You've come a long way, baby

Not too many years ago, tall fescue mostly meant one of two things — Kentucky 31 (K-31) or Fawn. For decades, most tall fescues were similar to these types: large, coarse and used for pasture or basic ground cover. But these were tough plants, and turf breeders understood that if they could create a more refined tall fescue with the same fortitude, they'd have a winner.

The breeders were right. Dozens of tall fescues are now available, and they are vastly improved over their ancestors; both in terms of aesthetics as well as environmental adaptations such as drought and pest tolerances.

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Although the appearance of the latest fescues still does not quite match other cool-season turfgrasses — they still are lighter green and coarser than Kentucky bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses — they have come a long way. A well-maintained stand of modern tall fescue should satisfy even picky customers.

All these changes may prompt you to ask, “What's left to do? Where are the fescues headed now?”

ENDOPHYTES

Endophytes are symbiotic fungi that confer drought and pest resistance to tall fescues through production of toxic alkaloids. Turf breeders have worked hard to increase endophyte content in turf-type tall fescue, and they've largely succeeded.

How much endophyte content do you need? Mark Sellmann, a turf breeder with Simplot's Jacklin Seed (Post Falls, Idaho) explains that, in general, 40 to 50 percent endophyte content is considered high, meaning that it is enough to provide good protection against pests. Some argue 50 percent is just as effective as 80 or 90 percent, though little definitive research on the topic exists, according to Sellmann.

DEALING WITH STRESS

While breeders still are improving the aesthetic qualities of tall fescue, efforts to overcome specific stresses are growing. For example, although tall fescue has good heat and drought tolerance, under stress it still succumbs to summer diseases, especially brown patch. That's one reason why Pure Seed Testing (Hubbard, Ore.) opened a breeding facility in North Carolina. There, explains Turf Seed's John Rector, turfgrasses are exposed to the brutal Southeastern heat and humidity, allowing breeders to select those types with the best tolerance of brown patch. One result of this selection process is the variety Endeavor, perhaps Turf Seed's best heat- and brown-patch-tolerant tall fescue.

Likewise, Jacklin selected its variety Quest in Maryland. Again, the stressful summers there allowed breeders to identify the sturdiest types and Quest has “ahead of the pack” in terms of drought and brown patch tolerance, according to Sellmann.

Breeders at Pure Seed Testing, Jacklin and other companies are working on other traits, as well. Rector notes that Pure Seed is looking at tall fescues with tolerance of low pH soils, as well as cold winters. They're even developing glyphosate resistance in tall fescue (through conventional breeding), with two varieties — Pure Gold and Tomahawk RT — already on the market.

SO MANY CHOICES

With so many varieties available, what criteria do you use to choose a fescue? It's often difficult to decide based on supplier claims, which often sound alike… “darker color,” “finer texture,” “good pest resistance,” etc.

Obviously, you need a type that will perform well in your specific climate and site. Therefore, recommendations from local university and cooperative-extension agents are good bets. National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) trials also are an excellent source of performance data.

No all-around perfect fescue exists. So, if you need a good general performer, identify varieties with the combination of characteristics that best match your situation. If you have a strong need for one particular quality, give additional weight to that characteristic. For example, if brown patch is an especially difficult problem for you, then you should consider varieties that top the list in brown patch tolerance.

The number of available tall-fescue varieties has more than doubled in the past 10 years. However, their genetic potential has not been fully exploited, and breeders feel that significant progress remains to be made. For example, Sellmann feels that the market is demanding still darker and more fine-textured varieties, despite the progress already made by breeders in these areas. Thus, breeders will continue to produce new varieties with better adaptation to specific regions, stresses and pests, as well as improved aesthetics.

Using NTEP

Seed suppliers enjoy touting their varieties' overall performance in National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) trials, but the overall ranking is an average value from many locations. But the most useful data (from your perspective) are those from trials in climates and under maintenance practices similar to your own. Fortunately, NTEP trials include sites with varying levels of fertility and irrigation, a range of mowing heights, and a variety of climates. The trials include evaluations of qualities such as color, spring greenup, percent cover, density, drought tolerance and disease resistance. Thus, you have several criteria from which to judge.

NTEP makes much of its data available online. Go to www.NTEP.org to see the latest trial results. Currently, only the recently concluded (ending in 2000) tall fescue trial results are available but these include many current varieties. A new tall fescue trial has begun, but no data is available yet.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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