Tall fescue and perennial ryegrass are two of the most common types of cool-season lawn grasses, suitable for cold winters and moderate summers. While they have many similarities in growth and care, they have some key differences such as durability for foot traffic and sunlight requirements.
In this detailed guide, we will compare perennial ryegrass and tall fescue. We will show you how to care for and prevent damage to tall fescue and perennial ryegrass and help you discover the best grass for your lawn.
Looking at soil, fertilizer, mowing, watering, maintenance and prevention, we will highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each type of grass so you can have a lush green lawn!
What is Tall Fescue Grass?
Tall fescue grass originated in Europe and came to the USA in the early 1800s. It is alternatively called “bunchgrass” due to its fast, upright, clumping growth habit. It grows well in transition zones.
It is a coarse grass with wide-ribbed grass blades and will typically stay green year round, even over the cooler winter months. New tall fescue blades appear in a rolled-up form as they emerge and even though it possesses small rhizomes, it spreads via vertical shoots called “tillers”.
Tall fescue has deep roots, reaching up to 2-3 feet. It is low maintenance and has a high tolerance for cold, heat, drought, and shade.
Tall fescue is a good choice for those looking for tough grass species for high traffic areas such as baseball fields, sports fields, golf courses, and commercial areas.
Tall Fescue Care
Mowing Tall Fescue Lawns
In general, 3-3.5 inches is a safe height to cut tall fescue at any time of the year. Using a ruler, you can measure the grass height from the top of the soil to the tip of the blade and then be sure to adjust the mower deck to the proper setting.
Follow these guidelines for mowing tall fescue year-round:
- March – May: mow your lawn to 2.5 inches to 3.5 inches.
- June – August: mow your lawn to 3.5 inches, avoid getting the grass taller than 5 inches
- September – November: mow your lawn to 2.5 inches to 3.5 inches
- December – February: mow your lawn to 3 inches
Note: To avoid getting the grass so tall that you remove more than ⅓ of the height you may need to mow your lawn as often as once a week.
Watering Tall Fescue
Tall fescue lawns aren’t thirsty and need just 1-1.25 inches of water per week (ideally not all at once). This equates to wetting the soil to a depth of 4-6 inches.
Maintaining a proper irrigation schedule is important as it can ward off certain diseases and may prevent or reduce problems later in the summer.
You will know it’s time to water if you notice dark-bluish-gray color and wilted, folded, or curled leaves. You can also use a screwdriver or similar tool to check the soil’s moisture level.
The frequency and method of watering will depend on the soil types:
- Sandy soils have a poor ability to retain water and will require more frequent watering such as ¾ inch every third day.
- Clay soils accept water slowly so you will need to water gradually – water until runoff occurs, wait for it to absorb, then water again.
Fertilizing Tall Fescue
The best way to determine your lawn’s nutrient needs is by performing a soil test. You can either take soil samples and send them to a lab or buy a soil test kit. A soil test will also provide additional information such as if you have acidic soils or alkaline soils
Without a soil test, you can apply Scotts Turf Builder Lawn Food and approximately 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1000 square feet in September. You can begin fertilizer applications in the fall and continue until the spring.
Dethatching and Aerating Tall Fescue Grass Plants
Tall fescue does not tend to suffer from thatch problems. If, however, you have more than ½ inch of thatch present, then dethatching can be beneficial.
Disease, Insects, and Weeds
Both cool-season lawns and warm-season lawns are prone to disease, insects (e.g., grubs, armyworms, sod webworms, cutworms), and weeds (grassy weeds and broadleaf weeds) – all of which can damage turf.
These risks are increased by adding excess fertilizer, mowing on the tall side, and watering too late in the day.
Crabgrass is a common broadleaf weed that can damage tall fescue lawns. It is recommended that you apply a pre-emergent herbicide before the weeds germinate, somewhere between March and April depending on what part of the country you’re in.
Pros and Cons of a Tall Fescue Lawn
What is Perennial Ryegrass?
Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) is a highly versatile grass type suitable for cool and warm climates and coastal regions. Not to be confused with the rye plant that produces cereal grain, perennial ryegrass is related to annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum). As the name suggests, perennial ryegrass comes back year after year so you get a permanent healthy lawn.
Known for spreading fast and speedy germination, perennial ryegrass is widely used throughout the USA as turfgrass and superior-quality pasture grass.
Ryegrass is also a solid nurse grass – a quick-growing grass species planted to shade and protect other grass types and to help suppress weeds.
Perennial ryegrass has a shallow root system and tolerates full sun well. It has a lower tolerance to extreme cold and drought.
How to Care for Perennial Ryegrass
Mowing Perennial Ryegrass
If left unattended, perennial ryegrass can easily grow up to 24 inches in height! Despite that speed, it has a delicate root system.
Therefore, you will need to mow regularly with a powered mower, rotary mower, or reel mower. It is highly important to maintain the proper mowing height because this number directly influences the root depth.
For example, if you cut perennial ryegrass to below 1 inch, it will affect its photosynthesis abilities, resulting in shallow roots that are susceptible to drought and can increase the risk of disease.
- When it is actively growing, it should be cut to a height of 1.5-2.5 inches.
- During the dormant summer season, the ideal mowing height is 2.5-3 inches.
Watering Perennial Ryegrass
Perennial ryegrass requires 1 inch of water per week to a depth of 6-12 inches.
As with other grasses, remember sandy soils require more frequent watering than clay soils. Refrain from excessive watering as it may cause disease and root rot, especially in the deeper roots.
Fertilizing Perennial Ryegrass Lawns
You can use Pennington UltraGreen Lawn Fertilizer 30-0-4 to fertilize your perennial ryegrass lawn. This cool-season turf requires nitrogen fertilization at the rate of 1-5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year, which is a little more than tall fescue.
Dethatching and Aerating Perennial Ryegrass
Just like tall fescue, perennial ryegrass rarely develops a thatch problem owing to its bunch-type growth habit. However, you will have to dethatch your lawn if it develops an excessive thatch layer of more than 0.5 inches thick.
Aeration can greatly improve the health condition of your lawn, solve soil compaction issues, and improve water and air movement into the soil.
Aerification is required in commercial areas and areas that receive heavy foot traffic for both perennial ryegrass and annual ryegrass.
Disease, Insects, and Weeds
All cool-season grasses are susceptible to disease, insects, and weeds. Brown patch is the most common fungal disease of perennial ryegrass and occurs when you add a large amount of nitrogen fertilizer or excess sources of nitrogen to your partial or entire lawn.
You can get an upper hand on weeds by applying a pre-emergent herbicide before the weeds emerge on your mowed turf.
Pros and Cons of a Perennial Ryegrass Lawn
Tall Fescue vs Perennial Ryegrass – Comparing Perennial Ryegrass and Tall Fescue
Both grasses are great choices for cool-season or transition zones lawns. Here are a few factors to consider to ease your decision.
Tall fescue is suitable for all types of soil. It grows well in pH between 5.5 and can handle acidic soils to alkaline soils.
Perennial ryegrass prefers loam-clay soil. It can withstand a soil pH between 5.8 and 7.2. It can handle acidic to slightly alkaline soils.
Tall fescue can thrive in full and part sun (minimum 4 hours) and has partial shade tolerance.
Perennial ryegrass requires a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight and has light shade tolerance.
Tall fescue has low water requirements of about one inch of water per week, making it a great choice for areas with low rainfall and extended dry periods.
Perennial ryegrass requires more water and is a good fit for regions with normal rainfall.
Durability & Foot Traffic
Tall fescue has a solid and extensive root system and is great for areas that receive heavy traffic.
Perennial ryegrass has a delicate root system and recovers slowly after mowing or digging.
Both types of cool-season grass have good cold tolerance.
Common Pests and Diseases
Both grasses can attract pests and diseases including powdery mildew, which in most cases turns their green leaves brown.
You can use any type of mower including a rotary mower or reel mower to cut tall fescue and perennial ryegrass lawns but you have to maintain the appropriate mowing height.
Here’s an informative comparison video between Tall Fescue and Perennial Ryegrass:
When selecting a grass type for your lawn, there are always numerous factors to consider such as your climate, rainfall, shade, foot traffic, and ability to provide regular care for your lawn.
If you are choosing between perennial ryegrass and tall fescue, remember that tall fescue is a robust grass type and a good choice for areas that receive lots of shade and/or heavy foot traffic. Perennial rye grass seed has a high and fast germination rate, making it a great choice for sunnier areas and/or overseeding warm-season grasses.
Hi, Alex Kuritz here. Growing up I remember that my family had one of the best lawns in the neighborhood. Richly green and lush. I did a lot as I grew up in terms of caring and tending for not only my family’s lawn but also my neighbors. I can say I have years of experience, and I am here to share it with you.