How to Grow Grass in Shade

When we dream of a perfect landscape, we envision two features that are sometimes at odds with each other: beautiful, green grass and graceful, mature trees. Anyone who has both can tell you that growing grass in the shade of trees is a tall order. If you have shady areas where your turf grass seems to suffer, this guide to growing grass in the shade will help. 

The good news: A healthy lawn and a tree canopy can peacefully co-exist.

Why Grass Struggles Under a Tree Canopy

The first step to growing grass in shady areas is understanding why it’s a challenging environment for turf. Turfgrass needs air, light, water, and nutrients to grow. Trees can stand in the way of these nutrients reaching your lawn. The canopy of a large tree blocks the sun from filtering through to the grass below, which is the first big issue. Even the most shade-tolerant grasses need four to six hours of sunlight each day to thrive.

Most trees have extensive, shallow root systems that spread out beneath the canopy. Tree roots absorb nutrients and oxygen from the soil, depriving the grass roots of necessary elements. Making it even tougher, fallen leaves can further impede air circulation and sunlight from reaching the turf. Grass growing in shady areas also tends to grow shallow roots, making the grass weaker and more susceptible to disease and pests.

Lawn Care for Shady Areas

  • Prune trees to allow in more sunlight. Trim what you can from the ground and hire an arborist to prune higher, larger branches.
  • Mow grass in full sun, then adjust mower blade up by 1 inch and mow shaded areas. The higher setting gives shaded grass more surface area for photosynthesis.
  • Lower irrigation and fertilizer levels in shady spots. They need less fertilizer and water than the grass in direct sunlight.
  • Overseed twice a year to keep shaded turf dense. Spread grass seeds in early spring and early fall. Water regularly until the seeds germinate.
  • Limit foot traffic by installing a flagstone path or relocating play areas.
  • Rake leaves from under trees as soon as they fall and aerate the lawn every year.  

Working With Shade-Tolerant Grasses

Many shade-tolerant grasses can tolerate living in the shadow of canopy trees. The key is identifying the best grass variety for your growing area. The first thing to identify is whether you will need a warm-season grass or cool-season grass to overseed your shady areas.

If you live in the southern part of the U.S., you’ll want to choose a warm-season grass such as St. Augustinegrass, buffalo grass, Zoysiagrass, or centipede grass. If you live in a more northern area, you’ll want to go with a cool-season grass such as fine fescue, perennial ryegrass, or Kentucky bluegrass. In general, cool-season grass types have a higher shade tolerance than warm-season grasses.

Making Modifications

“Despite your best efforts, it may not be possible to successfully grow grass in some areas,” states Richard Jauron, an expert horticulturist at Iowa State University. “For example, growing conditions under hard maples are extremely difficult.” In places where the canopy is dense, Jauron suggests growing grass alternatives or shade-tolerant ground covers.

A ground cover can be as simple as mulch or wood chips arranged around the base of trees. Just make sure mulch doesn’t touch the tree trunks. Planting low-maintenance garden beds in shady areas can also fill in the area without the hassle of lawn maintenance. Plants including hostas, pachysandra, ferns, and liriope are ideal species for under the tree canopy.

Keeping your shaded turf looking its best is a challenge, but well worth it. With a little effort and some smart strategy, you can have a healthy lawn or landscape even in the shadiest corners of your yard.

Main image credit: “Shade tree,” tonya, CC2.0

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Written by Jill Ramone

About Wikilawn

Wikilawn’s mission is to provide the best resources and information to help you enjoy your outdoor spaces the way you want. Whether you are a DIY, lawn-loving, gardening guru, or someone who wants help in picking a local lawn care professional, we can smooth your path to a beautiful backyard!

About Wikilawn

Wikilawn’s mission is to provide the best resources and information to help you enjoy your outdoor spaces the way you want. Whether you are a DIY, lawn-loving, gardening guru, or someone who wants help in picking a local lawn care professional, we can smooth your path to a beautiful backyard!

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