Tall Fescue Grass

Should You Use It or Get Rid of It?

Picture of tall fescue grass. This coarse plant is often considered a grassy weed.
David Beaulieu

Some people say they want to get rid of the tall fescue grass in their lawn. Others praise this plant as a low-care grass. Once we define terms properly, you will see that both of these points of view have validity.

Tall Fescue: Classification, Popular Relative, Weediness

Tall fescue, a European native, is classified as Festuca arundinacea in terms of plant taxonomy. Growers of ornamental grasses will recognize it as a relative of blue fescue grass (Festuca glauca). But whereas the latter is planted for its ornamental value, tall fescue is often considered undesirable. The discrepancy is easily accounted for.

First of all, keep in mind that turf grasses and ornamental grasses are considered "totally different animals" in a landscaping context. Their differing growth habits suit them to different uses in the landscape. Ornamental grasses have a clumping growth habit.

Tall fescue shares with the ornamentals this clumping growth habit, which is why you will also hear people refer to it as a "bunching-type grass." Although it does possess small rhizomes, it does not spread much by creeping the way the more popular turf grasses do. Instead, it spreads mainly by seed. Thus the isolated, awkward-looking clumps, which you generally do not want in a lawn. Rather, you want a uniform surface in the lawn, a niche filled by the popular turf grasses. Tall fescue sticks out like a sore thumb in a lawn composed of mixed grass types. Homeowners who love manicured lawns hate to see such clumps dotting an otherwise smooth green carpet.

Improvements to Tall Fescue Make It a Low-Care Grass

But wait, that is not the end of the story: It's not that simple. Remember, tall fescue is sometimes praised as a low-care grass by experts in lawn care. How can that be? Firstly, if your lawn were entirely composed of tall fescue, the issue of its "sticking out like a sore thumb" would never arise.

Furthermore, there is more than one kind of this cool-season grass. Besides the weedy type, there is also a new and improved kind: turf type tall fescue. Cultivars of the latter can be superior in a number of ways and blend in better with other turf grasses.

As one expert on lawn care remarks, "Turf type tall fescue (TTT fescue) is gaining in popularity as a lawn grass as improved cultivars look and grow like other popular lawn grasses but are very heat and drought tolerant." The newer turf type tall fescues can be a great choice where you want a lawn that:

  • Is shade-tolerant
  • Holds up well to foot traffic 
  • Is less prone to thatch build-up
  • Tolerates heat and cold better than older types of tall fescue
  • Is relatively tolerant of poor soil, salt, and compacted soil
  • Sports leaf blades that are finer and a growth habit that is lower than older types of tall fescue (in fact, it's sometimes called a "dwarf" type)
  • Is relatively disease-resistant

If this is the kind of lawn you want, make sure you specify that you're seeking a "turf type tall fescue" when you go to the home improvement store for your grass seed (not simply "fescue"). Or if you are having a lawn service do the job for you, put in a special request. Cultivars include Plantation, Arid 3, and Millennium. Avoid K-31, an older cultivar now considered inferior (the K in the name is short for "Kentucky," which can easily mislead homeowners into thinking it's a type of Kentucky bluegrass, which it is not).

What Tall Fescue Looks Like, How It Differs From Crabgrass

But if you already have a lawn composed mainly of, say, Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), and it's inelegantly dotted with clumps of the older type of tall fescue, you may well regard the latter as a grassy weed. In this case, your main interest is in tall fescue control. As with any weed control, it's best to start with identification, so that you can be sure you know exactly what it is you're fighting.

Tall fescue grass is relatively easy to "pick out of a lineup" of turf grasses and smooth crabgrass (the type that most often plagues lawns), generally being taller and coarser than both. Tall fescue has wide blades that are dark green, a color the blades maintain even in winter. The top side of the blades is shiny. The blades are very coarse to the touch. As the newest leaf blades emerge, they appear in rolled-up form.

How to Get Rid of Tall Fescue Grass

Now that you know what tall fescue looks like and have decided you wish to get rid of it, the question becomes, What is the best way to remove it? There are at least two possible control methods, one for those who do not mind using chemicals, the other for those who want to stay organic.

Chemical control involves using a glyphosate product such as Roundup. But remember, Roundup is a non-selective herbicide. This means that it will not discriminate between the grass you wish to keep, such as perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne), and the grass you wish to remove.

So unless you are prepared to kill the good with the bad, this method calls for careful planning. Since tall fescue may already be around in the spring before your Kentucky bluegrass greens up, this is a good time to spray with Roundup. Either way, have grass seed ready so that you can reseed and prevent weeds from seizing an opportunity to colonize an empty space in your lawn.

Alternatively, you can practice organic tall fescue control, removing it by digging it out. But be prepared for a workout, because the roots of tall fescue grow thick and deep and do not come out easily. And if you leave little pieces of root behind, the plant can reappear.

You can also take preventive action in your efforts at tall fescue control, and you can keep these efforts as organic as you wish. All of the usual maxims of lawn weed control apply just as much here as they do to the common lawn weeds. The most basic principle to follow is that by feeding and otherwise maintaining grass properly, your lawn can become so robust that the seeds of unwanted plants simply never get a chance to sprout in it.

The process of establishing such a lawn begins at the very start. Do not rush into starting a new lawn, or you might pay dearly for your haste in the future. Take the time to prepare the soil properly. 

The process continues through the way you maintain your lawn subsequently. Many homeowners realize the importance of watering and fertilizing, but they give little thought to detail in lawn mowing. The fact is, however, that how you cut your grass plays a major role in its long-term health.  .

Tall Fescue as a Low-Care Grass That Withstands Foot Traffic

Since tall fescue holds up well to foot traffic, you may want to reconsider getting rid of it if you are having trouble with an area of your lawn becoming worn-out because of people walking on it. Far from being a problem, something that you must get rid of, you may wish to treat it as a solution to a true problem: grass dying because people are treading on it too much. For example, homeowners often complain that their lawn dies back where people beat a path between the house and an outdoor storage shed. The experts at John Deere call attention to the fact that tall fescue can solve such problems, in contrast to many other types of grass:

"Different turf grass species have varying levels of resistance to wear. It is important to select a turf grass that will grow well in the conditions near the door and be best suited to the conditions not only to survive, but to thrive. Depending on your location, you might consider zoysia, Bermudagrass, tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, or Kentucky bluegrass as more wear tolerant species."
"Bear in mind that the relative wear resistance of a turf grass species will be greatest after it is established and will be dependent on proper management.
"If the area in question receives a lot of wear from foot traffic, your management of the area should include ways to reduce soil compaction, both prior to and after establishment of the turf grass. Keep traffic off of the newly seeded turf grass while it is being established.
"A properly selected turf grass species will provide a great solution for your backyard. As a point of transition from the home to the backyard, you might also consider a small area of hardscape to counter the areas of highest wear and transition into the backyard, where you can then enjoy your turf grass yard to its greatest potential."

Other Types of Fescue

The following are considered "fine fescues," in contrast to tall fescue with its coarse blade:

  • Chewings fescue (Festuca rubra var. commutata)
  • Creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra var. rubra); uses rhizomes to spread
  • Hard fescue (Festuca longifolia)

Seed of fine fescue grass is commonly mixed with that of other cool-season grasses in the North (such as Kentucky bluegrass) to arrive at an ideal blend for lawns. The idea behind such mixes is to draw upon the different strengths of the different kinds of grasses. By doing this, you offset their weaknesses. For example, Kentucky bluegrass holds up well to foot traffic, but the fine fescue have greater shade tolerance. Other strengths of fine fescues include:

  • Their seed germinates quickly.
  • They tolerate poor soils.
  • They are very cold-hardy.

Their weaknesses include:

  • They don't stand up well to heat and will go dormant during very hot summers.
  • They easily become worn-down due to foot traffic.