Ornamental Grasses – Learn About Blue Fescue Growing Tips
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Slender, wiry blades of blue characterize blue fescue plants. The ornamental grass is a tidy evergreen that is very tolerant of a wide range of sites and conditions. This plant is one of the “no fuss” plants perfect for the low maintenance garden. Choose a sunny location when planting blue fescue. Follow a few blue fescue growing tips for a brightly colored, mounding accent plant for borders, rockeries or even containers.
About Blue Fescue Grass
Blue fescue plants are evergreen but they do lose some of the older blades and grow new fresh deep blue leaves in spring. The older leaves adhere to the plant and spoil the bright coloration. However, you can simply comb them out with your fingers.
The grass forms low tight mounds and produces tall flower tipped stems in May to June. A key fact about blue fescue would be its zonal tolerance. It is suitable for USDA zones 4 to 9, but prefers areas without blistering hot summers. Extreme heat causes the plant to die back.
There are several varieties of blue fescue grass for the garden. The large blue fescue (Festuca amethystine) is hardier than the regular blue fescue (Festuca glauca). The plant also has several cultivars, such as the popular Elijah Blue. There is even a golden colored blue fescue.
Planting Blue Fescue
Place blue fescue grass in clusters along a border as a bright accent to other perennials. The grass is also an attractive foil for wide, leafy plants and provides contrasting texture. Wherever you decide to put the plant, it must have well-drained moist soil in a full sun position for best growth.
The roots are not deep on this grass and they perform well for many seasons in containers, too, with Golden Barberry or other yellow or variegated plants.
Care of Blue Fescue Grass
Caring for blue fescue ornamental grass isn’t difficult. Blue fescue grass needs average moisture, and will require supplemental water in summer. The plant may die back if the soils are too heavy and full of clay, so amend the area prior to planting with plenty of compost.
Blue fescue plants do not need fertilization as long as an organic mulch is used around the base of the grass.
Keep the foliage looking its best by hand combing out the dead blades of grass and removing the flower heads. Remove the flower heads to help promote the tight mound shape of the plant. If you choose to leave the flowers, be aware the plant may produce some seedlings.
Blue Fescue Growing Tips
Older blue fescue plants tend to die out a bit in the center. One of the useful blue fescue growing tips is division. The dying plant simply needs to be dug up and cut in half. The center part will pull out by hand, leaving you with two plants full of healthy foliage. Division can be done every three to five years or as the plant begins to slow blade production in the center.
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Companion Plants for Blue Fescue
Blue fescue (Festuca glauca) is an ornamental grass with blue-gray leaves that grows to 6 to 12 inches high with a round shape. It brings fine texture and interesting color to border plantings or foundation landscapes and is often used as an accent plant or edging along walkways. This is a drought-tolerant plant that requires fast-draining soil. It is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 8 and grows in full sun or partial shade. Select companion plants for it that will thrive under the same conditions.
Plant characteristics and classification of blue fescue
Plant order, origin and occurrence of blue fescue
The blue fescue (Festuca glauca) is an easy-care grass that was originally native to southern France. The genus Festuca includes a total of 300 to 400 deciduous and evergreen perennials. The term “blue fescue” stands not only for a single botanical species, but for a group of fescues that are visually very similar and in which a precise differentiation is only possible by counting the chromosomes. Most varieties, like the blue fescue, remain green for most of the winter.
Characteristics of blue fescue
The blue fescue is a crest-like, evergreen and perennial grass that forms hemispherical clusters about 15 to 30 centimeters (6 to 12 in) high and 25 centimeters (10 in) wide.
The silvery gray-blue and nine-ribbed leaves are smooth, flat, tightly rolled, linear and about 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 in) long.
From June to July upright and dense, inversely egg-shaped, short-branched panicles appear, which are up to 10 centimeters (4 in) long and consist of spikelets with four to seven violet-colored, blue-green flowers. The blossoms of the blue fescue are characteristic, appearing first blue-green, later straw-colored.
After flowering, the blue fescue forms so-called caryopses, a type of nut that contains the seeds.
How to Plant and Grow a Blue Fescue
Blue fescue is a hardy, ornamental grass that is typically used to edge flowerbeds or driveways. This low maintenance plant consists of very fine, almost hair-like blue-gray leaves that grow in mounds a foot wide and about a foot tall and grows flattened, tan, long flowers from mid summer until snowfall. Purchasing established plants from a nursery to grow in your garden could be fairly expensive therefore it is best to start the blue fescue from seeds.
Follow these steps to grow this plant in your garden for a splash of color.
Step 1 – Purchase Seeds and Pots
Purchase blue fescue seeds from your local nursery or garden center, and peat pots with adequate drainage holes in the bottom. You can start the seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost to transplant outdoors early spring for a head start, or plant them directly outdoors once the danger of the last frost has passed.
Step 2 – Fill Pots
Fill each pot with good quality potting soil till an inch or two below the rim and plant six to eight seeds an inch deep in it, placing them an inch or two apart. If planting outdoors, make sure the area receives full sunlight and is weed free. Loosen the soil to aerate it and remove any rocks or debris from the site. Plant each seed an inch deep into the soil to ensure good seed to soil contact, and space the seeds eight to ten inches apart. Backfill the seeds with soil.
Step 3 – Water the Seeds
Water the soil, whether it is outside or in the container, frequently to keep it sufficiently moist. Do not over water because you could cause the delicate seeds to wash away. Once the blue fescue germinates, water it when only the soil feels dry.
Step 4 – Transplant the Seedlings
Once the seedlings are two inches tall, transplant them outdoors to a well-drained sunny spot in your garden. Dig a hole in the ground bigger than the width of the container but the same depth. Remove any weeds, rocks or debris that come in your way.
Weeds compete with blue fescue, so make sure you remove all from the planting side by pulling them with their roots or spraying them with commercial weed killer a week before transplanting the blue fescue seedlings outside. Remove the blue fescue from the pot and gently place it in the hole, spreading its roots to encourage growth. Space another seedling eight to 10 inches away, and water the soil so it is evenly moist.
Do not be disheartened if your seedlings are green in color instead of blue. This grass will eventually turn blue as it absorbs the sun and grows.
Step 5 – Caring for Blue Fescue
Apply a layer of mulch over the soil to retain moisture and prevent weeds from growing there. Trim the young plants by clipping their tops to encourage a bushy growth.
Cut the grass to three inches high in late winter or early spring to encourage new growth. Blue fescue will die after two to three years, and should be divided to maintain its shape.
How to Grow a Blue Fescue from Seeds
Blue fescue, like the name implies, is a beautiful blue colored ornamental grass that is easy to grow. Growing in mounds a foot tall and equally wide, it can be planted in a corner of the garden on its own or edge a flowerbed to add a splash of color to the landscape. The leaves on a blue fescue are very fine, almost hair-like, making it a delicate addition to any garden. Blue fescue is an easy grass to grow, and does not require any expertise or skill. Keep these steps in mind when planting a blue fescue from seeds.
Step 1 - Select Location
Blue fescue seeds cannot stand frost and will eventually die, so start them indoors in fall to get a head start and transplant them outdoors in spring, or directly plant them outside after the danger of the last frost.
Make sure the site you want to plant the blue fescue gets adequate sunlight and has well-drained soil. Blue fescue will eventually die if water stays around it instead of being absorbed by the soil. Remove any rocks or debris, loosen the soil with a shovel to aerate it and break large clods into smaller manageable pieces.
If planting in pots, purchase several peat pots from the nursery. Make sure they have a few drainage holes in the bottom, or drill them if they do not.
Step 2 - Sow Seeds
Fill each pot with good quality soil less potting mix because it is light and drains well. Avoid using soil from the garden since it compacts in a pot and impedes proper drainage. Fill the containers just a few inches below the rim.
Sow 5 to 6 seeds into each container, pushing them gently to ensure good seed to mix contact. Do not push them too deep in the soil as it could adversely affect germination.
If planting directing in the ground, push the seeds gently into the soil, spacing them an inch or two apart. Water the seeds after planting to make the soil evenly moist.
Step 3 - Proving Optimal Conditions for Blue Fescue to Thrive
Water the delicate seeds gently until they germinate to prevent them from washing away. Apply a layer of mulch such as cedar wood chips or cow manure over the soil to help retain moisture, prevent competing weeds from growing there and prevent rain from washing the seeds away. Once the seedlings grow 2 inches high, transplant them into individual 4-inch clay pots or in the soil.
Use a sharp pair of scissors to trim the plants when they are young by gathering the strands of grass and clipping ½-inch off the tips. Not only will this encourage a bushy growth as each plant grows, but also give it a uniform look. However, clip the tops of mature plants several times during the growing season.
Fertilize the blue fescue with a slow release fertilizer at half its recommended strength once during the growing season to provide it essential nutrients.
Sisyrinchium campestre, commonly called "prairie blue eyed grass," is a similar plant. It differs from S. angustifolium in just a few ways:
- It can have white, as well as blue flowers. And the blue flowers are a lighter blue (S. angustifolium has violet-blue flowers).
- It is smaller, sometimes reaching only 6 inches high.
- It is more cold-hardy (to zone 2).
- Its native range is more restricted, as it is native only to central North America (the ranges of the two overlap, since the range of S. angustifolium includes not only eastern North America, but also central).
- It also blooms about a month earlier in spring.
Based on the species name, angustifolium (which is Latin for "narrow"), you might guess that another difference is in the width of their respective leaves. But, in this case, angustifolium is something of a misnomer: There is not that much difference between the two in terms of leaf width. Another plant in this genus with a confusing name is white blue eyed grass (S. albidium), another native of eastern North America: It really does have white flowers (or, at best, pale blue flowers).
When blue fescue turns brown, do you revive or replace?
How do you revive Elijah Blue fescue, the popular blue tufted ornamental grass, if it’s is looking dry and dead? Or can you?
Costa Mesa reader Niki Parker wrote into to our SoCal Garden Clinic with that question. A few new shoots came up after her husband painstakingly trimmed them, Niki said, but at what point should they just replace them? She said they have more than 60 of the plants in their frontyard.
What kind of care and maintenance is needed to keep the grass healthy and blue?
For an answer we turned to Barbara Eisenstein, research associate at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, founder and manager of a nature park stewardship program in South Pasadena and horticulture chairwoman for the San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
Elijah Blue is one of the more durable and longer-lived of the blue fescues. Nevertheless, it does not do well in extreme summer heat or overly wet winter soils.
It is difficult to know the reason for the decline of your plants without knowing more about the garden. Coastal gardens with well-drained soils are ideal for this plant. If you do not have these conditions, you may be better off trying something else. Some of the sedges (botanical name Carex) or wire grasses (botanical name Juncus) are quite durable and may be good substitutes. A giant ryegrass called Canyon Prince has striking blue-gray foliage, though it is a larger and coarser grass.
If you decide to maintain your Elijah Blue, shear the plants in late winter. Do not cut them back during hot weather because the browned blades provide insulation against the heat. If you have bad soil, lightly fertilize the plants after grooming.
In general, blue fescues do not last long, and beds of these plants require quite a bit of maintenance. Replace plants that are more than half dead, and groom the others.