What accent can you grow amongst your vibrant flowers and edging plants? Bluish-silver rounded clumps of blue fescue are the perfect fillers for perennial beds and borders, areas needing ground cover, moist rain gardens, or drought-prone rock gardens. This widely adaptable ornamental grass can fit in just about anywhere. You may think of fescue as turf lawn grass, but blue fescue is far more showy and grows up to 12 inches tall.
Its unique color and fine feathery foliage shine in the spring and fall garden when the weather cools. In the summer, the grass turns deeper blue-green, providing a verdant backdrop to let your other plants shine. Even in the snow, the delicate upright foliage and buff, fluffy inflorescences add winter interest to your landscape with minimal maintenance.
Let’s dig into how to grow this easygoing ornamental grass to complement your perennial landscape!
‘Festuca ovina glauca’ Plant Overview
History and Cultivation
Fescues are cool season grasses native to Europe. While we commonly think of tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) as a turf grass, blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca) is shorter, showier, and clump-forming. It has been used as an ornamental garden plant for centuries and is widely adapted to much of the United States.
What is Blue Fescue?
This hardy ornamental grass forms compact clumps with silvery-blue leaves.
Blue fescue is an ornamental perennial grass that forms attractive, compact, rounded clumps with silvery-blue porcupine-like leaves. Hardy in zones 4-8, it is evergreen or semi-evergreen and reliably overwinters beneath snow. The small feather-like flowers appear in the summer and turn a nice buff tan for the fall.
The plants look great on their own, in mass plantings, or interspersed amongst herbaceous perennials in landscaping beds. This grass keeps to itself and won’t overgrow surrounding plants. They handle drought remarkably well and require little to no maintenance, yet look pretty almost year-round.
Where Does Blue Fescue Originate?
The plant is a European grass identified by Dominique Villars.
Blue fescue is native to Europe, specifically Italy, France, Spain, and Switzerland. French naturalist Dominique Villars first identified and named the species, but it has likely been known since ancient times. Roman healer Pliny the Elder named the genus Festuca, meaning “straw,” referring to the feathery straw-like stalks that emerge during flowering.
The species name glauca comes from a Latin term meaning “glaucous” or “white to grayish bloom.” In its native climate, this pretty blue-tinted grass covers large fields with tidy clumps of porcupine-like foliage.
You can easily grow this porcupine-like grass from seed, nursery start, or clump division. There are several cultivars available. Some are hybridized for bluer, darker foliage, so grow seeds that can yield true-to-type plants.
Sow seeds indoors in late winter or outdoors post-frost.
Start seeds indoors in late winter or sow directly in your garden outdoors once the danger of frost has passed. This plant is very cold-hardy, but the seeds need warmth to germinate.
Soil temperatures above 68°F (20°C) are ideal for even germination. Be aware that there is a lot of variation in the seed-grown plants, and you may end up with some funky foliage, but this could make for a fun surprise.
To start indoors:
- Fill small peat pots or 6-cell containers with a seed starting mix.
- Sow three seeds per cell, pressing them into the soil surface.
- Maintain consistent moisture until germination in 2-3 weeks.
- Keep in a warm place with bright, indirect sunlight.
- Once seedlings form a nice clump and reach 3-4” tall, harden off to prepare for transplanting.
To direct sow outdoors:
- Wait until one week after your last frost date.
- Weed and loosen the soil, mixing in a bit of seed starting mix or compost for best results.
- Sprinkle 1-3 seedlings every 8-12.”
- Press into the ground to ensure seed-to-soil contact.
- Do not cover, as light is needed for germination.
- Keep the soil moist for 2-3 weeks, never allowing it to dry out.
- When young seedlings reach 4” tall, thin out any outliers to achieve your desired spacing.
- Grab a bunch of the leaves and trim off about ½” of foliage (much like you “haircut” onions to encourage more energy toward root development).
- Don’t worry if the grass looks green; it turns more blue as it matures.
When choosing perennial grasses, look for robust 1-gallon pots with white, unrestricted roots.
Start looking for perennial grasses at your local nursery in the late winter or early spring. When purchasing blue fescue, search for a minimum 1-gallon pot with healthy-looking foliage and a strong root ball.
While in the store, grasp the plant from the base, turn it on its side, and gently pull it out of the container to check the roots. They should be white and fill the container, holding the soil in place. However, they should not be winding around in circles or feel overly tight, as this is a sign of rootbinding.
On the flip side, if soil pours out of the pot when you try to remove the grass clump, it could be a sign that the plant is too young to be transplanted, and I would personally choose a different specimen.
Once you find established plants to take home, let them hang out on your patio for a few days to acclimate to the conditions. Then, transplant them into the garden in late spring or fall. If the root ball was more tangled than you realized, use a hand saw and cut an ‘x’ in the base of the root system. Gently tease out the roots and plant.
Divide plants every few years to maintain color and appearance.
This is a short-lived perennial, averaging 3-5 years of growth. As the grass gets older, the center of the clump tends to get overcrowded with leaves and dries out, creating unsightly brown crowns. Fortunately, the clumps are easy to rejuvenate, creating a continuous source of new propagation material.
It’s best to divide plants every 2-3 years to maintain the pretty blue color and keep your landscape looking tidy. As a bonus, you get a bunch of free plants to keep or give away each time you divide.
To divide established plants:
- Division works best in the late spring or early fall in cool but not frosty conditions.
- Use a sharp shovel to dig around the perimeter of the plant.
- Use sanitized shears or pruners to cut the clumps into smaller pieces.
- Check that each piece has both foliage and roots attached to it.
- Transplant each division with proper spacing in a new area, leaving one behind to replace the mother plant.
- Discard any brown or dead centers.
The only time you really need to tend this grass is when you plant it, shear or comb it once per year, and divide it every few years. Whether moving plants from a pot or another location in your garden, transplanting is very simple.
How to Transplant
The optimal times for transplanting cool-season grasses are late spring or early fall.
Wait until the risk of frost has passed, but the weather is still mild before summer’s heat. Late spring is ideal for transplanting this cool-season grass, yet fall is also a nice time as long as the plants can get established 4-5 weeks before frosts arrive.
- Dig up an adolescent or mature plant from the ground or remove it from its pot.
- Dig a hole about 1.5x as deep and wide as the root ball.
- Ensure the surrounding soil is fairly loosened.
- Place the root ball in the hole, keeping the soil level even so you don’t bury the crown.
- Backfill with native soil or a bit of compost.
- If there is any dead or brown foliage, shear back the plant to about 3-4” above the ground.
- Water consistently for the first few weeks while the plant anchors its roots and develops its drought tolerance.
Plant closely together, around 8-10 inches apart, for mass plantings.
The proper spacing between plants depends on your landscape preferences. Some gardeners like to grow it in mass plantings as a pretty gumball-shaped ground cover. In this case, space plants just 8-10” apart from the center of each clump. Compact varieties like ‘Elijah Blue’ are ideal for this purpose.
For larger central specimens scattered amongst other perennials, aim for wider spacing at 12-18” from nearby plants. This will create a medium mound of foliage with ample room for nice splays of fawn-colored feathery seed heads in the summer and fall. Large varieties like ‘Boulder Blue’ work better for this application.
How to Grow
Sometimes called sheep fescue, this stout blue-hued ornamental looks best in spring and fall. It tolerates many conditions and asks for little more than some water and good drainage upon establishment. The plants are a no-fuss landscape accent that fend for themselves through drought, storms, and frosty winters.
This grass prefers full sun and produces less vibrant blue foliage in partial shade.
This grass does best in full sun but tolerates partial shade. Take note that the blue foliage color will not develop as dramatically in shady areas.
It doesn’t like to be overshadowed by trees, large shrubs, or buildings, which is why it’s best suited to a prairie garden, a rock garden, or a south-facing border bed.
Blue fescue prefers minimal water after planting for a richer blue hue.
This plant is very drought-tolerant once established. Be sure to provide plants with consistent moisture in the first weeks after planting so they can dig their roots into the soil. They don’t typically need supplemental irrigation for the remainder of the season.
In fact, you may want to avoid irrigating because drought deepens the vivid blue color. They don’t mind snowpack in the winter and can even handle some salt spray from winter roads.
Provide moist, well-drained, and slightly acidic to neutral pH soil for optimal growth.
The ideal soil for this species is moist, well-drained, and neutral to slightly acidic in pH. However, it is adaptable to a range of conditions. The only thing the plant can’t handle is excessively soggy soil. A lack of drainage will dramatically reduce the lifespan and aesthetic of this grass.
Climate and Temperature
This grass remains evergreen in milder climates but may go dormant in colder areas.
You can confidently grow this grass in USDA zones 4 through 8. It will remain evergreen in milder zones, sometimes poking pretty silvery-blue leaves out of the snow, but it may turn brown and go dormant in extra-cold northern climates. Rest assured, the plants return in the spring with full vibrancy.
This cool-season grass enjoys temperatures between 40-70°F (4-21°C) but tolerates down to the 20s or up to the 90s. Excess heat or humidity may cause issues, requiring wider spacing, regular watering, and more division to prolong the lifespan.
Fescues flourish in diverse climates and need minimal fertilization to grow.
This plant doesn’t need a lot of nutrients, but a light dose of slow-release balanced fertilizer in the spring can help it take off. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers that may burn the foliage, and do not fertilize when your fescue is dormant.
Trim in late winter or early spring for tidy and vibrant growth.
Landscapers and gardeners have different views about maintaining this grass. You don’t necessarily have to prune it or tend it at all. Some people let it do its own thing without any issues.
However, cold climate growers may wish to cut it back in late winter or early spring to keep the plants tidy and vibrant. If you choose to prune in the spring, leave 3-4” of growth so the plant can rejuvenate itself.
If you aren’t interested in using mechanical or electrical tools in your garden, you can comb fescue clumps with a gentle raking or with your hands. Do this in spring as new growth begins to emerge.
Various ornamental cultivars, like ‘Elijah Blue’ and ‘Boulder Blue,’ have been bred for their attractive growth habit and color.
This species has been bred for more ornamental value and easy garden maintenance. Most cultivars are easy to find in regular garden stores and nurseries. Our top picks include:
- ‘Elijah Blue’: The most popular cultivar has light blue foliage and a stout growth habit.
- ‘Boulder Blue’: A larger variety with silver-blue leaves and a higher tolerance for heat and humidity.
- ‘Tom Thumb’: One of the tiniest varieties, this fine-textured grass is super compact at just 4” tall.
- ‘Golden Toupee’: A surprising shock of chartreuse-green leaves in the classic fescue shape.
This grass is easygoing and adaptable to almost any landscape. You can intersperse it with a range of herbaceous perennials and shrubs, but here are some of our favorite companions:
Pair with white or purple salvias for a complementary palette.
White or purple salvias pair strikingly with this fescue’s wispy foliage, creating an elegant garden accent with plenty of drought tolerance. Salvia blooms attract a range of pollinators and look extra pretty alongside this grass’s flax-like flowers.
Lavender’s silvery foliage pairs well with Festuca glauca.
The silvery foliage of lavender is a gorgeous complement, and the plants enjoy similar well-drained soil conditions. If growing these two in the same bed, generously amend the soil for proper drainage, as lavender is subject to root rot if the soil is waterlogged.
This flower contrasts beautifully with its tall, drought-tolerant red and yellow blooms.
This durable flower can handle fairly harsh conditions yet still produce striking red and yellow blooms to contrast this delicate blue grass. Also known as Gaillardia, the blanket flower is drought tolerant and slightly taller than fescue at about 24” tall. They look stunning inside a closely planted perimeter of fescue clumps.
Dianthus makes a great backdrop and has similar drought tolerance.
This butterfly favorite is drought-tolerant and sun-loving, just like blue fescue. Reaching heights of 36”, it is the ideal backdrop for this dwarf clumping grass. There’s a wide range of colors and styles of dianthus to choose from, too.
Pests and Diseases
Planting fragrant perennials close by deters plant-eating animals.
The only real pests for this grass are hungry rabbits and deer. Fortunately, they don’t usually do any major harm, and the plants can grow back as long as their center growing tips are spared.
If you’re struggling to keep herbivores out of your garden, consider growing strong-fragranced perennials like lavender, salvia, and Russian sage nearby to deter them. Rabbits will be preoccupied with chewing salvia stems and leave your grass alone.
This petite, low-maintenance ornamental grass is ideal for dry areas and rock gardens.
Blue fescue is predominately used as a low-growing ornamental grass and ground cover. At just 6-12” tall, it is one of the smallest ornamental grasses used in landscaping. It is ideal for dry areas, rock gardens, and low-maintenance perennial beds.
Frequently Asked Questions
This semi-evergreen perennial returns annually in zones 4 through 8. However, the plants are fairly short-lived (3-5 years) and benefit from clump division every few years to ensure attractive coloration and shape. Older leaves lose their silvery-blue hue and may be removed by pruning or combing out with your fingers.
A stout 6-12” tall and 6-18” wide, fescue is one of the most compact and tidy mounding grasses you can plant in your garden. The airy flowering stalks reach up to 12-18” tall in the summer and fall.
This ornamental grass is easy to grow, tolerating drought, cold weather, and marginal soils. It is best for low-maintenance perennial borders, wildflower plantings, and rock gardens.
Add this spiky blue puffball grass to your landscape by planting in the spring and providing full sunshine. Remember that it will not look as blue if grown in the shade. The plants need some water to get established but become rugged and drought-resistant as they mature. Dividing every 2-3 years ensures a continuous supply of pretty, wispy plants.