Ornamental blue fescue grasses have become a reliable accent in gardens, breaking up shades of dark green and inserting wispy texture in front of broad-leaved perennials and shrubs. All grasses in the Festuca genus are deer resistant.
Choosing a Fescue
Many popular fescues are European imports that tend to be short-lived and must be replaced frequently. Left in place, they eventually experience die-back in the center of clumps. California natives are more durable.
- Festuca glauca, common blue fescue from Europe—also called Festuca ovina glauca—grows in low, tight clumps about 1 ft. tall and wide. All readily self-sow when seed heads on thin, foot-tall spikes drop or are blown by wind.
- ‘Siskiyou Blue’ is similar to the species in size or is somewhat larger. Its fine leaf blades are one of the best blues.
- ‘Elijah Blue’ has a silvery cast and is known to be longer-lived than others.
- Festuca amethystina, called tufted fescue, is also from Europe. It forms a 1-2 ft. clump of very fine textured, hair-like blades. Clumps of this choice species are bluish green and quite dense. Flower panicles tend to arch slightly.
- Festuca idahoensis may have a misleading name, but it is common in much of northern California as well as throughout the West.
- Although this species is longer lived than other blue fescues, it also is best replaced after a few years. It is the only blue fescue that tolerates full sun.
- Variation in color is not uncommon; individual clumps may be purchased or seeded in shades of blue, gray, silver or green.
- Festuca californica is found frequently in Sonoma County as well as throughout woodland and mountainous areas of California. It is semi-evergreen in most habitats, evergreen in mildest climates.
- Native to Sonoma County woodlands and throughout the Coast Ranges to Oregon, this grass grows taller and is more robust than the low blue fescues although it, also, often has bluish tinged leaves.
- Considered mid-size, it develops a fountain-like shape 2-3 ft. tall and a bit wider.
- Flower stalks emerge tinged violet in spring and summer, rise up another 1-2 ft., and turn a tawny tan.
- Festuca rubra, red fescue, is another useful native often planted as a lawn grass for shaded sites. It slowly creeps by underground rhizomes to create a dense turf and may be mixed with other grasses although it has finer textured blades than most.
- Red fescue is often planted as a low-maintenance groundcover and left unmowed to grow in loose clumps 4-12 in. high.
- It is particularly attractive on slopes where mowing is difficult.
- Of the many cultivars available, all vary in drought tolerance, color, and height. Most require moderate moisture.
Where to Plant
Fescues can be effectively interspersed in garden beds as color accents against burgundy foliage and darker backgrounds.
- They are sometimes planted in broad drifts in geometric designs as a stylized groundcover, but after 1 or 2 years, plants often develop unattractive brown leaves or die out completely and must be replaced.
- Blue fescues prefer morning sun only. They thrive best when protected from harsh afternoon summer sun and given adequate waterings in loose, well-drained soils.
- California fescue tolerates most soils and exposure to sun but is best in part shade, similar to its growth natively in woodland areas where it is protected from harsh afternoon sun.
- With summer water in gardens, California fescue’s arching blades remain vibrant and evergreen, but they also stay green in deep shade with little water as in the wild where they have survived for eons with no supplemental irrigation.