Tall Fescue Grass Profile

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

Tall fescue is a perennial cool-weather turf grass that stands out because of its growth habit. The leaves are wide blades with a dark green color that is maintained even in winter. The blades are very coarse to the touch, with topsides that are shiny. As the newest leaf blades emerge, they appear in a rolled-up form.

Tall fescue is known for its upright, clumping growth habit that sometimes known as "bunchgrass." Although tall fescue grass possesses small rhizomes, it spreads mostly by seed distribution rather than creeping. When it dominates a mixed-grass lawn, it may appear as isolated, awkward-looking clumps rather than in a uniform mat like other grasses.

Tall fescue is a tough grass that is a good choice for play areas, though it may require reseeding when bare spots occur. The cultivars used for lawn seed are usually dwarf varieties.

Botanical Name Festuca arundinacea
Common Name Tall fescue grass
Plant Type Perennial grass
Mature Size 4 to 12 inches high
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Tolerates most soils
Soil pH 5.5 to 7 (acidic to neutral)
Bloom Time Non-flowering
Flower Color Non-flowering
Hardiness Zones 3 to 8 (USDA)
Native Areas Europe; naturalized world-wide
Blades of grass, red fescue or creeping red fescue grass (Festuca rubra), Freiamt, Black Forest, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany
Helmut Meyer zur Capellen / Getty Images

How to Grow Tall Fescue Grass

Tall fescue grass is a cool-season grass. The best time to plant it is during peak growth periods in the fall and spring. Because this grass tends to bunch, it can benefit from periodic overseeding to keep the density but avoid a clumpy appearance.

This type of grass is drought tolerant and does not require a lot of fertilization. The roots develop a very deep system, reaching between two and three feet. Because of this, tall fescue survives well without regular watering and is a good eco-friendly choice where water is scarce.

Light

Tall fescue grass can grow in full sun to part shade. These grasses are shade tolerant and grow well in areas where it's too hot for cool grasses but too cold in the winter for warm-season grasses.

Soil

These grasses are adaptable to many types of soil. The deep roots can find nutrients and moisture in almost any soil type.

Water

Weekly watering of 1 to 1 3/4 inches of water is beneficial but not essential. When watering, the goal should be to wet the soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. The long roots make tall fescue grass quite drought-resistant.

Temperature and Humidity

Tall fescue has good cold tolerance, though it can suffer from winter damage in the coldest areas of the northern U.S. and Canada. It can withstand hot temperatures provided it gets adequate water, but extreme heat combined with drought can kill this grass.

Fertilizer

Tall fescue grass will do best if fed yearly at a rate of 2.5 to 3 pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of lawn.

Varieties of Tall Fescue Grass

Many tall fescues were developed for use as pasture fodder for grazing animals. The varieties created for turf lawn use are mostly dwarf varieties of F. arundinacea:

  • 'Black Beauty' is a blend of tall fescues, noted for having good disease resistance.
  • 'Dense Shade Mix' is another blend, noted for good performance in shady locations and for fast growth.

Fescue grass seed is commonly mixed with 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, their weaknesses are offset. For example, Kentucky bluegrass holds up well to foot traffic, but the fescue has greater shade tolerance.

Common Pests/ Diseases

Dwarf varieties of fescue commonly used in turfgrass mixes are prone to a fungal disease called brown patch. The symptoms often appear in mid-summer, and the only solution is the remove affected patches and reseed.

In the right environment, tall fescue can come to dominate other grasses in a mixed-grass lawn. If you need to eliminate tall fescue, there are at least two possible control methods. One is for those who do not mind using chemicals, the other is for those who want to stay organic.

Since tall fescue may already be around in the spring before your Kentucky bluegrass greens up, this is a good time to spray with a glyphosate-based herbicide. 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.

Warning

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. Unless you are prepared to kill the good with the bad, this method calls for careful planning.


Recent evidence indicates a variety of human health problems associated with improper use of glyphosate. If you choose to use this chemical, make sure to follow label directions exactly, including the use of recommended safety equipment.

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.