Dwarf Fescues? Thin Leaved Fescues? RTF? Which Fescue Do I Plant?

Since September is the time to seed and overseed cool season lawns in the Midwest, I’ve been getting questions about what type and variety of grass to plant.  Check out my post on which variety to plant for recommended varieties for Kansas.

But when I talk about tall fescue, inevietably, I get questions like these;

“What about those fine bladed tall fescues?….I want that.  Where do I get that type of tall fescue?”  or “I want one of those dwarf tall fescues, or low grow, low mow tall fescues.”

So what they are asking for is what the turf industry calls “Turf-Type Tall Fescue.”  And essentially turf type tall fescues are just about any variety of tall fescue that is not Kentucky 31 (K-31) tall fescue.  K-31 is essentially a forage type of fescue.   It grows very rapidly (so you have mow more often), it has a lighter green color (so many people fertilize it more, which leads to more growing and mowing), it has a very coarse, wide leaf blade (that can be irritating to soft bare feet) and it is not as dense as Kentucky bluegrass or turf-type tall fescues (which could lead to more weed seed germination).  With that being said, I don’t hate K-31 and it has it’s uses in the landscape.  Typically, K-31 will have a deeper root system and can avoid more drought than the improved turf-type tall fescues.  I generally recommend K-31 for lower maintenance areas of parks or larger acreage homesteads.  That is, I’ll recommend at turf-type tall fescue in the areas of the park or the area right around the house that is desired to have a higher quality lawn surface, and then plant K-31 farther out away from the house where you want a nice lawn area to look at, but not really use. 

So back to this name turf-type tall fescue.  They are called turf-type tall fescues, because they have been bred to more closely resemeble the desirable traits of Kentucky bluegrass.  That is, finer leaf blade, lower growing, less mowing, darker green color, etc.  Let me say, while the blades of turf-type TF are thinner than K-31, they still are not as thin as Kentucky bluegrass. 

Fine Leaved Fescues

Just for your info, there are a group of fescues that the turf industry call Fine Leaved Fescues or Fine Leaf Fescues or Fine Fescues.  These fescues include several fescue species; creeping red fescue, sheeps fescue, hard fescue, and others.  These fescues have a very very fine leaf blade, a gray-green color and look very different compared to tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass.  Generally I don’t recommend fine fescues in KS.  Most of them don’t tolerate the high heat and droughts of KS.

RTF fescue?

The next question I get about fescues is usually about rhizomatous tall fescues, or RTF.  Just to get everyone on the same page….tall fescues are classified as a bunch type grass or a clump forming grass.  It does not spread out across the lawn with rhizomes like Kentucky bluegrass or with stolons and rhizomes like Bermudagrass or zoysiagrass.  So when we get some damage in a TF lawn from a dog digging, drought damage, or anything, and there is a hole or thin area in the TF lawn, the only way to fix that area is to re-seed it or re-sod it.  Small damaged areas in a KBG or Bermudagrass lawns will fill back in with a little water, fertilizer and time.  So grass producers have developed what they call Rhizomatous Tall Fescue, or tall fescue that produces rhizomes and can spread the grass out across the lawn. 

That sounds great.  But however in most of the field research I’ve read, and the research we conducted at KSU, the RTF fescues don’t spread any faster than normal turf-type tall fescues.  You can read a quick summary of the research here.  Or you can read the whole manuscript with all the material and methods here.  The RTF varieties generally performed just like any other turf-type tall fescue in terms of color, density, and appearance.  So the RTF varieties should act like and give a good tall fescue lawn, but don’t expect them to spread out like Kentucky bluegrass. 

Now that research is a couple of years old, and new varieties have come out since that research was conducted.  So it is possible these newer varieties perform better, but I’d take any claims about spreadability with a grain of salt.  

Check out the recommended varieties post and seek out and purchase clean, high quality seed.

Don’t forget to check out the overseeding videos at YouTube and Kansas Healthy Yards and Communities.

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