Tall fescue is an important turf grass in the United States today, but that wasn't always the case. Kentucky 31, known in the seed industry as KY-31 or K-31, helped tall fescue grasses transition from livestock pasture grasses to lush, durable, manicured lawns. It is valued for easy establishment, drought resistance and improved heat tolerance over many other tall fescue varieties. If you're in the market for an economical, low-maintenance grass — with a bit of history thrown in — Kentucky 31 tall fescue may be for you.
KY-31 Tall Fescue at a Glance
- cool-season grass suitable for northern and transition zones
- improved heat tolerance over other tall fescue varieties
- drought, shade and traffic tolerant
- high disease resistance
- bunch-forming growth habit
- low-maintenance and economical
Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue History
Tall fescue grasses came to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800s. These durable, adaptable grasses gained wide use as “forage" or pasture grasses for grazing livestock. In 1931, a University of Kentucky professor heard about a remarkable grass growing nearby. Upon seeing it, he recognized qualities that improved upon common forage grasses, including green color during cold weather and stability on erosion-prone slopes.
Seed was taken from those long-established Kentucky fields and research ensued. In 1942, the grass was introduced into the agricultural seed market as Kentucky 31, named for the state and year in which it was discovered.1 It quickly gained favor for use in agriculture, conservation and erosion control applications.
As Kentucky 31's popularity grew through the 1950s, its excellent disease resistance and resilience gained attention. Among those keen on the grass's potential was Brooks Pennington, Jr., who was in the process of shifting Pennington Seed's focus from agricultural seed products to seeds for lawns and turf.
In the late 1960's, Pennington introduced Penkote Seed Technology, a proprietary seed treatment that helps seed establish faster and stay healthier. The Penkote process enabled Pennington to offer Kentucky 31, still known as a forage grass, as a viable alternative to more demanding turf grasses available at the time. The move put low-maintenance, easy-care, disease-resistant lawns within the average homeowner's reach. In the process, Kentucky 31 became the original tall fescue lawn grass and an integral part of Pennington Seed history, leading the way for all modern turf-type tall fescue lawn grasses that followed.
Today Kentucky 31 tall fescue seed is produced in major U.S. grass-growing regions from Missouri to Oregon, as evidenced on the seed tag you'll find attached to all grass seed products. Economical, easy-to-establish Pennington Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue remains a leading choice for low-maintenance lawns that can withstand heat, drought and wear.
KY-31 Tall Fescue Basics
Kentucky 31 is a cool-season grass, meaning its most vigorous growth happens during cooler temperatures of fall and spring. Like other tall fescue varieties, KY-31 is best adapted to regions with moderate summers and cool winters. It is particularly well-suited to the south-central U.S. and the challenging turf-growing region known as the transition zone. Where weather runs too hot for many cool-season grasses and too cold for most warm-season grasses, Kentucky 31 tall fescue shines.
Tall fescues generally have greater heat tolerance than other cool-season grasses, but KY-31 offers better heat and drought tolerance than many tall fescue varieties. Its cold tolerance, which is greater than that of perennial ryegrass, also gives it an advantage over warm-season transition zone grasses.
In the years since K-31 moved into the lawn and turf marketplace, many new tall fescue lawn grasses have been developed through research and development programs such as NexGen Turf Research and affiliated university research programs. Compared to many modern turf-type and dwarf tall fescue varieties, KY-31 has a lighter green color, wider blades and a coarser texture.
Other Characteristics to Consider
As with other tall fescue varieties, Kentucky 31 germinates much more quickly than Kentucky bluegrass. Its relatively deep roots, compared to other common cool-season lawn grasses, add to its heat and drought tolerance.1 Though less shade tolerant than fine fescues, KY-31 is more shade tolerant than Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass or common warm-season grasses, such as sun-loving Bermudagrass.
Like all tall fescue grasses, KY-31 is a bunch-forming grass that naturally grows in clumps. While creeping grass types spread by horizontal above-ground stems known as “stolons" or by below-ground stems called “rhizomes," Kentucky 31 spreads through vertical shoots known as “tillers," which grow from the plant's base. As result, KY-31 doesn't cause problems venturing outside its boundaries as more aggressive spreading grasses often do.
KY-31 Tall Fescue Lawn Care
As with all cool-season lawn grasses, the best time to plant tall fescue is during fall's prime growth season.5 Spring is the second best time to seed KY-31. Because of the grass's bunch-forming growth, Kentucky 31 lawns develop very little thatch, but they typically benefit from regular lawn overseeding every one to three years.2 Other major lawn care tasks should also be done during the fall season.
K-31's deep root growth helps protect against heat and drought stress, but wise watering practices build on that strength. KY-31 lawns require less water than Kentucky bluegrass, but more water than warm-season grasses such as Zoysia grass. Deep, thorough, infrequent watering encourages deeper root growth, as do taller mowing heights in times of low rainfall. Maintain KY-31 at tall fescue's recommended mowing height of 2 to 3 inches in normal conditions, and 3 to 4 inches during periods of drought.
Versatile KY-31 adapts to a broad range of soil types, and does well with less fertilizer than cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass. Like other tall fescues, it does best when soil pH levels stay between 5.5 and 7.5. Simple soil testing reveals your lawn's soil type, pH, nutrient needs and whether your lawn needs lime or other soil amendments to restore balance and nutrient availability. Your local county extension agent can help with information on testing and understanding recommendations you may receive.
Though many new varieties of tall fescue lawn grass have hit the market since Kentucky 31 opened the door, this proven performer continues to provide lawn owners with resilient, good-looking lawns. Pennington is dedicated to producing the finest grass seed possible and providing you with premium lawn and garden products, helpful educational resources and, in Kentucky 31 tall fescue, an attractive, economical lawn grass and a piece of lawn care history.
Pennington is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc.
1. Lacefield, G.D., and Evans, J.K., “Tall Fescue in Kentucky," University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension, November 1984.
2. Patton, A. and Boyd J., “Choosing a Grass for Arkansas Lawns," University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension.
3. Cook, T., “Tall Fescue," Oregon State University Department of Horticulture.
4. "How to Plant Tall Fescue," The Rebels
5. "When to Plant Tall Fescue," The Rebels