David M. Kopec, Extension Turfgrass Specialist
Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a heat tolerant cool season grass.
It has been traditionally used as a forage and turfgrass in the transition
zone of the United States. This is an area where neither Kentucky bluegrass
or bermudagrass survive adequately due to short growing seasons and/or
extended heat and cold weather. The transition zone is an area which starts
in Maryland, down to the middle of Georgia, and goes west to Kansas and
north to central Nebraska. The most popular cultivar in the 1950's, 60's,
and 70's was Kentucky 31 tall fescue. This cultivar was used effectively
as a forage and turfgrass for low maintenance lawns. It could withstand
mowings at about 3.0 inches and had fairly wide leaf blades. It would tend
to have a clumpy appearance. The first improved turf-type tall fescue lawn
cultivars appeared in 1979. These included 'Rebel', 'Falcon' and 'Hound-Dog'.
The first two were noticeable improvements over K-31. Since then, over
60 cultivars have been released for sale in the turf industry. Many lawns
in the midwest, southern to mid-california and the mid-southern U.S. have
tall fescue lawns. Here is the scoop on questions and answers you and your
master gardener volunteers receive about tall fescue.
Q. Where does tall fescue grow in Arizona?
A. Tall fescue grows best in areas which are 3500 feet to 7500 feet in elevation.
Q. Is it true that tall fescue grows in poor soil?
A. Generally yes, but not on a shallow soil, or a thin layer of soil on tip of caliche or rocks.
Q. Is tall fescue a water saving grass?
A. In areas where you must add supplemental irrigation for regular turf maintenance - NO. Tall fescue avoids drought by having a deep root system. The deep roots can extract water from a greater amount of stored soil water. Tall fescue can go more days between irrigations or rainfall than ryegrass or Kentucky bluegrass. At higher elevations it can go 10-12 days between irrigations after a 2.0 inch rain, but we generally do not have enough rain or deep soil for tall fescue to act like it does in the midwest. (Survive 10-12 days between rainfalls)
Q. Does tall fescue use less water than bermuda?
A. NO. Tall fescue uses more water in the summer (about 1/2" more per week) than bermuda.
Q. Does tall fescue use more water than bermuda (when fall overseeded)
on a yearly basis?
A. Tall fescue will use about the same yearly, as bermuda when it is overseeded for winter (summer and winter total).
Q. Can I convert my existing lawn to tall fescue by overseeding with
A. NO. You will end up with a patchy lawn with clumps of tall fescue among bermuda. This is an unthrifty condition which often results in scalping.
Q. How do I switch to tall fescue?
A. At low elevations (bermuda country), you must first kill the bermuda in August with Round-up when the bermuda is adequately growing. Apply two applications ten days apart. Don't wash off the round-up from the leaves.
Q. When should I seed tall fescue?
A. In the early fall, about 2 weeks earlier than for ryegrass. In Phoenix/late September - Tucson/mid-September - Prescott/August 15 - Flagstaff/mid-July. Yuma --- don't do it.
Q. How much seed should I put down?
A. On a well prepared (fresh) soil bed, apply 6-8 lbs. of seed per 1000 ft2. On the dead bermuda, scalp it, then apply 10-12 lbs. of seed per 1000 ft2. The seed should be raked in slightly and tamped. The bermuda stubble should be covered with either a light coat of composted manure or soil.
Q. How often should I water to establish the lawn?
A. Twice daily. About 10:00 am and 1:30 pm. Apply just enough to the top 1/4 of soil. Do this until the seedlings are about 1 inch out of the soil. Then water once a day in the early morning.
Q. How do I mow tall fescue?
A. For home lawns, you have two choices. For a tighter nit lawn, mow the grass to 2.5 inches when the lawn reaches 3.0 inches. For less mowing, mow the lawn at 3.0 inches, when it reaches no more then 3.75 inches.
Q. What mowing height should I use for dense shade?
A. Mow to 3.0 inches.
Q. How often should I fertilize?
A. It is best to apply fertilizer in the fall when it is cool and then lesser amounts in the spring. Do not fertilize in Tucson and Phoenix after April 15.
Q. How much fertilizer should I apply?
A. In the fall, apply 1.0 lb. per 1000 ft2 in later September, and then again in late October (Phoenix, Tucson). At Prescott, do the same applications at September 15 and again October 15.
Q. How much water should I apply in the summer?
A. In Tucson and Phoenix, about 2 inches per week. In Prescott, Payson, etc., about 1.5 inches per seek. (During the summer).
Q. Does tall fescue take traffic?
A. In the spring, fall, and winter, yes. In the summer heat it can be slow to regrow when damaged.
Q. Can I use weed control agents on tall fescue?
A. Yes, there are safe herbicides for pre-emerge and post emerge control of weeds, if needed.
Q. What varieties should I use?
A. There are over 60 varieties available. Most likely, a local supplier will carry a blend of 2 or more tall fescue varieties mixed together. Simply stated, stay away from the old fashioned forage and utility types. They will stand out like sore thumbs if mixed with the improved lawn types, and will provide an inferior turf if used alone. The forage types include the cultivars 'Goar', 'Alta' 'Fawn' and 'K-31'.
Q. What is an endophyte and what does it have to do with tall fescue?
A. The endophyte condition refers to tall fescue seed which contains a fungus inside the seed. The fungus causes the production of certain chemicals inside the grass plant that repel above ground feeding insects (aphids, billbugs, sod webworms, weevils. armyworms). This is a form of biological control. Endophyte enhanced seed is desirable for a lawn situation. but not for forage or hay production. So don't plant endophyte seed for pasture or hay.
Q. So why should I use tall fescue for a lawn?
A. Fescue if a specialty grass in the desert, because of its higher water requirement. So for a small lawn, with mixed shade, it will provide year round green.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, James A. Christenson, Director, Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, The University of Arizona. The University of Arizona is an equal opportunity, affirmative action institution. The University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status, or sexual orientation in its programs and activities.