If you live in the cool-season or transition zone, you’ve heard of turf-type tall fescue. This popular cool-season grass is known for its relatively low upkeep, deep roots, and medium to deep green hue. Homeowners also love that it has an early to mid-spring green-up and retains its green color late into the fall season.
Tall fescue at a glance
Classification: Cool-season grass
Spreads by: Bunch-type grass
Shade tolerance: Moderate
Drought resistance: Moderate
Foot traffic tolerance: Moderate, but low ability to recuperate from wear
Maintenance needs: Fast rate of growth, so plan to mow often
Mowing height: 2-4 inches (Check your cultivar and state recommendations. Many tall fescue lawns grow best when they’re mowed on the tall side.)
Potential for disease: Low to moderate under proper management conditions
Soil pH: 5.5-6.5
Soil type: Fertile, good drainage, but will tolerate a wider range of soil conditions
Other notes: Reseed every few years to repair bare spots and thinning; don’t plant old varieties such as Kentucky-31; look for “turf-type” tall fescue (TTTF). Seed blends with more than one TTTF cultivar give the best chance for a strong lawn.
What is tall fescue?
Tall fescue is a cool-season, bunch-type grass that thrives in the southern cool-season grass zone and throughout the transition zone. Homeowners appreciate that turf-type tall fescue produces an attractive lawn without excessive fertilizer or water and is not as disease prone as some of the higher-maintenance cool-season grasses.
Tall fescue has the highest heat tolerance among home lawn cool-season grasses. As such, it is a popular choice throughout the transition zone where neither cool-season nor warm-season grasses are ideally suited for the climate. Its drought resistance is also a standout feature due to its deep root system. These characteristics are especially useful for transition zone lawns that will struggle during summer heat and droughts.
Tall fescue also has relatively good foot traffic tolerance. The caveat here is that once wear or damage occurs, you’ll need to overseed to fill in the damaged spots. Tall fescue doesn’t contain stolons or rhizomes that self-repair like warm-season grasses, Kentucky bluegrass, or bentgrass.
A final feather in its cap is that tall fescue can withstand a wide range of soil conditions. Although it prefers fertile, well-drained soil, it will tolerate soils with lower fertility, soils that are acidic and alkaline, some soil moisture and compaction, low to moderate shade, and moderate salinity.
Overall, tall fescue is a standout cool-season grass that thrives under moderate maintenance and won’t give too much trouble with diseases or pests if properly managed.
Pros and cons of tall fescue
Tall fescue may seem like the dream turfgrass, but it’s not for everyone. Check out tall fescue’s strengths and weaknesses.
✓ Deep root system and good drought resistance
✓ Good heat tolerance
✓ Moderate shade tolerance
✓ Popular grass in the southern cool-season zone and across the transition zone
✓ Available as seed or sod
✓ Color ranges from medium to deep green
✓ Can mow tall
✓ Good wear tolerance
✓ Low to moderate fertilizer requirement
✗ Can’t repair bare spots or thinning on its own
✗ Needs mowing often
✗ May go dormant in summer without supplemental water
How to establish tall fescue
Tall fescue is best established in the fall, as with any cool-season grass. A fall planting gives it adequate time to establish a deep root system before summer stresses come the following year. Tall fescue prefers fertile soil and good drainage. Get a soil test to see what, if any, nutrients are lacking. Aerate if needed to provide better drainage before you plant.
If you want to start the lawn from seed, use 5 pounds of tall fescue seed per 1,000 square feet. (Some state recommendations go higher than this — 6 to 8 pounds per 1,000 square feet — so check your state for details.) Spread half of the seed north to south and the other half east to west, at perpendicular angles. Rake the seed into the soil for good seed to soil contact, and roll the seed in with a roller if you wish.
Water at least once per day (two to three times is not uncommon) for about three weeks. Ensure the soil is continually moist but not soggy. As the seeds germinate, decrease how often you water but increase how much you water each time. Decrease this gradually as the seedlings mature. The grass is ready to mow when it reaches 2 – 2 ½ inches.
How much does tall fescue cost?
Tall fescue sod: Costs from 30 to 80 cents per square foot.
Tall fescue seed: A 50-pound bag of turf-type tall fescue starts at around $160 on the low end and goes up from there
Caring for tall fescue
Tall fescue needs mowing often due to its fast growth habit. Remember to take only ⅓ of the blade off per mow, and maintain a height of 2-4 inches. Taller is better, especially during hot summer months or in partial shade. Use a sharp mower blade for the best quality cut.
Tall fescue is moderately drought tolerant due to its deep root system, but you’ll need to water to prevent summer dormancy. How do you know when to water? Leaves may wilt or change color, and footprints may stay on the lawn. When the grass indicates it is time for a drink, plan to apply 1 – 1 ½ inches once every seven to 10 days. Water early in the morning, before 10 a.m., to prevent disease.
Make sure there is no runoff as you water. If this happens, turn the sprinklers off and wait until the water sinks into the soil. Then, turn on the sprinklers again until you’ve applied at least 1 inch. Use a screwdriver to check that the water has reached at least 4 to 6 inches deep. Deep, infrequent watering produces deep roots. Avoid frequent, shallow watering in most cases to avoid shallow roots. Sandy soils are an exception and may need to be watered every three days or so.
Tall fescue needs from 1 to 3.5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year. Apply at least two applications in the fall and apply less in the spring only after the grass greens up. You may apply less fertilizer if you want a lower-maintenance lawn. Check with your state’s online Cooperative Extension publications or give them a call for state-specific recommendations.
Dethatching and aeration
As a bunch-type grass, tall fescue does not usually produce thatch. It does prefer well-drained soil, though, so if your soil compacts easily, plan to aerate in the fall as needed.
Core aeration pulls plugs of soil from the lawn. This allows more water, air, and nutrients to reach deep into the soil and create stronger roots. This strengthens the grass against drought and other stresses, which means a more beautiful, resilient lawn.
Disease, insects, and weeds
No grass is free from occasional problems. Here are a few you may encounter with a tall fescue lawn.
- Brown patch
- Seedling diseases
- Gray leaf spot
Excessive fertilizer or too much or too little water can encourage disease. In addition, don’t water too late in the day (early morning is best) and mow on the tall side. (Remove clippings if disease is present in the lawn.) Proper maintenance will prevent or lessen the severity of many common lawn diseases.
Pro Tip: Some cultivars are resistant to common tall fescue diseases. Call a local Cooperative Extension agent (or look at their online publications) to see which diseases are common in your area. Then, choose a cultivar that is resistant to these diseases.
Choose endophyte-enhanced varieties, if possible. Endophytes are beneficial fungi that give the grass better disease and insect tolerance.
Crabgrass is common in tall fescue lawns. To get ahead of this unwanted plant in your yard, apply a pre-emergent herbicide (or organic pre-emergent). Pre-emergents must be applied before the weeds germinate. Crabgrass germinates in spring once the top inch of soil hits 55 degrees for a few days in a row. Check out Greencast’s soil temperature tracker, or use a meat thermometer to check for yourself.
Another strategy to deal with weeds is to mow the grass tall. Tall grass shades the soil and prevents some weeds, like crabgrass, from germinating. Crabgrass must have sunlight to germinate, so a full lawn that shades the soil will prevent many of these seeds from sprouting.
A dense stand of grass is also important. A thick lawn will crowd out many weeds on its own (with no help from you!). Overseed as needed in the fall to keep a dense stand of grass that will do most of the weed work for you.
Some information taken from Fundamentals of Turfgrass Management, 5th ed. by Christians, Patton, and Law
If you think a tall fescue lawn may be right up your alley, contact one of our local lawn care professionals. They can help you select, install, and care for your grass so you can spend your free time doing what matters most.