How to Grow Grass in Shade!

Southland Sod Farm

Have you ever pictured yourself resting on a blanket under a large tree on a summer day with a picnic basket?  Talk about romantic!  But, wait a minute.  Where’s the grass?  Why isn’t there grass growing under the tree?  It’s all dirt.  What’s going on here?  This can’t be right! Doesn’t grass grow in the shade?  Let’s explore.

Not all lawns are created equal.  Each variety has specific growing conditions that need to be met in order for them to grow properly.  Turf just doesn’t want to grow in shade.   However, with careful planning, manipulating Mother Nature and knowing what type of grass to plant you can trick it into thriving in what would otherwise be an impossible place to grow.  There’s a certain amount of knowledge in botany that’s going to be needed but we’ll make it as easy as 1-2-3…growing grass in shade.

Let’s get our green geek on:  Photosynthesis uses the most common molecule, chlorophyll, which is  one aspect that makes grass green.  Chlorophyll collects and uses the suns energy.  Without getting too complicated there’s an exchange of starches, sugars, a blast of carbon dioxide and water.  Without the some sort of light the magic of all that happening, plus more, makes it difficult for turfgrass to successfully grow.

Manipulating Mother Nature.  Remember those Chiffon Margarine commercials in the 70’s how it’s “not nice to fool Mother Nature?”  Well, we don’t want that kind of repercussions so let’s be sneaky how we go about manipulating Mother Nature through pruning.  So not to get in trouble, maybe instead we’ll look at it like helping her.  Here’s what we have to do:

In a perfect world we’d never plant a tree over turf.  They don’t play nice together.  They tolerate each other.  Plus, remember that romantic scene from earlier?  We have to make it work.  You see, the biggest problem is that trees need less water than turf.  Trees also have different feeding and care requirements.  A full canopy can cast so much shade that only moss can grow.

Without tearing the tree out it is possible to snip here and there to keep an open canopy.  In my book, Basic Elements of Pruning, we discover that an open, airy canopy is actually beneficial for a tree’s health.  And, when a good amount of sun slips past its leaves sod can grow successfully.  The only caveat is you might have to prune the tree two to three times a year.  I’m not saying to butcher it, just thin it out.

A deciduous tree typically loses all of its leaves for three to four months out of the year.  This Fall/Winter slumber is perfect for your lawn (as long as you rake up the leaves) because the sun’s intensity is much less during this time of the year.  In turn, your lawn benefits from it.

An evergreen tree, on the other hand, has leaves that shed all year-’round.  The canopy is being renewed with new leaves pushing out the old ones.  This process thickens the canopy and here’s when you ‘might’ have to prune in upwards of three times a year depending on the variety of trees.

Pro-Tip: A professional arborist has the most dangerous blue color job in America.  They encounter heights, slippery conditions, branches that fall, razor sharp equipment, electrical wires plus they must keep the safety of those around them.

It’s always best to hire a profession Arborist instead of handling the job yourself.  Check with the International Society of Arboriculture to learn what makes a good arborist.

100’s of Shade Varieties of Turf?  If ANYONE ever tells you there’s a grass that grows in complete shade – they are lying!  There are lawn varieties that can tolerate a reasonable amount of shade and the granddaddy of them all is St. Augustine.

St. Augustine grass is a rough-and-tough warm-season turf. Due to its wide leaves it’s able to absorb higher amounts of light to photosynthesize and grow in lower light conditions.  This type of turf adapts to growing in full sun and partial shade.  Typically you’re not going to get a thick thatch build up in shade but it will cover the ground just fine.  In fact, you’ll see that blades might adapt and get a bit wider!

Remember when I said trees and lawns don’t play nice, this is true when it comes to watering.  Trees need deep infrequent watering and lawns need about 1 ¼” to 1 ½” of water per week.  In order to push the tree roots down install several simple watering stakes that have holes on the sides.  You can hook up a drip system to water into those holes forcing the roots downwards.  You’ll also have to be mindful of the sprinkler system under the canopy and the rest of the lawn in the sun.  Because you’re dealing with the shade you’ll still want head-to-head coverage but waterlogging the soil isn’t an option.  A professional irrigation specialist will be able to help you get a perfect balance.

Too much shade

Warm season grasses are prone to going dormant during the winter.  You have the option of leaving it as is or what some people do is sow an annual rye seed on top.  Since annual rye is a cool season grass as soon as it warms up the St. Augustine will kick into high gear when the annual rye peters out. Now check this out, because our weather can be quite mild and established St. Augustine might not go 100% dormant.  If that happens scratch the annual rye seed and continue as normal.

As far as mowing is concerned as with any turf they’ll respond better if you mow weekly.  Keep your settings high enough to not scalp the lawn and every few years it’s nice to aerate the lawn.

Fun Fact:  I grew with the Smith family living across the street.  Between their 12 kids (oh, that’s not a typo), my two siblings, myself and the three next door we practically lived on that lawn playing every game imaginable and even sitting under a regularly maintained magnolia tree with a blanket.

$100,000 Question Revealed.  So here’s the question you’ve been dying to find out…will any of the Marathon Family of Sod grow in shade, too?  Paying close attention to keeping that tree thinned out and maximizing the amount of sun that shines through Original Marathon and Marathon II is known to have qualities to grow in shade.

Nick Federoff
ThingsGreen.com PBS|KLCS TV and Syndicated Radio Garden Expert

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