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Grass Growing Tips for Shady Lawns

September 19, 2017

“How do I get better grass in the shade?” is one of the leading questions I have been asked over the years. Think about it: The lawn you established when your landscape trees were young was likely better adapted to sunny areas, and now this grass has declined as your trees have grown. Here are my tips to improve your shady lawn:

This Fescue lawn in Atlanta receives about 4 hours of filtered sunlight a day. (click photo to enlarge)

Grow the right grass: For cool-season grasses, here is the ranking for most shade tolerant to least shade tolerant: Fine fescue, Tall fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass (some varieties more tolerant than others and are as shade-tolerant as fescues), and finally Perennial ryegrass is least shade tolerant. For warm-season grasses, here is the ranking for most shade tolerant to least shade tolerant: St. Augustinegrass, Zoysia, Bahiagrass, Buffalograss, Centipedegrass, with Bermudagrass is least tolerant.   So grass seed blends like Scotts Turf Builder Dense Shade Mix will give you a better shot at growing grass in the shade in the north; Scotts Turf Builder Dense Shade Mix For Tall Fescue Lawns in the mid-south; and St. Augustinegrass in the deep south (which is grown from sod or sprigs rather than seed).

Fertilizing: It is important to feed shady lawns in fall just before and after tree leaves drop, and early spring before tree leaves develop. When you fertilize while your grass receives sunlight because the tree leaves are not blocking the sun, you maximize photosynthesis, which builds carbohydrate reserves in the grass roots to help when sunlight is limited during shady times.

Watering: This is tricky. Lawns can get by with less water in shade, however some trees are very aggressive at stealing soil moisture from your grass. This means you need to water when the grass is dry, but hold off if the soil is moist. Look for signs of dry grass (such as a change in color from bright green to the dark-colored green with long-lasting foot prints caused by the grass not springing back to the upright position after being walked on). If your grass and soil stays wet for a long time after watering, reduce the amount. If the grass quickly shows the drying out symptoms, then increase. Remember infrequent deep watering (no more than twice a week) is better than daily shallow watering.

Mowing: Mow at one of the taller settings so that your cool-season grasses are around 3 inches after you cut and your warm-season grasses are around 2 inches after you mow(exception is St. Augustinegrass which should be cut at the higher 3 inch setting).

Too much shade for grass: If you decide to plant one the shade grass seed blends or to shift to one of the more shade-tolerant grasses listed above, just remember that you still need at least 3 or 4 hours of filtered-sunlight a day to grow grass. You can help by trimming low hanging tree branches. You may need to consider an alternative to grass for your “too shady” lawn area such as pachysandra or vinca. Your local nursery can help you choose the best shade-loving groundcover for your area. A second alternative is to mulch areas under trees where grass will not grow bringing the mulch line out to where grass gets enough sunlight.

Pachysandra is a good shade ground cover next to this building where there is very little sunlight. (click photo to enlarge)

Mondo Grass (also known as Monkey Grass) is a nice ground cover in shady areas where winters are not too severe (best grown in zones 6 thru 11). Click photo to enlarge

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