Tall Fescue Improvement

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Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is the most important cool season grass in the United States. It is also the most important grass in Caldwell County. Most lawns, pastures, and hayfields in Caldwell County are tall fescue.

Picture of tall fescue

September and October are the months to improve tall fescue. Tall fescue is the most common grass in lawns, pastures, and hay fields in Caldwell County.

This versatile perennial grass is used for livestock forage, high and low quality turf sites, and for erosion control. Commonly referred to as “fescue”, this widely adapted grass is fairly easy to establish and tolerates various management levels.

The story of tall fescue, in particular the type known as ‘Kentucky 31’, is truly remarkable. In 1931, Dr. E.N. Fergus of the University of Kentucky visited the W.M Suiter Farm in Menifee County, Kentucky. While he was on the Suiter Farm, Dr. Fergus observed a tall fescue ecotype growing on a mountainside pasture. Being impressed with what he saw, Fergus collected seed from the patch. Subsequently, the collected seed was distributed and tested at several locations in Kentucky. The results from these test plots were promising, and this led to the release of ‘Kentucky 31’ in 1943. (The “31” in the variety name refers to the year the plant was discovered.)

The new fescue variety was vigorously promoted by the University of Kentucky Extension Agronomist William Johnstone, and was quickly accepted by Kentucky farmers. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, there was phenomenal interest in, and widespread planting of, this grass throughout the lower Midwest and a large portion of the South. In much of the South, ‘Kentucky 31’ tall fescue filled a void where no other cool season perennial forage grass was adapted.

Today, there are many improved types of tall fescue besides Kentucky 31. There are turf type tall fescues that have a finer leaf with better color. There are also forage type fescues that are a vast improvement over Kentucky 31 as far as animal growth and performance are concerned.

Fescue is a cool-season grass. The majority of its productive growth is in the fall and in the spring. June, July, and August are fescue’s toughest months. Fescue does not like hot weather. That is why at the end of August, fescue typically does not look great.

The good news is, if you want to improve your lawn, now is the time. September and October are the best months to sow fescue and renovate the lawn. Planting in the fall gives fescue a good jump on next summer. Even during the winter months, fescue’s root system will continue to grow.

A typical tall fescue seeding rate is 5 to 6 pounds of seed per 1000 square feet. Germination normally occurs within 7 to 14 days under suitable moisture and soil temperature conditions.

For best results, select a tall fescue cultivar that is best for your application. If it is a low maintenance site, Kentucky 31 is a good choice, but there are better cultivar choices for high quality turf. A variety that I have seen perform very well in Caldwell County is “3rd Millennium SRP”, but there are many others. Check the NCSU Turffiles website for a complete list of recommended varieties (or contact the Caldwell Extension Center).

Before seeding, core aerate to reduce soil compaction. Core aerification is also important for good soil to seed contact. Seed-soil contact is essential for germination of seed and for seedling viability. The holes left from core aerification create a good environment for germinating seeds and young seedlings, too.

If irrigation is available, irrigate to keep the top 1.5 inches of soil moist after seeding. This may require light watering once a day for 7 to 21 days depending on weather conditions. As the seedlings grow and root, water less often but for longer periods, working up to the recommended fall irrigation rate of 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch water per week. Irrigate early in the morning to reduce water loss due to evaporation.

Seedling grass can be killed by many broadleaf weed killers. Fall seeded cool-season grasses should not have any herbicides applied (including “weed and feed” products) until they have been mown at least 3 times. If applying herbicides to kill weeds before seeding, be sure to check the label for any waiting period that should be followed before sowing new seed.

Proper mowing height is one of the most important turf management techniques. Studies have shown that a 3.5” mowing height provides the best growth condition while minimizing disease incidence and weed encroachment. Mow newly seeded fescue back to 3” when it reaches 4.5” in height. How often you need to mow will depend on how quickly the turf grows, which will vary with temperature, fertility, and moisture levels. Allow clippings to fall into the turf where they will decay and release nutrients.

Following these basic strategies will help produce a healthy fescue lawn. Next week, I will discuss fertilization. For answers to your agricultural questions, call the Caldwell County Extension Center at 828-757-1290 or visit us online anytime at //caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu.