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.
Tall fescue grass is relatively easy to "pick out of a lineup" of turf grasses and crabgrass, generally being taller than the former and coarser to the touch than the latter. David Beaulieu

Beginners may hear some people speaking of getting rid of tall fescue grass and other folks praising this plant as a low-care grass. This leads to confusion. My goal here is to clear matters up for those of you who are newbies to lawn care.

Tall Fescue: Classification, Relatives, Weediness

Tall fescue, a European native, is classified as Festuca arundinacea in terms of plant taxonomy. You aficionados of ornamental grass may recognize it as a relative of blue fescue grass.

But whereas the latter is planted for its ornamental value, tall fescue is often considered undesirable. Why the discrepancy?

Well, first of all, keep in mind that turfgrasses 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 turfgrasses do. Instead, it spreads mainly by seed. Thus the awkward 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 turfgrasses.

Consider the picture of tall fescue, above, which is growing in a lawn composed of a mix of grass types (predominantly Kentucky bluegrass).

At the time the picture was taken (late summer in zone 5), the other grasses around it had gone dormant, making it easy for you to see the plant in question. But even when the other grasses are present, the tall fescue sticks out like a sore thumb. Homeowners who love manicured lawns hate to see such clumps dotting an otherwise smooth green carpet.

Improvements Lead to Status as Low-Care Grass

But wait, that is not the end of the story: it is not that simple. As I said above, tall fescue is sometimes praised as a low-care grass by experts in lawn care. How can that be? Well, for one thing, 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 shown in the picture above, there is also a "new and improved" kind, if you will: turf type tall fescue. Cultivars of the latter can be superior in a number of ways and blend in better with other turfgrasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass.

As Kelly Burke remarks in his introduction to fescues, "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 (see below)
  • 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 are buying a turf type tall fescue when you go to the home improvement store for your grass seed. 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 of, say Kentucky bluegrass, and it is inelegantly dotted with clumps of the older type of tall fescue, you may well regard the latter as a grassy weed (the rest of this article is about the latter, so you can assume all references are to the older type).

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 turfgrasses and smooth crabgrass (the type that most often plagues lawns), generally being taller and coarser than both. Are you still unsure about the difference between tall fescue and crabgrass? No problem: you can do a comparison if you'd like by consulting my photos showing what crabgrass looks like.

In , Peter del Tredici describes it as follows:

"Tall fescue is easily recognized in the landscape by its broad, dark green leaves, whose glossy upper surfaces glisten in bright sunshine. The leaves are much coarser than most other lawn grasses and remain green through the winter."

As the newest leaf blades emerge, they appear in rolled-up form. If you look at my picture closely, you can see these rolls (they're the blades that look thinner than the rest).

How to Get Rid of Tall Fescue Grass, or "Rescue From the Fescue"

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? I will offer 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 (for example, Kentucky bluegrass) 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 better 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 -- they do not come out easily. And if you leave little pieces of root behind, the plant can make a reappearance.

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 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 lawn, or you might pay dearly for your haste in the future. Take the time to prepare the soil properly. Consult my separate article to learn how to start a lawn.

The process continues through the way you maintain your lawn subsequently. Many homeowners realize the importance of watering and fertilizing, but they treat lawn mowing as a purely perfunctory chore. They just go through the motions, giving little thought to the whys, whens and wherefores. The fact is, however, that how you cut your grass plays a major role in its long-term health. Read these tips on mowing lawns to bring yourself up to speed on this specific topic; if you feel you already have sufficient knowledge about mowing, consult instead my more expansive article on how to achieve a greener lawn.

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

As mentioned above, tall fescue is one type of grass that holds up well to foot traffic. If you are having trouble with an area of your lawn becoming worn-out because of people walking on it, you may want to reconsider getting rid of tall fescue: you may wish to treat it as a solution, rather than as a problem. To drive home the point, below I present an exchange between a reader and one of the lawn care experts at John Deere:

Reader, Roger asked, "I have had my lawn for over ten years. The turf grass in the middle of my lawn is doing fine. The area closest to our patio door and about 10 feet out from it continuously dies out whether I plant seed or sod the area. What should I do?"

The John Deere expert answered as follows:

In trying to solve the problem you noted, it is important to consider all potential sources of the problem before we can correct it. While there could be a number of factors at play, my assertion is the problem is caused by wear from the foot traffic of people going in and out of the patio door.

 

Different turf grass (or "turfgrass") 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.