Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a cool-season turfgrass species that can be grown throughout many areas of the country. Transition zone states, such as Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee, utilize tall fescue in many settings because of the species improved tolerance to heat. However, tall fescue use in Minnesota has been limited due issues with winter hardiness and a lack of public acceptance of the landmark varieties ‘Alta’ and ‘Kentucky-31’.
Genetic improvement of tall fescue as a turfgrass species began with the release of ‘Rebel’ turf-type tall fescue from Rutgers University in the early 1970s. As compared to the early varieties, ‘Rebel’ exhibited a darker green color, higher density, and the ability to tolerate lower mowing heights. Since the introduction of ‘Rebel’, there have been numerous tall fescue turf-type varieties released to the market, and we have identified the potential of tall fescue for high quality turfgrass use in Minnesota. Advantages that tall fescue can offer over other common species used in Minnesota, include: heat and drought tolerance, adaptation to sun or shade, deep root system, good traffic tolerance, low input potential, and an ability to grow on a wide range of soil types.
Winter hardiness issues with tall fescue relate to two particular situations: 1) extended periods of ice cover, and 2) immature establishment prior to winter. For these reasons, we recommend spring seeding of tall fescue, while avoiding establishment in low laying areas that are prone to winter ice cover. A tall fescue breeding program, under the direction of Dr. Eric Watkins, is currently underway at the University of Minnesota. The basis of this breeding program is the genetic improvement of tall fescue to overcome these winter hardiness issues.