In 1931 Dr. E. N. Fergus, a professor in the agricultural department at the University of Kentucky, traveled to Menifee County in the eastern part of the state to judge a sorghum syrup competition. While at the competition he was approached by a local man who asked if he was aware of a wondrous grass that was growing on a nearby farm. Dr. Fergus visited the farm and was struck by how green and lush this grass was even in drought conditions and how it managed to remain green even during the relatively cool Kentucky winters. Dr. Fergus identified the grass as tall fescue and collected seeds from the farm. He trialed these seeds in various areas of Kentucky and the results of his trials became KY-31, a tall fescue cultivar he released in 1943. This cultivar took the American market by storm. Planted in pastures by farmers throughout Kentucky during the 1940s and 1950s, it soon spread to the Midwest, South and then to the rest of the country.
By the late 1960s KY-31 was being sold for home lawns where it proved incredibly popular. Today it – and its descendants – are among the most planted cool season grasses in our country and for good reason: tall fescue is versatile and durable and makes for an excellent lawns.
Looking for a tall fescue seed recommendation? Look no further (actually, keep reading – there’s lots of good info in this write-up!)
Making Sense of Fescue
Because the word “fescue” can mean many different things to many different people, it is worth taking a step back and defining our terms. Fescue is a genus of grasses native to both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. This genus contains between 400 and 500 individual species of grass. Only a handful of these have any relevance to lawncare but parsing them out can be complicated. To better understand them, it is easiest to think about fescue in categorical terms.
Tall Fescue vs. Fine Fescue
The most common species of fescue, and the one that is the subject of this post, is festuca arundinacea, better known as tall fescue. This is a relatively wide-bladed, bunch-forming grass native to Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. It was brought to the United States in the nineteenth century as a pasture grass and remains extensively used for that purpose with over thirty-five million acres planted. The grass discovered and then bred by Dr. Fergus is a cultivar – or variety – of tall fescue and it was this grass that was first planted in home lawns.
Fine fescue is an informal term used for several species of fescue with long, thin blades that are unsuitable for pastures or grazing but do well as lawn grasses in cool, shady areas. Creeping red fescue, chewings fescue and hard fescue are all part of this group. While important, these grasses will not be covered in this post, and will instead be the subject of a separate Guide.
Tall Fescue vs. Turf Type Tall Fescue
It is important to remember that Dr. Fergus was a professor of agronomy whose research focused on forage crops. It is unlikely that he gave much thought to home lawns or even professional grass management on golf courses or athletic fields. Turfgrass science was in its infancy during his day, with the first major collegiate program being founded at Penn State only two years before his 1931 discovery.
Throughout the 1930s Dr. Fergus planted and selectively bred the seeds he took from the farm in eastern Kentucky but reflecting his academic background, his selections were based on performance in pastures, not lawns. When the result of his work, KY-31, was first planted in home yards, it quickly became apparent that improvements could be made both in terms of appearance and performance. The lawn grasses that came after KY-31 are referred to as Turf Type Tall Fescues, meaning grasses specifically bred for yards not pastures.
Is Tall Fescue Right For You?
Grasses grown for home lawns are split into one of two camps: cool season and warm season. Cool season grasses – which include fescue, bluegrass and rye – do best in the central to northern parts of the United States or in milder parts of southern California. Warm season grasses – which include bermuda, centipede, zoysia, St. Augustine and bahiagrass – do best in the south and southwestern parts of the country.
Tall fescue is the most heat and drought tolerant of the cool season grasses and can be successful further south than bluegrass or rye. There are many great tall fescue yards in places like Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Kansas. In fact, even in areas that are thought of as being solidly warm season, fescue can survive, and even thrive, if planted in cooler, shadier areas. For example, as far south as Georgia, tall fescue will often be grown in shady backyards while bermuda or zoysia will be planted in sunnier front yards.
That said, it is safe to say that tall fescue does best in Hardiness Zones 5, 6 and 7. In cooler areas bluegrass and rye make better choices, and in warmer areas fescue should only be planted in yards that experience partial shade or in those where plentiful irrigation is available.
Varieties of Tall Fescue
KY-31, the variety that made Dr. Fergus famous – at least in the world of grass – remains readily available over seventy-five years after its release. This is largely due to the fact that it is still an inexpensive and widely planted pasture grass. Its low cost also makes it attractive to municipal buyers, highway authorities and others who need to save every penny possible. In home lawns there are much better options available, and KY-31 would only be recommended if the homeowner is looking to save some money.
Those who are interested in planting tall fescue would be better suited planting the aforementioned Turf Type Tall Fescues. There are hundreds of these on the market with more being introduced every year. In an effort to simplify the dizzying array of selections it makes sense to categorize them by attribute:
- Tall Fescues for Shade: While most tall fescue varieties do well in partial shade – particularly when compared to bluegrass, rye, or bermuda – some will do better than others. These include Rowdy, Titanium 2LS, Traverse 2 SRP, 4th Millennium SRP, Valkyrie LS, GTO and Screamer LS. While these varieties don’t require shade, they perform well in it, but they do just as well in full sun conditions. All of them will require about four hours of sunlight per day. In areas that receive two or three hours of sunlight fine fescue – or perhaps a mix of fine and tall fescues – would be a better choice. No grass will grow in any area that receives less than two hours of sunlight.
- Tall Fescues for Traffic: Tall fescue doesn’t offer the traffic tolerance of bluegrass or rye but some varieties come close. These include Bullseye, Hot Rod and 4th Millennium SRP.
- Tall Fescues for Warmer Lawns: As discussed earlier, tall fescue is a cool season grass and should not be planted in full sun conditions in southern or southwestern areas. However, certain varieties survive the heat better than others. They include Traverse 2 SRP, 4th Millennium SRP, Raptor III, Titanium 2LS, Rebounder and Amity.
- Tall Fescues for Non-irrigated Lawns: Few lawns will avoid dormancy without irrigation anywhere that summers are even the tiniest bit warm. However, many homeowners with large lawns may be unable to irrigate. Tall fescue will do better in these conditions than will bluegrass or rye. Varieties that are particularly drought tolerant include Fayette, 4th Millennium SRP, Firewall, Raptor III, Rebounder and Regenerate.
How to Plant Tall Fescue
Tall fescue can be grown either from seed or from sod. For new lawns sod is an excellent option. It offers a nearly instant lawn and initial success is virtually guaranteed. However, for many sod is prohibitively expensive. Those with large yards should expect to pay thousands of dollars for high quality sod and hundreds more for installation.
For most readers planting tall fescue from seed is going to be the better option. Fescue does not grow quite as quickly from seed as does rye, but it grows and establishes much faster than bluegrass. To seed it, follow these steps:
STEP 1: Decide on what seed to plant
When planting tall fescue at least four varieties should be mixed together. These varieties can be purchased separately and blended at home or pre-blended mixes can be purchased at various retailers. Bluegrass and rye can also be included in the mix, if desired. Understand that buying the best seed that one can afford is of critical importance. Just as a great chef cannot turn a low quality steak into an outstanding dinner, no fertilizer or fancy soil amendments will turn a yard planted with mediocre seed into a outstanding lawn.
STEP 2: Get a soil test
Think of a soil test as a checkup for the lawn: the results will let the homeowner know what nutrients the soil may be lacking, and those that there might have too much of. Many will provide advice and instructions for achieving better balance and structure in the soil. Following this advice is important and should be done in the months before seeding.
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STEP 3: Remove weeds and undesirable grasses from the area
Weeds and undesirable grasses will often out-compete new seedlings and should be removed prior to any renovation. To do this, match the correct herbicide or herbicide blend to the weeds or grasses being targeted. Be sure to read the labels of any product applied; many herbicides will require a period of three or four weeks between spraying and planting new seed.
STEP 4: Seed
Tall fescue should be seeded in the late summer or early fall as soil temperatures descend into the low seventies. Those in cooler climates – Zones 4 and 5 – may want to seed as early as mid-August. Those in warmer ones – 7b to 8 – may want to wait until late September to early October.
For new lawns tall fescue should be seeded at 8 to 9 pounds per thousand square feet. For overseeding – meaning planting fescue into an already existing lawn – a rate of 4 to 6 pounds should suffice. Lean towards the heavier end of that range for thinner lawns or ones that contain more bare spots; use less seed when overseeding a thicker lawn. Remember, contrary to what is often said, more does not equal better in this context. Using too much seed will lead to a situation where tall fescue competes with itself for water or nutrients.
Seed should be spread using a broadcast spreader and then pressed into the soil using a lawn roller. It should be topped with peat moss or a tackifier-containing mulch. The latter is strongly preferred if planting on any sort of hill or slope.
STEP 5: Fertilize
A starter fertilizer should be applied when seeding tall fescue. The one linked to here, Scotts Turf Builder Starter Food for New Grass Plus Weed Preventer, is particularly excellent as it contains not just the nutrients that new grass requires, but also has a small amount of mesotrione, a pre-emergent herbicide that will prevent weeds for up to a month. This will enable new grass to grow successfully without competition from weeds.
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STEP 6: Water
Seed should be kept moist until it germinates. For better or for worse, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for watering times or frequency; these will vary depending on the weather, climate, and soils of the lawn being seeded. That said, for most homeowners, three to four brief waterings each day should suffice. For those who are unable to meet these watering requirements, a hygroscopic product can be applied to help ensure seed does not dry out.
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STEP 7: Avoid foot traffic
While tall fescue is establishing foot traffic should be kept to an absolute minimum. Walking on new grass can damage and even kill it. Avoid mowing an overseeded lawn until existing grasses have reached such a height that they are shading out new seedlings.
Caring for Tall Fescue
Tall fescue is called tall fescue for a reason: it does best when mowed tall. During spring and fall – or any particularly rainy time – a height of 3 to 3.5” is best. During the height of summer, 4” to 4.5” is preferred. Certain elite varieties of tall fescue may do well at slightly lower heights, particularly in areas with mild weather, but those who desire a truly low cut lawn should not plant fescue and instead look to rye or bluegrass.
Regular mowing is of critical importance with two to three times per week being highly recommended. Infrequent mowings will result in too much of the grass blade being removed at once. This will stress tall fescue and make it more susceptible to disease.
While not as “thirsty” as bluegrass, tall fescue will require supplemental irrigation in most areas or it will go dormant and thin out. Ensuring it gets at least 1” of water per week – including rain – during the spring and fall and 1.5” per week during summer will help keep it healthy and vibrant. When watering tall fescue, do so deeply, applying approximately half an inch at a time. Watering a little bit every day is a mistake that will lead to shallow rooted grass and an increased chance of disease.
The best way to prevent weeds is to have a thick, healthy lawn. However, even in the thickest lawns some weeds will make it through. Applying a pre-emergent herbicide like prodiamine or dithiopyr in the fall to prevent poa annua and in the late winter or early spring to prevent crabgrass is highly recommended. Weeds that do emerge during the growing season should be knocked back with a quality post-emergent herbicide like SpeedZone.
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Managing Disease and Insects
Tall fescue is a hearty grass that resists many of the diseases that afflict bluegrass and rye. However, it has one particular nemesis: brown patch. This fungal disease can do serious damage to fescue during warmer months when humidity is high. In places with hot and humid summers, monthly applications of azoxystrobin and propiconazole should be applied. Few insects pose much of a threat to fescue. Grubs generally avoid it but in lawns that have experienced serious grub problems in the past, applications of chlorantraniliprole in mid-spring should prevent further issues.
Tall fescue should receive approximately 3 to 3.5 pounds of nitrogen, .5 pounds of phosphorus and 1.5 to 2 pounds of potassium per year per one thousand square feet of grass. These amounts will vary and a soil test will go a long way towards figuring out the exact amounts for any particular lawn. Tall fescue should be fertilized in the spring and fall with lighter applications in the spring and heavier ones in the fall. Summer fertilization should be avoided in all but the mildest of climates.
Tall fescue produces very little thatch and should not ever require actual dethatching. Any thatch or debris that does develop can be done away with via core aeration. This process has other benefits too: it will help minimize soil compaction and help water and nutrients reach fescue’s roots. Mechanical aeration should be done at least once per year, preferably in the fall. For severely compacted soils, liquid aeration products can be applied any time during the growing season.
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Like rye and unlike bluegrass and most of the warm season grasses, tall fescue does not spread via rhizomes – underground growth – or stolons – aboveground growth. Thus it will require frequent overseeding. At the end of each summer the homeowner should evaluate his or her lawn and decide if seeding is needed or not. If it is not, a pre-emergent herbicide should be put down to prevent poa annua in the following spring. If seeding is required, the steps outlined in the previous section should be followed. Except in rare circumstances one cannot both apply a pre-emergent and seed.
Some tall fescue seeds on the market today claim to spread via rhizomes. Is there any truth to this?
Yes. Many of the seed types recommended in this post contain acronyms that suggest some rhizomatous growth. For example “LS” refers to “lateral spread” while “SRP” refers to “self repair potential.” These grasses do spread rhizomes but the amount of spreading is quite low when compared to bluegrass and the warm season grasses and the speed at which they spread is notably slow. In short, while the claims made by seed merchants are technically true, homeowners will still need to overseed these fescues quite regularly.