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Tall fescue: Research show it handles the heat, but lags in spring

June 24, 2024  By Dr. Sara Stricker

Rating tall fescue at an NTEP trial at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute. Photo: Guelph Turfgrass Institute

Research conducted by John Watson & Eric Lyons, University of Guelph, in partnership with the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program.

In the realm of landscaping and sports turf management, selecting the right plant for the right purpose is key. Among the turfgrass species available, tall fescue grass stands out as a resilient and adaptable choice, finding its place in lawns, sports fields, and parks around the world. But what exactly sets tall fescue apart from its counterparts, and what are the pros and cons of embracing this specific species?

Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a cool-season perennial grass native to Europe and widely naturalized in North America. Its robust nature makes it a favourite among turf managers seeking a grass species that can withstand various environmental stressors. Tall fescue exhibits remarkable drought tolerance, making it a great choice for regions with erratic rainfall patterns or tightening water restrictions. Its deep root system allows it to access moisture from lower soil layers, ensuring survival during dry spells, and making this species a great choice for erosion prevention on slopes. While Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) will struggle in shaded environments, tall fescue thrives in partial shade conditions, making it ideal for urban settings where sunlight may be limited. 

Tall fescue does not always produce underground rhizomes, which means it’s not likely to be sold as a pure stand from a sod farm. Seeded tall fescue will germinate and establish quicker than Kentucky bluegrass, so it is an ideal species to use in overseeding or repairing previously established stands. When mature, tall fescue can stand up to intense foot traffic, even under relatively low inputs. 

One of the primary historical drawbacks of tall fescue is its coarse texture, which can be less aesthetically pleasing. This is exemplified in one of the first commercially available cultivars of tall fescue called Kentucky-31 (K-31). This cultivar was developed in the 1940s and was initially used as a pasture and forage grass, but the resilience under low inputs made it appealing to the home lawn market. K-31 generally has a lighter, lime-green hue when compared to Kentucky bluegrass and a much coarser texture which may not be desirable. However, over eight decades of selective breeding has created multiple varieties of “turf-type” tall fescue. The new, improved turf-type varieties have finer leaf texture, denser growth habit, darker colour, and may produce weak rhizomes. 

If you’ve tried tall fescue in our northern climates, you may be aware of the one major drawback preventing this species from becoming the fan-favourite for lawn care and sports field use: WINTER DAMAGE. Tall fescue is well known to be susceptible to grey snow mould, pink snow mould, Microdochium patch, ice encasement, and desiccation under cold air currents. Tall fescue is also susceptible to gray leaf spot, a disease that hasn’t yet become prevalent in Canada.  

Table 1. NTEP tall fescue cultivars with rating highest rating for spring green-up and summer quality. Cultivars are listed alphabetically and are in the same statistical grouping. Names with * or † were rated best for the average of all testing sites and at Guelph for either green-up or summer quality. This data is averaged from the 2019–2022 seasons.

A turf-type tall fescue cultivar trial was seeded with 132 cultivars in 2018 at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute through the National Turfgrass Evaluation Project (NTEP) and data was collected from 2019–2023. NTEP is a non-profit program, sponsored by the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and the National Turfgrass Federation. The data from test trials can be used by extension specialists for making recommendations, and turf managers can access the reports on the different turf species online to compare the performance of the cultivars in their geographic regions. Density, colour, spring green-up, leaf texture, and overall quality were assessed using previously established methods. This trial included 23 other locations across the United States, some of which conducted multiple trials. Spring green-up data wasn’t gathered for all locations due to the absence of a winter season in those regions.

Nine cultivars stood out among the rest for the best average green-up in Guelph, as averaged over four years (Table 1). One of these is K-31, the historical cultivar with a wider leaf texture. The average summer quality for this trial identified 46 cultivars, and this did not include K-31. ‘Bullseye’ by Burlingham Seeds and ‘Teacher’ by Columbia Seeds performed well in both spring green-up and summer quality in Guelph, but these two cultivars didn’t make the cut for top ratings when averaged across the other locations tested. This underscores the significance of conducting research tailored to specific locations, emphasizing the need for more research focused specifically on Canada’s unique conditions. Important note: Although these cultivars were rated the highest for spring green-up, that does not mean that they are completely resistant to winter diseases and damage!

Although they aren’t entirely infallible, some tall fescue cultivars show promise for use in Canadian turf stands. Consider overseeding an existing Kentucky bluegrass field with tall fescue to boost mid-summer colour and durability but also understand that there may be some loss and damage due to severe winter conditions. Refer to the online Turfgrass Trial Explorer at NTEP.org and choose a nearby location to get cultivar data that applies to your region. 

You can contact the Guelph Turfgrass Institute at GTI@uoguelph.ca or follow @GuelphTurf on social media. Visit www.GuelphTurfgrass.ca for more information. 

Dr. Sara Stricker is the communications and outreach co-ordinator at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute.

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