Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Great American Lawn Scam?

Having (uncharacteristically) done the (supposedly) prescribed lawn care last autumn, I was surprised how bad the lawn in the backyard had done.   I have to replant substantial portions of it, so what am I doing indoors writing this on a nice sunny day, ideal for yard work?

Long story short - I want to plant fine fescue.  Fine fescue is not sold by the usual stores in New Jersey.  Had to order seed from out-of-state.  The delivery got delayed (a mis-routed railway wagon, apparently). So here I am with no seed.

The longer story:

Turns out the majority of the grass in my backyard was a type called "fine fescue".   Fine, so do I want to replant fine fescue?  Well, I felt compelled to do some research. 

Rutgers University is the home of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, and they seem to have an annual proceedings of the New Jersey Turf Grass Association.  The report on their 2012 proceedings has some interesting information about fine fescues.

The fine fescues ( Festuca spp.) are a group of cool-season grasses that have distinct, fine-textured leaves. This group of species are tolerant of infertile, acidic soils and drought conditions and, compared to other cool-season grasses, are better adapted to cool, dry, and shaded environments and exhibit the best performance under lower fertility levels. These qualities give them the reputation of being low maintenance grasses.

When heavily fertilized, fine fescues can become soft, succulent, and thatchy which makes them more susceptible to diseases and summer stresses. A fertilizer rate of 1 to 2 lb nitrogen per 1000 ft2per year is ideal for fine fescues.
....Many of the new cultivars of fine fescue contain a Neotyphodium endophyte that improves drought tolerance, resistance to above ground feeding insects, and in some cases, diseases. The presence of endophyte can reduce the need for chemical inputs normally used to treat for the insects and diseases. Neotyphodium is a non-pathogenic fungus that grows intercellularly within the above-ground plant tissue. These benefits of the endophyte are often very evident under stress conditions. 

These endophytes are fascinating, e.g. see Wiki.
Fine fescues are not recommended for use in high traffic areas due to very poor wear tolerance and recovery. These grasses do perform well, however, under low maintenance conditions and, compared to other turf species, have many advantageous characteristics such as fine leaf texture, low water and nitrogen requirements, and good tolerance to shade, drought, and poor soil conditions.
My backyard is not a high traffic area (nor are most lawns around here - most are ornamental).  So fine fescues seem great.

Further research, a white paper, Alternatives to the Great American Lawn (PDF)
The fine fescues grow well in full sun to shaded conditions. They prefer infertile soil and therefore do not perform well with typical lawn fertilization regimes. Many fescue blend manufacturers recommend not fertilizing the fine fescues at all, while others suggest 1lb of nitrogen a year maximum. Fine fescue blends should be watered as you would any establishing lawn but require little to no irrigation once established (after the first year). During periods of extended heat and drought (~2 weeks at 90-100°), fine fescues will go dormant without supplemental irrigation but regreen when the weather cools and rain falls.

Mowing is not needed. Fine fescue turf can be mowed to a desired height or left uncut to reach a height of 7-9 inches during the growing season. Uncut fine fescues produce a flowing, carpet-like appearance of dark green. If desired, mowing once a month will maintain a cropped lawn look due to the plants slow growth. Fine fescue mixes are commonly mowed once in midsummer to remove the developing seed heads and once again in late fall to ensure an early spring green up.

Fine fescues are noted for few pest and disease problems. These minimal input and maintenance requirements are what make fine fescue mixes ideal as a sustainable alternative to traditional turfgrass mixes.
Elsewhere, we are told that fine fescues are often the last grasses left growing in the dense shade of trees.

So let's see - among the most shade-tolerant of turf species, needs little water, fertilizer or mowing.   OK, you don't want it if you have lots of children running around on the lawn.  But apart from that, what's not to like?

Why don't they sell more of it?  One possibility is that it doesn't give good results.   The other possibility is that it is the seed companies that typically sell you the fertilizers (apply four times a year), and then there is the whole yard care industry.  They'd all go out of business if they sold you grasses with these qualities.

The grass seed in the Home Depots, Lowes and other nurseries around here, even for "dense shade" have only 10-20% of fine fescues - they have more tall fescues and other grasses.  So I had to order from out of state.   This company is in Florida, but they spell out all the cultivars in their seed mix, and so I ordered.  Unfortunately, their availability date moved from April 5 to April 11 (that delayed railroad car).   I ordered some of this too, via, it too, is yet to arrive.

So here I sit, twiddling my thumbs.  Well, not really.  There's other things to plant.

PS: The OutsidePride seed (bought from just arrived at around 6:00 PM.

PPS: The clover mix last year did not do well in the shade.