The Ultimate Guide to Maintaining a Beautiful Tall Fescue Lawn

Tall fescue grass is known as the “wonder grass” for good reason. It’s not only popular among homeowners for its low maintenance requirements, but it also plays a vital role in agriculture due to its long growing period and tolerance to grazing. Whether you already have a tall fescue lawn or are considering it for your yard, this comprehensive guide will provide you with all the information you need to properly maintain it throughout the year.

Understanding Tall Fescue

Tall fescue grass is native to various regions, including parts of Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and northern and central Asia. Although it didn’t originate in the Americas, it grows well in the upper half of the United States, where cool-season grasses thrive.

Cool-season grasses actively grow during the temperate weather of spring and fall but go dormant in the summer heat, making them suitable for colder northern climates. Tall fescue is more heat and drought-resistant compared to many other cool-season grass types, making it an excellent choice for lawns in the transition zone, which is the middle part of the United States.

While tall fescue can grow in various soil types, it thrives best in well-drained clay soils with high organic matter. It has moderate to coarse grass blades. The standard cultivar for lawns used to be Kentucky-31, but newer varieties of tall fescue have a finer texture, better shoot density, darker green color, and higher tolerance for shade and low mowing.

Pros and Cons of Tall Fescue

Like any grass type, tall fescue has its advantages and disadvantages. Here’s what you need to know:

Pros:

  • Low maintenance
  • Tolerates heat and drought
  • Adapts to different soil types and conditions
  • Resistant to chinch bugs and the lawn disease dollar spot
  • Doesn’t generate excessive thatch (a layer of plant debris on the soil)

Cons:

  • Grows in bunches, so it takes time to fill in gaps
  • Slow to recover from damage
  • Vulnerable to the lawn disease brown patch

Monthly Maintenance Calendar

If you’re curious about what your tall fescue lawn care schedule should look like throughout the year, this helpful calendar outlines the best times to complete various maintenance tasks. The check marks indicate the optimal timing for each task, while the black check marks represent possible timings. Keep in mind that not all lawn care tasks have ideal times. For more precise information based on your local climate, consider reaching out to your local cooperative extension.

Tall Fescue Maintenance Tasks

Whether you’re a lawn care novice or experienced, it’s always helpful to familiarize yourself with the specific needs and quirks of your grass type. Here are some maintenance tips tailored specifically to tall fescue lawns.

Mowing Tall Fescue

Tall fescue grass grows rapidly, so it’s essential to mow it every 5 to 7 days. Its most active growth occurs in the spring and fall, which means you’ll need to mow more frequently during those seasons. In the summer and winter, when the grass stops growing, you can reduce the frequency of mowing.

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Maintain a mowing height between 2 to 4 inches. During the summer, consider raising the mower height by up to half an inch to help keep the soil cool and prevent it from drying out. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn can provide a natural nutrient boost and reduce the need for fertilizers. However, if your turf is struggling with disease, it’s best to bag the clippings to prevent further spread.

Watering Tall Fescue

Tall fescue lawns typically require about 1 to 1¼ inches of water per week, whether from rainfall or irrigation. If your grass goes dormant during the summer, it’s still crucial to water it with approximately ½ inch of water every three weeks to prevent death.

The frequency of watering depends on the weather conditions and time of year. In the absence of precipitation, it’s generally recommended to water your lawn once a week. Clay soils absorb water slowly, so it’s advisable to irrigate until the soil stops absorbing, wait, and then water again. Sandy soils, on the other hand, absorb water quickly, which may require splitting watering into two sessions per week.

Additionally, keep an eye out for signs of dehydration or drought stress in your tall fescue grass. If it appears dark bluish-gray, wilting, folded, curled, or retains footprints, it’s a clear indication that it needs water. During hot and dry periods, you may need to water as often as every five days.

Remember, it’s better for your lawn’s root system to water less frequently but for longer durations to encourage deeper root growth.

Fertilizing Tall Fescue

Fertilization provides your lawn with the necessary nutrients for healthy growth and survival. Most fertilizers contain nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The NPK ratio on the fertilizer package indicates the percentage of each nutrient, such as 16-4-8, which means 16% nitrogen, 4% phosphorus, and 8% potassium.

Before applying fertilizer, it’s advisable to conduct a soil test to determine your lawn’s specific needs. A soil sample analysis will reveal the existing nutrient levels and guide you on the appropriate fertilizer application. You can send a soil sample to your local cooperative extension or a soil testing laboratory for analysis.

For tall fescue grass, apply 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet. Depending on the results of your soil test, you may need to fertilize up to three times a year, totaling 3 pounds of nitrogen per 1000 square feet annually. However, tall fescue can tolerate low-fertility soils, so it’s crucial to follow the guidance provided by your soil test results.

The best time to fertilize tall fescue grass is in the fall, especially if you only plan on fertilizing once a year. Your turf will require those nutrients to grow, recover from the summer heat, and prepare for winter. You can also apply fertilizer in the spring, preferably in March or early April. However, be cautious not to fertilize too early, as it may trigger premature growth before the grass is ready.

Avoid fertilizing cool-season grass in the summer, as the combination of heat and fertilizer can harm the grass when it’s most vulnerable.

Applying Soil Amendments to Tall Fescue

Soil tests can also provide valuable information about your soil’s pH level. Soil pH measures acidity and alkalinity on a scale of 0 (most acidic) to 14 (most alkaline). The ideal pH range for turfgrass is typically between 6 and 7, but tall fescue grass has a broader tolerance range of 5.5 to 7.5. Maintaining the proper pH level offers several benefits, including improved microorganism activity, better nutrient absorption, and a reduced risk of toxicity from aluminum and manganese.

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If your soil pH is outside the ideal range, you can rectify it by applying soil amendments. Lime (raises pH) works best when applied in the spring or fall, while sulfur (lowers pH) is most effective in the spring. Keep in mind that soil amendments take time to break down, so wait at least six months before conducting another soil test.

Aeration for Tall Fescue

Compacted soil can pose challenges for your lawn’s health, especially if it experiences heavy foot traffic. Core aeration is a process that involves creating holes in the ground to alleviate soil compaction. It offers several benefits, including improved nutrient and water penetration, enhanced root growth, reduced thatch, better drainage, increased earthworm activity, and improved effectiveness of fertilizer, soil amendments, and overseeding.

Since tall fescue is a cool-season grass, it’s best to aerate it in the fall when it’s actively growing. This timing allows the grass to recover quickly from the aeration process. However, if severe soil compaction is causing significant problems, you can also aerate in the spring.

Dethatching Tall Fescue

Thatch refers to the layer of dead and living plant material that accumulates on the soil surface. While some thatch is normal, excessive buildup (more than half an inch) can suffocate your lawn and create favorable conditions for pests and diseases. Dethatching tools can help remove excess thatch from your turf. Raking and aerating can also help in reducing thatch to some extent.

Fortunately, tall fescue grass is not prone to excessive thatch buildup. However, it’s still essential to monitor the thatch level, and if necessary, conduct dethatching in the fall.

Seeding and Overseeding Tall Fescue

Seeding involves spreading grass seeds to establish a new lawn, while overseeding refers to spreading seeds over an existing lawn to fill in patches or make it denser. Tall fescue is a bunch-type grass, meaning it doesn’t spread to fill gaps on its own. Therefore, overseeding is particularly important for tall fescue lawns, as a denser turf not only looks better but also improves resistance against pests, diseases, heat stress, and weeds.

The best time to overseed tall fescue is in the fall. The specific month may vary depending on your local climate, but it’s generally recommended not to overseed later than early October. If you aerate your lawn just before overseeding, the seeds will have better access to the soil. Keep the seeds moist until they germinate.

Installing Tall Fescue Sod

If you’re looking for a quicker lawn establishment method, you can opt for sod installation. Tall fescue sod can be purchased and planted, and it may sometimes be mixed with Kentucky bluegrass to enhance its strength. After installing the sod, make sure to water it thoroughly until it establishes roots. If you can still pull up pieces of sod easily, it needs more time to root. The ideal time for tall fescue sod installation is in the spring or fall.

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Weed Control for Tall Fescue

As with any grass type, tall fescue lawns can encounter weed issues. However, there are various methods to prevent and eliminate weeds. Maintaining a healthy lawn will naturally help it resist weed growth. Regularly pulling out weeds by hand or with tools can be effective, but make sure to remove the entire root system to prevent regrowth.

If traditional weed control methods aren’t sufficient, targeted herbicides can be used. Pre-emergent herbicides can prevent weed growth, and they should be applied in the spring for summer annual weeds and in the fall for winter annual weeds. Post-emergent herbicides, on the other hand, kill weeds after they have already sprouted.

It’s important to avoid using herbicides during the summer, as the combination of heat and chemicals can damage cool-season grasses at a vulnerable stage in their growth cycle. Additionally, if you have new grass growing, wait until it’s well-established before applying herbicides.

Some common weeds that may affect tall fescue lawns include annual bluegrass, chickweed, clover, crabgrass, cudweed, dallisgrass, dandelions, foxtail, goosegrass, henbit, nutsedge, wild garlic, and wild onion.

Pest Control for Tall Fescue

While tall fescue lawns aren’t highly susceptible to pests, some insects can cause damage. The main pest that threatens tall fescue is grubs. Grubs are the larval stage of beetles and feed on grass roots. Indications of a grub problem include wild animals digging in your yard or easily pulling up chunks of grass. To prevent further damage, improve your overall lawn care practices and consider applying insecticides if necessary.

Disease Control for Tall Fescue

Tall fescue is susceptible to a fungal disease called brown patch, which typically develops in hot and humid weather conditions. Brown patch causes brown circles, lesions, and rotting of grass. To manage brown patch effectively, consider the following techniques:

  • Aerate and dethatch your lawn to improve air circulation and keep the turf drier.
  • Avoid excessive nitrogen application during periods of high growth, as this nutrient can promote the development of fungal diseases.
  • Improve irrigation and drainage to prevent excess moisture. However, ensure that your grass receives sufficient water for its needs.
  • Water your lawn in the morning to allow the grass to absorb the water and dry out during the day. Nighttime irrigation can promote fungal growth since the grass remains wet for an extended period.

If these preventive measures are not sufficient, you can apply fungicides to control brown patch. Always remove and dispose of grass clippings properly when your lawn is affected by disease.

Frequently Asked Questions about Tall Fescue

When to Hire a Professional Lawn Care Service

Caring for your tall fescue lawn can sometimes feel overwhelming, even with all the information and guidelines available. If you prefer to leave the maintenance to the experts, consider hiring a professional lawn care service. LawnStarter can connect you with experienced professionals who specialize in caring for various grass types, including tall fescue.

Now that you have all the juicy secrets for maintaining a beautiful tall fescue lawn, it’s time to put them into action. With proper care and maintenance, your tall fescue grass will thrive, providing you with a lush and vibrant lawn to enjoy year-round.

Main Image Credit: Matt Lavin / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0