Wednesday 7 November 2018

Growing a pure stand of Chewing’s Fescue(2)

You can do interesting things with this exquisite grass
I prefer to walk on infrequently mown grass rather than bare soil
Sometimes I write for a minority interest. In this case the minority might merely be me. I do get peculiar gardening whims and get this urge to tell you about them. For the last four years I have been  besotted with this lovely fine grass.

There is nothing new about this originally New Zealand grass. Its been around for a very long time - ever since it was discovered by a seedsman in farmer Chewing's field. It is now the major grass constituent in all UK fine grass seed mixtures. What I do almost uniquely is to grow it as a pure stand on its own or as a backcloth to such as wild flowers and bulbs.

The special features of Chewing is that apart from it’s adorable dark green colour, its dwarf habit and delicate fine nature, its general hardiness, suitability to a wide range of environments and soils, is that it has a tufted nature and does not produce stolons and creep.

Cathi's grass verge is colourful throughout the year
This compact nature gives new opportunities albeit used alone it is not suitable for a conventional pitch or lawn where turf is bound together with skilfully composed mixtures optimised for a myriad of sports and ornamental situations. A  Chewing lawn  lawn might have a tufty uneven nature and you all know the phrase “don’t have all your eggs in the same basket”.

The original Chewing species has been extensively ‘improved’ by the huge worldwide turf seed industry. Like all turf grasses the trade recognises many distinct cultivars each with special strengths such as colour, hardiness, Winter wearing and dozens of other useful attributes. 
Very confusing. My own experience is with the cultivar ‘Wagner’ - although if you buy as a layman as I do you will be lucky to have Hobson’s choice.

The problem of weed grasses
This is a later extension of Cathi's verge -  a work in progress
Most soils are full of weed grass seed and in some cases suitable wild species.
Although lawns are not my real subject today, very few of them are composed of the grasses that were actually sown. With highly skilled and intense management they nearly might be but let’s face it most of our lawns bear no resemblance to the original mixture and this includes most of my own. Garden genius Peter Williams has an acceptable sward at the bottom of his garden that he never sowed at all. He just started mowing and let the wild grasses come in.

A groundsman once told me that if ever a selective grass weedkiller was invented to kill annual meadow grass if he used it he would not have a lawn left. 
Indeed this encapsulates the problem. Where lawn weeds are dicotyledons (broad leaved plants) there are selective weedkillers to kill them; not so for weed grasses.

How to achieve a pure sward
With great difficulty and most people fail.

Never mown this fescue path has been trimmed with my battery electric strimmer once only to prevent flowering
The basic technique exploits the principle of the ‘stale seed bed’. This is where sowing conditions are established and then left alone for surface weed seeds to germinate.These are then repeatedly sprayed off (or shallowly hoed). Best for a whole season or even longer. Old time farmers used it to clobber particularly difficult ‘seasonal weeds’.
In my own case I can go better than this where for years I have kept land free of seeding weeds by regular glyphosate spray and as a none digger have not brought buried long dormant seeds to the surface.
1. The village plot is an example where a regularly sprayed bark path after many years had faded away. I just scattered Chewing fescue and with hardly any hand weeding quickly had a uniform stand. (‘Quickly’ for me might be more than a year!)

2. I am starting to use Chewing fescue as a ground cover in the wilder parts of my glyphosate managed garden and it was equally easy to establish.

3. In Cathi’s grass verge where I eliminated perennial weed from original coarse grass completely overgrown with ground elder the process has been more complicated. You can read about this conversion if you use my search box. The project involved keeping the best of any surviving ‘wild grass’ and scattering fescue seed

4. Lyndi’s overgrown ancient horse paddock had no grass left when I sprayed off the rampant nettles and otherwise mainly annual weed. You can read about this too and as explained later it is not as easy to get the right grass growing.

5. Sixty years ago in my then small garden I sowed a conventional fine grass lawn. I was able to get a free supply of ‘spent’ John Innes compost from Askham Bryan college. A one inch mulch over the soil surface was sufficient to suppress germinating weed grass seed. It worked very well.

The process of establishment
As long as you can identify Chewing you need not identify any other grass. You just pull or cut out out none fescue grass or very carefully spray it. No hesitation, as soon as you see it it has got to go. If the foreign grass removal leaves a large empty space no matter, you can sow (or plant) some more fescue later 

Spraying out grass weed of course is harder and is only necessary on large scale sowing - and you need to have experience of low pressure directed squirting with a knapsack sprayer using almost zero pressure. To achieve success with spraying you need to sow very thinly indeed  - very much less than if you were sowing a lawn. It is impossible to select out weed grasses when amongst dense cover of fescue seedlings. I am prepared to resow if necessary umpteen times. After all even in a quarter acre field it only takes a few minutes. It might of course take a long time to achieve your heart’s desire.

Not yet sufficient cover but I hope you can see where I am going
In Lyndi’s large field it has been a process of attrition. This project has been much more than establishing stands of fine grass. She has already had two years of outstanding displays of thousands of bulbs and (as yet not very exciting) summer colour of annual and perennial ornamentals My aim is only about 35% Chewing’s grass cover and I am half way there.

A work still in progress
The village plot path was so much easier and quicker. There were very few grass seedling weeds and I was able to sow relatively densely, rely solely on hand weeding and only resow once. Within a year it was a very adequate grass path which never needs mowing.

The very good news about establishing fine fescue grass from seed is that the inevitable broad leaved weeds can be taken out by overall spraying of selective lawn weedkiller. Even better, unlike most other lawn grass seed fescues are unharmed even when very small.

A note about hand weeding
I know a few readers do not like to use herbicides and hand weeding a lawn sounds too stupid for words. Not so. Provided you started with some kind of stale seedbed management before sowing, are prepared to sow thinly on more than one occasion and are not in a great hurry, hand weeding works extremely well. In another project I have been doing this in a hundred square metre project. I find it easy, effective and curiously addictive. Just ten minutes twice a week over several months! When eventually densely established, fescue does not give other grasses a look in.

What you get with a Chewing sward
Not usually a lawn although with appropriate mowing with blade set high rather a nice meadow which perhaps needs one third the cutting of a standard lawn.

Perhaps I should strim a little more 

As an extreme Cathi’s verge and the village grass path get no mowing at all. In their second year this season I did go over once with my Black and Decker battery operated strimmer. Without such cutting in June the grass will flower. Any later golden seedheads are not unattractive and in Lyndi’s field I am anxiously waiting the results of a little self sowing. (When at last we actually get some real rain!)

Flowering and seeding fescue might not be your cup of tea but is not unattractive
In grassed down spaces  and meandering paths in my own giant mixed borders I wander in with my bog standard rotary mower at perhaps every fifth cut of my lawn. I set my mower blade close to near how high it will go.

Just twice mown this Summer with the blade set high
I have been surprised and delighted to find how easy this has been. I expected weed grasses to need a lot of special extermination. They certainly do in the establishment period and I am totally obsessive in Lyndi’s field for example to slay none fescues on my routine spray round - clumps of fescues are just another plant to avoid. This latter example where I need to spray anyway (as I do in my cemetery gardens) is as little extra effort as if the fescue was not there.

What has really impressed me is how the density of the fescue sward in my more advanced projects has almost completely suppressed and prevented wild grass infiltration. Large grass swathes on the village plot now needs no glyphosate spraying at all when the whole garden gets my routine monthly spray. My spraying time has been reduced by a quarter.

You might ask what happens where I grow wild flowers and herbaceous garden plants in the grass. This really needs a future post to explain. The beauty of Chewing is that it does not spread laterally by stolons. Spray a stoloniferous grass with glyphosate and it dies back a very long way!
If in my mixed plantings a highly desirable plant is threatened by grass competition the grass gets a well directed glyphosate squirt. In point of fact most successful plants outgrow the grass at their station. Bulbs are ideal, they just pierce through the grass and when they die down the grass restores its supremacy.
I do not want to encourage anyone to attempt to convert their existing lawn. By all means oversow with fine grasses and encourage them with such as iron sulphate and frequent scarifying.  You will never selectively eliminate entrenched undesirable grasses. Established stolons and rhizomes run a long way and if you selectively spray even with great sensitivity you will still get huge yellow patches. Even were you successful an old lawn’s soil contains an abundance of seed of wild grasses

I have written about this fescue before and it inspired very little interest
You can buy Chewing's fescue here from Emorsgate Seeds
There are several posts about Cathi's grass verge and the post about Lyndi's field is my all time second most popular


  1. The grass paths on our allotment have never been sown. The ‘weeds’ have just been continually strimmed and gradually most of the weeds have given up although we still have plenty of buttercups and dandelions. Interestingly our plot neighbour has daisies in place of our yellow flowers.

    1. It might be because your neighbours plot has had more lime.
      Often old grass tennis courts have daisies on the position of old lines that have been regularly whitened

  2. I like any grass that stays short and doesn't require mowing, especially if it tolerates at least moderate foot traffic.

    1. I enjoyed your recent post Jason about doing something similar with a dwarf sedge


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