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Patchy tall fescue lawns
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Fall of 2016 was a rough season.

Unusually hot temperatures coupled with little rainfall left many of our lawns in rough shape. Fall is normally the best time to plant tall fescue grass, but the conditions last year were not conducive.

Many people are now faced with patchy lawns needing to be spruced up. Although seeding and patching of tall fescue is not normally recommended in the spring, many of us have no choice but to push ahead and try to renovate our existing lawns.

Because it is a cool-season grass, meaning it prefers the cooler temperatures of fall and spring, it often becomes thin during the summer. If warm spring temperatures come early, spring-planted tall fescue may not have enough time to develop a good root system before being stressed by intense heat.

Although not optimal, if you can't wait until the fall, spring seeding of fescue is still an option. You may not get great seed stand germination, but even this will be better than bare soil or a yard full of weeds. Fall seeding of patchy areas is always an option. To help increase your chance of success, follow these steps.

Good soil preparation is always the first step in successful planting of any turf. Remove any debris or foreign objects from the lawn. For new fescue establishment, use a rototiller to break up the soil. Incorporate fertilizer and lime into the soil. Now is the time to add soil amendments, such as topsoil or organic matter. Smooth the soil out with a hard rake. Have a soil test done at the Extension office to determine what fertilizer you need to incorporate.

If you plan to reseed an existing fescue lawn, it is best to try to break up the soil in the bare spots. A core aerator or similar implement can be rented at the local garden centers. Mow down the existing grass to around 1 to 2 inches. This will allow the new seed to reach the soil. If possible, lightly rake the new seed to achieve good soil contact.

When choosing tall fescue seed, it is best to choose a "turf-type" fescue. These are newer varieties with finer, more-dense leaf blades and darker colors. They can also take slightly lower mowing heights and have greater shade tolerance. Some varieties have even been shown to have deeper root systems, which improves drought tolerance.

Look for certified seed in bags with a blue tag. These seeds have been tested to be free of weed seed to the percentage listed on the bag. Most retail tall fescue comes in blends of several different varieties. These are cheaper than single-variety blends.

When establishing a new tall fescue lawn, the recommended seeding rate is 5 lbs. per 1000 square feet. However, when reseeding an existing lawn, estimate the percentage of fescue loss, and multiply that by the seeding rate. For example, if your lawn has a 50% (0.5) loss, then you would need to reseed at a rate of 2.5 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft. (0.5 x 5 = 2.5).

After seeding your lawn, you will need to keep the soil moist. If no rain is present, you will need to water the turf at around 1/8 to 1/4 inch daily for the first 3 weeks. After that, start to water the turf deeper and less-frequently.

Tall fescue seeds should start to germinate in 5 to 10 days under good conditions. The grass should be ready for its first mowing in around 3 weeks. Recommended regular mowing height for ‘turf-type' tall fescue lawns is between 2.5 to 3 inches. I recommend letting newly-established fescue grow to at least 3 inches before the first mowing.