Lawn lovers looking to do less yard work might consider converting to fine fescue grass. Proven blends require little or no mowing, scorn fertilizers, defy drought, thrive in shade, remain green through the growing season and provide a comforting cushion for bare feet.
"This is not the result of developing a new hybrid. It's done by using different combinations of native grasses," said Neil Diboll, a landscape designer and president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis., who began marketing an assortment of six "No Mow" fescues about 10 years ago.
"It's a bit more expensive than your typical lawn seed, but you'll save in the long run through less maintenance and upkeep," Diboll said. "It's great in sand and rocky soils and it's a low-nutrient feeder. The best way to kill a fescue lawn is to fertilize it."
Early fall is the optimum time to give your lawn a facelift. Concentrate on soil preparation if you're using fescues, though, because they don't compete well with weeds, which grow much faster.
"Eliminate all the existing vegetation on the site to eliminate competition before you put any seed down," Diboll said. "Otherwise, it's the same planting method as for any other turf. Rake the area, scatter the new seed and then water it. It's better just to drop seed onto the dead grass, the stuff you've killed, than till up the ground, which also brings up the weeds."
Word is getting around about these natural-looking, low-maintenance turf grasses, said Miriam Goldberger, co-owner of Wildflower Farm in Coldwater, Ontario, where she helped develop a fine fescue mix dubbed "Eco-Lawn."
"A combination of factors has caused the awakening," she said. "More and more people are uncomfortable about using chemicals. Many are tired of all the time it takes to mow lawns. Some feel pressured by water conservation issues. All kinds of stakeholders are getting into this."
Yet fine fescues are not the easy-care lawn solution for everyone. They're a cool-weather grass, and don't do well in the hot, humid growing conditions of the Deep South.
They also dislike damp soils. "Heavy clay is not a good medium," Diboll said.
Fine fescues don't care much for heavy traffic, either. "If you've got three kids and two dogs, don't buy it," said Bill Sloey, a retired botany professor from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. "It won't take that kind of punishment on a quarter-acre lot. If you have a place that doesn't get a lot of use, then great."
Sloey said he converted 90 percent of his yard into one of Diboll's fine fescue combinations a little over a decade ago, and the grass is still doing beautifully.
Dean Fosdick grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, gathered and propagated wild edibles during his nearly two decades in Alaska and now does his gardening from his home in New Market, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org