
This Spring Peter had tens of thousands of yellow rattle looking like this one

And a few spare pictures

Nature does it better
Fescue and friends at Filey
The kind of effect I want to recreate at Lyndi's
*I wrote about the dangers of thin layers of texturally different soils lying together
How coarse grass competes with trees
Last month's post on Lyndi's field

Where I bought my Chewing's fescue seed


  1. I'm trying to decide what to do with our front lawn. It's currently a weed-strewn area with a dry shady corner where I've managed to establish a ground cover of winter savoury. I'd eventually like to have something along the lines of what you're attempting. How does Chewing's fescue react to hot and dry conditions in the summer?

    1. In as much as it is used in general lawn mixes it is ok. No grass likes long Summer drought and will frequently yellow bit it starts growing when rain comes. In as much as my technique lets the grass grow taller it stays green longer.
      Chewing's fescue is not particularly good in heavy shade but is doing fine in my light shade


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