These suggested management practices will help you care for your tall fescue lawn throughout the year. Location, terrain, soil type and condition, age of lawn, previous lawn care, and other factors affect turf performance, so adjust the following management practices and dates to suit your particular lawn.
March Through May
Mow to 21⁄2 to 31⁄2 inches. Mow often enough so that no more than one-third of the grass height is cut; this may be every five to seven days in late spring. Leave grass clippings on the lawn where they will decompose quickly and can provide up to 25% of the lawn’s fertilizer needs. If prolonged rain or other factors delay mowing and clippings are too plentiful to leave on the lawn, collect them and use them as mulch. DO NOT bag them for trash collection; grass clippings do not belong in landfills.
Fertilize as needed to promote color and recovery from damage (such as pests, traffic, or early disease). If fertilized, rates should generally be between 1⁄5 and 1⁄2 pound of nitrogen (N) per 1,000 square feet, with lower amounts generally applied after March 15.
Tall fescue needs about 1 inch of water every week, ideally NOT all at once. A dark-bluish-gray color and wilted, folded, or curled leaves indicate that it is time to water. Water until the soil is wet to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. Use a screwdriver or similar implement to check for proper saturation. Sandy soils require more frequent watering (about 1⁄2 inch of water every third day). In clay soils, which accept water slowly, irrigate just until runoff occurs, wait until the water has been absorbed, and begin watering again. Continue until the desired depth or amount is applied. Proper irrigation may prevent or reduce problems later in the summer. Watering between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. decreases the incidence of certain diseases.
Apply preemergence herbicides to control crabgrass, goosegrass, and foxtail. It is typically best if applied in early March, sooner in the piedmont and coastal regions. See the NC State Extension publication Pest Control for Professional Turfgrass Managers for more information.
White grubs may be active at this time, but spring curative applications are not effective. Make note of areas with white grub activity and plan to apply a preventive application in the following spring or early summer. Specific timing will vary depending on white grub species, so plan to make an application when adult flight is at its peak. See the NC State Extension publication White Grubs in Turf for specific recommendations.
Delay aeration until fall.
It is generally not necessary to remove thatch.
June Through August
Mow to 31⁄2 inches and before the grass gets taller than 5 inches.
Fertilize as needed to promote color and recovery from damage. If fertilizing, rates should generally be between 1⁄5 and 1⁄2 pound of N per 1,000 square feet.
Water as needed to prevent drought stress or allow the lawn to go dormant. Dormant lawns must be watered every three weeks during a drought.
Tall fescue is highly susceptible to brown patch disease, which appears as irregularly shaped patches of dead or dying turf. Brown patch develops under high humidity and when ambient temperatures are above 85°F. It becomes extremely severe during prolonged, overcast wet weather with evening air temperatures above 68°F and daytime temperatures in the mid to upper 80s. Ensure that the mowing height remains above 3 inches and water between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. Apply fungicide during severe brown patch outbreaks. See the NC State Extension publication Diseases of Cool-Season Grasses for more information.
Tall fescue is also susceptible to gray leaf spot, which appears as irregularly shaped patches of dead or dying turf. It can be challenging to distinguish gray leaf spot from brown patch. Your local North Carolina Cooperative Extension center can assist with diagnoses. Gray leaf spot develops when nighttime temperatures remain above 70oF and humidity remains high. Typically, the disease is most active in July through October. It can be challenging to control and requires multiple approaches for successful suppression. Keep mowing heights at 3 inches or taller and mow consistently. Removing grass clippings can limit the spread of the disease. Fungicides will be required to suppress this disease. See the NC State Extension publication Gray Leaf Spot in Turf to learn about effective fungicides.
DO NOT use herbicides at this time.
Preventive treatments for white grubs can be used in June, when adults are flying and starting to lay eggs. Curative treatments for white grubs are applied after the larvae have hatched from the egg stage. The best time to apply curative treatments is about 24 hours after significant rainfall, when grubs are actively feeding near the soil surface. See the NC State Extension publication White Grubs in Turf for specific recommendations.
Delay aeration until fall.
Western region only! Overseed thin, bare areas as weather cools (August 15 to September 1). Lawns may be aerated as part of the renovation process. Use a blend of “turf type” tall fescue cultivars at 6 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. In the absence of a soil test recommendation, apply a starter-type (high phosphorus) fertilizer. Keep the seedbed moist with light watering several times per day. Do not let the seedlings dry out.
September Through November
Mow to 21⁄2 to 3 inches in height.
Have your soil tested. Ask your local Extension agent about a free soil test. Then apply the nutrient your lawn needs. If you don’t test, apply a complete nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K) turf-grade fertilizer with a 3-1-2 or 4-1-2 ratio (that is, 12-4-8 or 16-4-8). For a basic level of fertility, fertilize with 1 pound of N per 1,000 square feet in mid-September and again in November (about the time the grass is green but not actively growing).
You need to apply 1 pound of N per 1,000 square feet, so how much fertilizer do you need to buy? Divide 100 by the FIRST number on the fertilizer bag. (The first number always represents N content.) For example, if you’ve got a 10-10-10 fertilizer, divide 100 by 10 and you get 10. That means you need to buy 10 pounds of fertilizer for every 1,000 square feet of lawn.
Follow guidelines for March through May.
Apply broadleaf herbicides to control broadleaf weeds like chickweed and henbit, as necessary. Caution: Some herbicides may affect newly seeded turf. Follow label directions. See Pest Control for Professional Turfgrass Managers for more information.
Curative applications applied in early fall may control some white grubs, but efficacy will vary depending on the size of grub. Later instars (larger grubs) are harder to treat than early instars. Identify and make note of problem areas for preventive applications in late spring/early summer.
Aerate lawns that are subject to heavy traffic or grown on clay soils. Remove plugs and break them up to put the soil back into the lawn.
Piedmont and coastal plain regions only! Overseed thin, bare areas as weather cools (September 1 to October 1). Use a blend of “turf type” tall fescue cultivars at 6 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. In the absence of a soil test recommendation, apply a starter-type (high phosphorus) fertilizer. Keep the seedbed moist with light watering several times per day. Do not let the seedlings dry out.
December Through February
Mow to 3 inches and remove leaves and other debris.
Fertilize with 1 pound of N per 1,000 square feet in February.
Follow guidelines for March through May.
Apply broadleaf herbicides as necessary for control of annual winter weeds like chickweed and henbit.
More About Tall Fescue
Tall fescue is a moderate- to coarse-bladed grass that can be grown in the shade and in many soil types. It tolerates heat and drought. It is subject to brown patch, especially in prolonged periods of warm, wet conditions. Tall fescue grows rapidly and requires frequent mowing but does not tolerate close mowing. It does not recover well from excessive wear or pest injury, so it must be re-seeded if damage is excessive. Many “turf type” tall fescues are available at many home and garden centers. Improved fescues tolerate more shade and closer mowing. They have a finer leaf texture, better shoot density, and a darker green color than the old standard, Kentucky-31.
Publication date: July 8, 2021
Recommendations for the use of agricultural chemicals are included in this publication as a convenience to the reader. The use of brand names and any mention or listing of commercial products or services in this publication does not imply endorsement by NC State University or N.C. A&T State University nor discrimination against similar products or services not mentioned. Individuals who use agricultural chemicals are responsible for ensuring that the intended use complies with current regulations and conforms to the product label. Be sure to obtain current information about usage regulations and examine a current product label before applying any chemical. For assistance, contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension county center.
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