Tall Fescue vs Kentucky Bluegrass | Head to Head Which is Best

The best things in life require careful planning and deciding which type of lawn grass to grow is no different. It’s going to be there for a long time, so taking the time to make the right decision now will pay off in the long term.

The list seems endless when you consider what you want from your turf: Lawn grass that grows thick and fast; A variety that can provide you with a lush and verdant outdoor space; One that grows in harmony with the climate in which you live.

No wonder it feels as though you might want it all! Problems crop up when you’re faced with a sea of green when it comes to which grass type to buy. It can be tricky to make up your mind.

Two popular choices when it comes to Northern grass types are Tall Fescue vs Kentucky bluegrass. But which is the better option?

I’ve provided detailed pointers based on my own experiences, so you’ll be able to make the best choice and bring those plans of yours to fruition.

Tall Fescue Vs Kentucky Bluegrass

Both Tall Fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass are capable of thriving in cooler zones. And they’re widely renowned in gardening circles. And yet they both respond to elevated levels of heat, traffic, and shade very differently, among other things.

Hence selecting the best option means taking a careful look at factors such as your growing region, the soil type in your garden or lawn, the climate, the purpose of the lawn, as well as the level of maintenance you can expect to provide. All of which are covered right here.

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Tall Fescue Vs Kentucky Bluegrass Comparison Chart

 Tall FescueKentucky Bluegrass
Growing RegionsPacific NW to Nth Alabama zones 3 – 8Nth States, Pacific NW zones 3 – 7
Soil TypeAcid-Mild Alkaline. Clay, LoamyMildly Acidic-Neutral. Fertile, Draining
Soil pH4.5 – 9.05.8 – 7.0
Heat ToleranceHigh  95° F (35° C)Low 70° F (26.7° C)
Cold ToleranceModerateHigh
Drought ToleranceHighLow
Shade ToleranceModerateLow
Footfall ToleranceModerateHigh
Germination rateRapid (7-12 days)Slow (14-21 days)
Level of MaintenanceLow Frequent WateringHigh Frequent Watering, Mowing

Tall Fescue Grass Characteristics

Regarded as a cool-season grass and one of the most popular varieties on offer, Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea) can also be found in European meadows and actually originates from the continent.

Introduced to the United States in the 19th century, it is known for its characteristic dark green color and its ability to maintain its verdant allure during the coolness of winter.

Widely considered to be an excellent species for ornamental purposes, Tall Fescue can also be found in the Midwest where it was planted over thousands of acres to aid conservation efforts.

It also has the distinction of being one of the fastest germinating cool-season grasses: it is capable of germinating in less than two weeks (between 7 -12 days). Only perennial ryegrass and rough bluegrass are faster.

Growing Regions

Tall Fescue is capable of withstanding cold winters and can be found from the Pacific Northwest right down to the south as far as northern Alabama — a range extending through hardiness zones 3 – 8.

That said, the cool-season grass thrives between temperatures of 60° – 75° Fahrenheit  (15.5° – 23.8° Celsius) and is an excellent choice if you happen to live in the transition zone. 

This climatic band which marks the overlap between cool and warm regions is noted for being especially challenging for its warm summers which are too hot for cool-season grasses and its cold winters which are unsuitable for warm-season grasses.

It extends from California in the west to Virginia in the east and entirely covers whole states including Arkansas, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, and covers most of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Soil Type And pH

According to Oregon State University, Tall Fescue is capable of growing on soils with pH values ranging between 4.5 – 9.0.

However, the species thrives best on mildly acidic or mildly alkaline soils with values that fall between 5.5 – 7.5.

In terms of soil type, Tall Fescue does best in clay soil with a high amount of organic matter. However, it will also grow in loamy soil.

Tolerance Of Heat And Cold

Tall Fescue has the ability to tolerate temperatures as high as 95° Fahrenheit (35° Celsius) and has the distinction of being the most heat tolerant cool-season grass. This remarkable quality is due to its root system which can reach depths of 2 – 3 feet.

It’s also capable of withstanding cold weather to an impressive degree. However these extremes notwithstanding, the species does best between 68 – 77° Fahrenheit (20 – 25° Celsius).

Drought Tolerance

Tall Fescue has an impressive level of drought resistance making it an excellent choice of turf in transition zone states during winter.

Thanks to its impressive root system referenced above it are more drought-tolerant when compared to Fine Fescue. That said, both of these varieties are more resistant in this regard when compared to Kentucky bluegrass.

Shade Tolerance

Tall Fescue requires between 3 – 4 hours of sunlight to thrive and is moderately shade tolerant. It is however less so compared to Fine Fescue which is considered the most shade tolerant cool grass.

On the other hand, Tall Fescue is capable of tolerating shade to a larger extent than perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass.

Tolerance To Footfall

In addition to being able to withstand heat and drought to greater degrees when compared to other cool-season grasses, Tall Fescue is also capable of handling traffic impressively as well. However, it takes longer to recover, compared to Kentucky bluegrass.

Level Of Maintenance

Tall Fescue requires low levels of maintenance and should be cared for as follows:

Watering

Your Tall Fescue lawn will require 1 inch of water weekly preferably early in the morning. Watering should be slow and gradual rather than a torrential downpour to ensure the moisture is fully absorbed.

Ideally, you want to split watering applications into two intervals for optimal results. 

For sandy soils, that quantity will have to be changed to ½ of an inch every three days if sandy soil has been used to cultivate it.

Mowing

Tall Fescue lawns typically need mowing weekly in early spring and twice weekly during warmer weather.

Special care should be taken to keep it at 2½ or 3 inches to enable moisture to penetrate the soil.

Keep mower blades on a high setting to ensure that only ⅓ of an inch is removed. This will keep your turf at its healthiest and prevent its rich green uniformity from taking on an unhealthy yellowish tinge.

Never remove the clippings. They make great fertilizer. And if you’re worried about the likelihood of their morphing into thatch, you needn’t be since they will break down pretty quickly.

Dethatching

Owing to its habit of forming clumps like perennial ryegrass, Tall Fescue is rarely if ever at risk of thatch. That layer of organic material will only serve as a hindrance to healthy growth when it exceeds an inch in thickness.

Aerating

The soil should be aerated in the fall using a core aerator for maximum benefit to your turf. The soil plugs might also help with the decomposition of thatch providing an additional perk to the exercise.

To boost your efforts here, make sure you provide your grass with nourishing doses of water and fertilizer once you have aerated.

Fertilizing

The best time to fertilize Tall Fescue is during fall and winter. This is because it will experience active growth during these seasons.

Applying fertilizer that is rich in nitrogen in early fall will ensure it is able to grow robust roots while doing so late in the season will enable it to maintain its verdant allure and get it ready for spring too.

Kentucky Bluegrass Characteristics

The most well-known and widely used of the bluegrass species, Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) originates from Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

With main features which include boat-shaped leaves, a fine texture, and a characteristic blue-green hue, it is considered to be the ideal species of cool-season lawn grass.

It is particularly renowned for its excellent tolerance of cold weather and its ability to withstand wear owing to its rhizomes. However, Kentucky bluegrass is vulnerable to disease, salt, and drought.

Unlike Tall Fescue which grows in clumps and germinates quickly, this species is self-spreading and takes about 14 days to sprout.

Growing Regions

Like Tall Fescue, Kentucky bluegrass is well suited to cold winters and can be found in the transition zone and regions north of it. The cool-season species can be grown in hardiness zones 3 – 7.

In keeping with its status as a cold season grass, it also does best between temperatures of 60° – 75° Fahrenheit (15.5° – 23.8° Celsius).

Soil Type And pH

This species of cool-season turf prefers mildly acidic to neutral soil and thrives at pH levels between 6.0 – 7.0.

It also enjoys rich heavy soil with a good quantity of organic matter to provide it with the nutrients it needs.

Tolerance Of Heat And Cold

Kentucky bluegrass is less heat tolerant than Tall Fescue (and even perennial ryegrass).

Its shallow root system is a contributing factor to its diminished tolerance in this regard and it will enter a state of dormancy once temperatures reach 90° Fahrenheit (32.2°Celsius).

That said, it is one of the most cold-tolerant turf grasses. Only Creeping Bentgrass and Rough Bluegrass are capable of withstanding low temperatures more effectively.

Drought Tolerance

Kentucky bluegrass is less drought-tolerant compared to Tall Fescue, and even Fine Fescue, as well.

However, thanks to its rhizomes, it is capable of bouncing back impressively following a dry spell.

That said, this species will enter a state of dormancy after two weeks without water. It will be able to survive in this state for a further 6 weeks. However, water must be provided following this period to ensure it is able to recover.

Shade Tolerance

Kentucky bluegrass requires the presence of direct sunlight to grow properly. Like Tall Fescue, it requires about 4 hours daily. While it can tolerate dappled light moderately, it is less shade tolerant compared to the latter species of turfgrass.

Tolerance To Footfall

Despite a reputation for being somewhat slow-growing compared to other cool-season grasses, Kentucky bluegrass comes with an impressive tolerance to traffic.

This is due to its rhizomes and the fact that it starts to grow rather thickly once it has taken root.

This quality puts it ahead of Tall Fescue and perennial ryegrass which are both capable of tolerating footfall to a moderate degree.

It also makes this species ideal if your lawn is likely to be the scene of games of hiding and seek with toddlers or catch with your resident canine.

Level Of Maintenance

Unlike Tall Fescue which is one of the easiest cool-season species to maintain, Kentucky bluegrass can be somewhat demanding in terms of maintenance.

Watering

Kentucky bluegrass needs 1 inch weekly. The water is best applied gradually in order to permit it to penetrate the soil and to prevent it from pooling.

Early morning watering sessions are best since doing so will prevent increased evaporation owing to sunshine coupled with blowing breezes.

Mowing

Kentucky bluegrass should be mowed every five days during spring and fall when the weather tends to be cooler, and its growth is more robust.

During these periods it should be cut to heights of 2.5 – 3 inches.

The mowing frequency should be changed to weekly or fortnightly with the arrival of summer.

The height of your turf should be increased to 3.5 inches to protect the crowns from the heat. Doing so will also ensure the grass is able to produce more energy and be better equipped to handle the warmer weeks ahead.

Dethatching

Because Kentucky bluegrass grows rapidly it is affected by the presence of thatch (along with Bermuda grass it has the distinction of being particularly susceptible to thatch) and will need to be dethatched every two or three years.

This process should be conducted during periods that are favorable to its growth, i.e., during the cooler months of spring and fall (preferably at the start of each season).

Aerating

Aerating your Kentucky bluegrass can also prove beneficial in enabling it to grow a stronger root system.

As is the case with fertilization and dethatching, it is an exercise that is best conducted in early spring or fall. A core aerator is the best choice of device for the procedure (spike aerators while convenient can worsen compaction).

Aeration should be carried out the day after a spring or autumn shower to ensure the soil has had time to soften for optimal results.

Fertilizing

Compared to Tall Fescue, Kentucky bluegrass requires more frequent feeding. I always use a high nitrogen fertilizer when fertilizing Kentucky Bluegrass as this promotes that all-important and fundamental lush greenness and will help to encourage root growth too.

Three-quarters of a pound of slow-release granules per 1,000 square feet is ideal to enable the turf to recover from that rigorous summer heat. It makes sense then, that the best time to supplement any depleted nutrients is by way of a good quality lawn fertilizer early to mid-September.

I recommend applying a second dose of the same amount in mid-October. Again, opt for a slow-release variety to allow nutrients to be absorbed gradually rather than all at once.

Then, in Spring and to get your lawn for the growing season ahead, apply two pounds of slow-release granules per 1,000 square feet of lawn. This can be repeated in mid-summer.

Verdict: Tall Fescue vs Kentucky

Tall Fescue’s ability to germinate quickly, and withstand warm summers and drought, while being relatively low maintenance, makes it an excellent choice if these factors happen to be your key concern.

However, if you prefer an even spread of green, capable of recovering from wear effectively, handling the cold better, while also being comfortable to walk on, Kentucky bluegrass should be your preferred option.

Either way, both types of grass can provide you with years of usage and enjoyment, provided you follow my guidance on how best to water, mow, fertilize, and generally maintain your lawn.