Growing Grass In The Shade
I have met very few people who have been totally happy with their lawn that is growing in shade, especially in a lot of shade. Most grass species want as much sun as they can get. Grass seed sold for “shady” areas really needs a minimum of 4 hours of sun a day to grow without stress.
If you have an area that gets less than four hours of sun, you have to make adjustments to your lawn care program.
1. If it is possible, you can improve the health of the shaded grass by raising the canopy of your trees so branches start no lower than 8 feet; higher is better. You want to allow as much light into the area as you can.
2. Just in the last few years, seed companies have come out with a seed mixture that is labeled for “dense shade”. This mix will probably work fairly well if you get two to fours of sun. Anything less that two hours means even this product may not do very well.
3. Shaded turf gets thin from the heat of the summer. You need to overseed your shaded area every year in the fall; around Labor Day weekend.
4. Mow the shaded grass an inch higher than you mow your sunny lawn. The more leaf surface left on the grass, the better chance it has to stay happy.
5. Shaded grass needs water before the grass in the sun. Water deeply every few days to a week rather than a little bit each day.
6. Hold back on the fertilizer. Shaded turf needs less fertilizer, so I suggest you fertilize only in fall with a slow release type of nitrogen fertilizer sometime in late October. This builds the root system without putting too much energy into growing foliage.
Since grass growing in the shade is quite tender, you should try to have the kids avoid walking over the lawn in the shady part as much as possible.
Of course, my strong recommendation is to avoid trying to grow grass in the shade. Not only is it difficult, grass competes with the trees for food and water and the grass wins. You not only have grass in stress, but because of the grass your trees are in stress. I suggest considering a groundcover of some kind to replace as much of the shaded grass as you can aesthetically tolerate. Even a few feet of ground cover around the base of the tree protects it from damage from the lawn mower or string trimmer. A shady lawn is a high maintenance lawn.
Ground Covers Replace Lousy Grass
I have often given my speech about trying to grow grass in the shade. My lead line is "you can't grow healthy grass in the shade." The solution is to overseed every year (see overseeding the lawn) or replace the crummy grass with a groundcover of some sort. Groundcovers are plants that are established to totally fill an area just with those plants so they tightly fill in the space. When filled in, the groundcover patch seldom has any weeds. Usually groundcovers stay green all year long and never need water or fertilizer. They will grow from 6-12 inches tall and stay that way.
Some groundcovers prefer to live in the sun, but here we want plants that can handle part to full shade. The shade-loving plants in the list in the box, at right, have very detailed files later in this website. There are probably another dozen examples available at local garden centers.
Groundcovers look better when they are massed in a softly curved area rather than in a strict military-like rectangle. Use a garden hose to shape the area you plan to use. Each groundcover has its own preference for the distance between plants, which is based on the assumption that the bed will fill in three years from now. If you want to have the area filled in two years, cut the distance between the new seedlings in half.
Many of the groundcover plants are able to thrive in lousy soil conditions. However, if you want to have success, take time to prepare the soil.
Whatever plants are already in the space should be removed. The soil should be loosened by hand or with a tiller. You should add compost or Canadian sphagnum peat moss to the soil. If the area includes some surface tree roots sticking up in the air, you can add a layer of top soil, but never cover the roots with more than an inch of soil or compost.
In the first year, you will definitely have weeds show up. It is good to go into the critical first winter with the weeds removed. Also, in that first year you need to pay attention to any need for water during dry periods, but thereafter your groundcover should need no watering from you.
If you want to keep happy plants, every four or five years you can take your lawn mower to the whole area and cut at about 3 inches.
This will rejuvenate the bed and keep the plants giving you years of lush, green texture protecting your trees.