Tall fescue: A resilient solution for golf courses facing climate challenges

As climate change continues to exert its influence on our landscapes and turf areas such as golf courses, the demand for sustainable turfgrass solutions has never been more pressing. Periods with extreme drought followed by long periods of rain have been the challenge in many countries in 2023 putting pressure on golf course maintenance and providing a good playing quality. France serves as a good example.

In 2023, France experienced a significant climatic contrast, enduring an extended period of drought from mid-January to mid-February, and during autumn 30 days with nonstop rain  totaling over 200 mm. This climatic variability has placed substantial stress on golf course maintenance and the attainment of optimal playing conditions.

Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is emerging as a promising turf species in response to these challenging conditions. While its well-established drought tolerance is widely acknowledged, lesser-known is its capability to withstand short periods of submersion and contribute to efficient ground drainage through its extensive and robust root system.

This article delves into the multifaceted advantages of incorporating Tall fescue into turf mixtures, specifically tailored for golf course fairways and rough areas. Furthermore, we spotlight the latest developments in smaller-leafed and lighter-colored varieties, enhancing both performance and aesthetic appeal in the ever-evolving landscape of sustainable turfgrass solutions.

 Resilient Tall fescue

Tall fescue is a cool-season grass species commonly used in some turfgrass mixtures in southern part of Europe. It is not a native grass to Europe but it has been widely cultivated and naturalized in various regions and now it is found in grasslands, meadows, coastal areas and  along roadsides even in the more Northern countries. So, while it’s not native, it has found a home in many European landscapes and it might also find a home on golf courses on fairways and in roughs.

This species has long been celebrated for its exceptional drought tolerance, making it a standout choice for turf areas facing water restrictions. With its far-reaching root system, Tall fescue taps into deep moisture reservoirs in the soil, offering a robust defense against extended dry spells. This resilience opens doors to produce turfgrass mixtures that can thrive in challenging environments. This resilience doesn’t only concern drought tolerance, the deep rooting attributes of Tall fescue make it very resistant to wear as well.

The root structure of Tall fescue also plays a crucial role in water infiltration into the soil. The roots create channels and pathways, allowing water to penetrate the soil more easily and they break up compacted soil, promoting better water movement. Deeper and denser root systems enhance the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water, reducing runoff and promoting a healthier turf surface.

At DLF’s breeding station in France, where we breed Tall fescue, this is clearly observed. Plots of other turf species become saturated when raining heavily, while Tall fescue plots just remain humid. Tall fescue’s adaptability to environments with compacted and occasionally flooded soil is evident in its natural habitat along riverbanks and humid areas. This resilience caused by the root structure enables Tall fescue to withstand short periods of submersion after heavy rains, outperforming other turf species.

In France, Tall fescue has gained popularity for various applications, also in golf courses. In the southern regions of France, many golf courses are transitioning to Tall fescue for their fairways and roughs. Fairways are subjected to reduced maintenance and to cut down on costs irrigation is reduced in a drought period. Since they occupy a large area visual merit is important and it can be compromised in a drought situation with reduced or no irrigation. Tall fescue, requiring minimal water to maintain its green appearance and demanding less intensive maintenance, is a preferred choice, especially in the water-scarce south of France.

Rough areas, which are often minimally maintained, still need to maintain aesthetic appeal and blend seamlessly with the overall golf course landscape. Tall fescue, known for handling more extensive maintenance routines while retaining a pleasing appearance, proves to be an excellent choice for these areas as well.

Tall fescue                                                                            Perennial ryegrass

Breeding for smaller leaves and lighter coloration

Historically, the wider leaves and coarser texture of traditional Tall fescue varieties posed challenges when blended with finer-textured grasses. Twenty years ago, tall fescue turf varieties were similar to some forage perennial ryegrass. Modern breeding techniques have led to the development of new Tall fescue cultivars with finer leaves similar to some recent turf perennial ryegrass making tall fescue easier to blend. This aesthetic transformation broadens the possibilities for utilizing tall fescue, extending its applicability to areas like fairways where its use was previously challenging.

In the past we have looked to the US as the main source of Tall fescue varieties where their dark colour made them ideal for the harsher sunlight found in Southern Europe. Now that Tall Fescue is becoming more popular in Northern Europe we also need lighter. Breeding work to extend the color palette with lighter cultivars that allows Tall fescue to seamlessly integrate with more light colored grasses, elevating the overall visual appeal.

Which DLF varieties to choose?

The introduction of new Tall fescue varieties such as AZZORO, ARMANI, and ATBARA holds particular promise. Notably, ATBARA ranks as the top choice on the French list for wear tolerance. This is especially crucial in mixtures, where wear tolerance is paramount. Furthermore, ATBARA earns the second spot on the list for establishment, highlighting its growth potential.

Aside from good wear tolerance, ARMANI and AZZORO represent an additional advantage. In trials conducted in France, both varieties exhibit a light coloration. The same is seen in the UK sports turf evaluation where ARMANI occurs. It gets the lowest score on summer colour This make them excellent companions for mixtures used in the more northern part of Europe where finer fescues are often used on golf course fairways.

Traditionally, Tall fescue has been known for its larger and coarser leaves. Those days are over and as mentioned earlier recent advancements in breeding significantly reduced this disparity, leading to improved compatibility. Notably, in this context, it’s worth noting that AZZORO holds a second-place ranking for fine leaves at the French list, while ATBARA secures a respectable fourth place in the same category, further highlighting their suitability for mixing with perennial ryegrass or coarser varieties of Red fescue. On the STRI list ARMANI is number one when it comes to leaf fineness.

Realizing the increased constraints on pesticide use and the prospects of additional bans, disease resistance will become more important. In this regard, ATBARA is the top choice for Drechslera leaf spot resistance and ranks second for Fusarium resistance. ARMANI, on the other hand, claims the top spot for Rust resistance. And ARMANI on the STRI list is the one with the best recovery which help in the competition against weed.

The use of Tall fescue on golf courses in northern part of Europe is not common. However going south the use of tall fescue in turf mixtures has been common practice for some time but maybe not so much on golf courses.

Initially, customers in France were hesitant to adopt Tall fescue due to its unappealing appearance, but the improved varieties have changed perceptions. The increasing demand can also be attributed to climate change and Tall fescue’s remarkable drought tolerance.

France deploys both European and American genetics for Tall fescue, with ARMANI being a favored choice, thanks to its outstanding winter performance. Nevertheless, newer genetics like AZZORO and ARMANI with finer leaves are gaining popularity.

In Southern Europe, encompassing countries like Spain and Italy, Tall fescue is a common choice for landscaping due to its adaptability to higher light intensity, drought, and elevated temperatures. However darker US-type Tall fescue varieties take precedence in this region, partially due to the regions reduced susceptibility to issues with Annual bluegrass (Poa annua).

GRANDITTE, characterized by its darkness and robust disease- and wear resistance, is frequently incorporated into sports mixtures, while ESSENTIAL, is a prevalent choice for landscaping ventures. Compared with the results on the French list NTEP (National Turfgrass Evaluation Program in USA) results seem to gain larger importance in this area, perhaps due to its extended testing network. Tall fescues should also be a preferred species on golf course fairways and roughs in southern Europe. However, it’s clear that the choice of Tall fescue varieties and their use will vary significantly based on regional climate conditions, visual preferences, and specific applications.