Turf Tips

Tall fescue for Indiana lawns but not most sports fields

Tall fescue is a great turf for lawns throughout most of Indiana. It requires about ½ the nitrogen and far less irrigation than Kentucky bluegrass when managed for the same aesthetic appearance. Because of its deeper rooting and access to water in the soil, it stays greener than Kentucky bluegrass much longer into a drought. It is affected by only one primary lawn disease called brown patch and it rarely succumbs to enough feeding from white grubs to justify a preventative or curative insecticide. Tall fescue also tends to be more resistant to heat than Kentucky bluegrass and thus it is perfect of lawns in southern IN. Plus it germinates almost as fast as perennial ryegrass and much faster than bluegrass. These positives are why we recommend turf type tall fescue for Indiana lawns almost as often as we recommend Kentucky bluegrass. However, tall fescue does have its negatives also. It grows faster in the spring than bluegrass requiring more frequent mowing than bluegrass well into summer. Though it stays green longer than bluegrass in a drought, it doesn’t survive dormancy or extreme drought as well as Kentucky bluegrass. Though it germinates quickly, it doesn’t mature enough to withstand traffic for 12 to 18 months, which is problematic on sports fields. Unlike bluegrass, it can’t be overseeded with perennial ryegrass during the playing season or a clumpy, patchy, and dangerous turf will result. It can be overseeded with only tall fescue, but effectively has to be taken out of use for 12 months for it to mature to the point of tolerating traffic. Tall fescue may work on distant fields only used occasionally during the year, but it will not perform adequately on intensively used playing fields. Though the spreading ability of tall fescue is improving slightly with the new “rhizomatous” tall fescues (RTF), data from Kansas State show no improvement in lateral spread of the new RTF’s versus the very old K31 tall fescue and only 1/3 of the spreading ability of Kentucky bluegrass. The bottom line is that turf type tall fescue is a great grass for Indiana lawns (with some limitations), but it should not be used on athletic fields that see regular use.

Zac Reicher, Professor/Turfgrass Extension Specialist

Send corrections, suggestions, and comments to biehlj@purdue.edu