How To Get Grass To Grow In Shade

Growing grass in shade can present many problems. Like all plants, grass needs sunlight but shade cast by your home or trees leave some areas without much sunlight. There are also problems associated with lawns in shade that you'll need to keep an eye out for.

Some common problems with shade lawns are poor density, compacted soil, excess moisture and moss.
In this post I'll cover some issues and tips on how to grow grass in a shady spot.

Soil

Since we're already starting with a difficult situation and conditions we can't control, it's a good idea to have a soil test performed by a good lab to see what it is we can control. The right pH and nutrients along with a good amount of organic material will help the grass where it can.

A good lab will also ask for what type of grass you'll be growing and make recommendation on what amendments you'll need to add and in what quantities. Most shady grass types don't require as much nitrogen as other grasses in this area. Typically 2-3 lbs of N per 1,000 square feet. If you're recycling your grass clippings by mulch mowing (which you should) you'll be providing some N so you'll be applying even less fertilizer.

Soil pH is also important and you should add lime as recommended in your soil test. If you're having difficulty growing grass under your trees, some people believe it's because the needles some evergreens drop will alter the pH of the soil since they are acidic and because evergreens prefer acidic soil. Others don't think this actually happens. All I know is if I don't add some lime under my hemlocks every few years, I can't grow grass there.

While you're examining your soil, see how well it drains and decide if it needs aeration. Because shady areas tend to be more moist due to lack of evaporation, compaction seems to be a bigger problem than in sunny parts of the lawn. At least that's been the case for me. Walking on soil when it's wet makes it compact faster than if the soil is dry.

The combination of poor drainage, lack of evaporation, soil compaction and acidic soil (low pH) can lead to moss in your lawn. Aearation will help with drainage and compaction, lime will help raise your pH if necessary.

Grass Seed For Shady Lawns

The next step is to pick the right type of grass seed. Fine fescues tend to perform better in shade than other types of grass. Most fine fescues however are bunch type grasses which means they won't spread and heal like other varieties such as Kentucky Bluegrass (KBG). Creeping red fescue is the exception. It spreads by rhizomes which are underground stems that run horizontally. At certain points it will root and a new grass plant will form. For this reason, you'll find most shade grass mixes contain some creeping red fescue.
I wind up overseeding very shady areas of my lawn almost every fall and sometimes toss out some seed in spring to help keep the grass thick.

Below are three good shade seed mixes that you can choose. They're in the order of quality based on my own opinion. Highest quality first. Bonny Dunes is not something you'll likely find in your local nursery or Home Depot but you can mail order it by clicking on the photo. The other two are more easy to find in this area. Jonathan Green's Dense Shade mix is a pretty good quality shade seed mix that is available at my local nursery. Scott's Dense Shade mix has also given me good results and Scott's seeds now come coated with Zeba technology which retains moisture. So you can still miss a day of watering and still get good germination. Since shady areas don't dry out as fast, I find that if I throw around any seed when the weather calls for a few days of rain I get good germination rates within a week without watering at all.

Click on each picture for more information.

Tree Pruning

Grass won't survive in complete darkness. Even shade tolerant grass needs at least some direct sun during the day. The more light you give it the better but strive for at least 2 hours of sunlight per day.

If the grass in question is shaded by trees, especially from a deciduous tree, the leaves can create a dense canopy that will prevent light and water from reaching your lawn. In this case you should consider pruning your trees.

Trees need pruning from time to time. It helps them keep a nice shape, provide good air flow and remove dead branches or branches that may otherwise be injuring the tree.

I like the Fiskars Power-Lever 14-Foot Tree Pruner #9301 pictured to the right. (update I bought a new tree pruner. Check out my Fiskars Telescoping Pruning Stik review. )

Amazon has the cheapest price for this extendable Fiskars tree pruner and free shipping. It's better than the tree pruner that my local nursery carries. It has a pair of loppers that are operated by a pull rope which can cut small branches up to 3/4" in diameter. I try to use it only for thinner branches though as I find the saw is very sharp and works better. It's a bit awkward at first but you get used to it. I recommend making some practice cuts far away from where you plan to make the final cut until you start to get the hang of it. The 14' extendable pole helps you get high up into the tree.

You can tackle a lot of tree pruning on your own, it's not very difficult. Just be smart, try not to have anything crash down on anything you don't want crushed like your car, your head or your neighbor's dog. If you think you need to do a lot of pruning or that it's too risky for you call an arborist.

You should also read and understand how and when to prune your particular tree. I can't cover all trees in this post but here are the basics.

In general, deciduous trees, trees that drop their leaves in fall, the best time to prune is late winter or early spring before the tree starts developing leaves. Some trees will "bleed" when pruned. This isn't anything to worry about but you may not want sap dripping on your car if you leave it in the driveway.

Evergreen trees are best pruned in late winter but some, like pine, are pruned in June.

Fruit trees should be pruned between February and April. Using the pruner, you can cut off thin branches to open up the tree to let more light in. Just place the branch in between the pruning blades, about an inch outside the main branch past the collar, and pull with steady even pressure on the rope.

For larger branches, you want to use the 3 cut method as illustrated below


Cut 1 should be about 6-12" away from the branch collar and about 1/3 of the way through the branch. This will prevent the bark from peeling off when you make the next cut.

Cut 2 should be about an inch or so away further out than the first cut. Start from the top and saw all the way down. This cut takes off most of the weight so the last cut is cleaner.

Cut 3 starts at the top of the branch collar and angles out all the way down. The angle helps water shed which prevents rot. It's important not to cut the branch collar. The branch collar is an isolation mechanism that prevents insects and disease that might have affected a branch from spreading into the trunk.

You don't need to cover the wound, the branch collar will protect the tree. If any part of the branch was left, it will die off so just concentrate on making one nice clean cut for Cut 3. Remember, making big heavy things fall out of the sky while you're standing underneath them requires attention and concentration. Wear head protection as well as eye protection. Having sawdust get in your eye as you make the last stroke can really suck.

If you have a hard time deciding which branches to cut, here are the guidelines I follow.
  1. dead or diseased branches
  2. branches that may be rubbing up against another branch
  3. branches that look unsafe
  4. branches that are growing in an unnatural direction
  5. cut for shape
  6. cut to let light and rain through
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