Growing Grass in Heavy Shade

Big Pappa asks…“Can I grow grass in heavily shaded areas?”

 In short, if given the proper amount of time and effort, “yes” you can grow lush turf in a heavily shaded area. And you don’t have to break your back or your bank to do it.There are many factors that come into play with this topic, but I think I can answer 80% of readers’ questions about shaded turf by making a few assumptions.

  1. The shade is caused by a large tree(s) and not by your house being 5 feet away from your neighbors’.
  2. The trees causing the shade are deciduous (lose their leaves in winter, ie: Maple, Ash, Oak) and NOT evergreen like a Pine or Spruce.
  3. You are willing to put in a little effort and have some patience in the process.

Pruning is Important 

Be prepared to use some power tools baby! Break out the chain saw or “saws-all” with a tree-cutting/pruning blade. (I like to use a cordless saws-all because it is lightweight and easy to control)
You need to climb up in the tree and thin it out by removing internal cross branching. You also want to allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy. It doesn’t take a lot of sun getting through to improve grass production. In the industry, it’s referred to as “dappled sun.” When pruning, keep in mind, you
need to be artistic and visualize each limb you are removing to make sure it doesn’t ruin the overall shape of the tree. I have included some pictures of a job I recently did for my friend, Bryan. You will notice how we raised the canopy height by removing lower limbs and thinned it as well. (look, you can actually see his house too!) I’d love to expound on the proper techniques for pruning and thinning trees, but space will not allow, so I have included a happy link here for you to learn more. Just keep in mind, you’re not gonna hurt the tree! Thinning a tree allows healthy air circulation, and also lets the tree concentrate more energy to the leaves on the outer edges where the sunlight is anyway.
 Just remember, our primary purpose in thinning and pruning the tree is to allow natural sunlight to trickle through to the ground below.

The Grass Seed

Secondly, you need to purchase a good quality shade mix grass seed. Do not go cheap here. The more expensive grass seed is better “filtered” and contains less garbage. (garbage being weed seeds and invasive grasses) More expensive seed is also genetically engineered to perform better in extreme conditions. DO NOT buy seed labeled as “quick grow” “winter mix” or “general purpose.” It must be labeled for SHADE.The best shade seeds will contain some amounts of Fine Fescue, Creeping Red Fescue and maybe some perennial ryegrass. Always buy a mix so if one cultivar suffers, the others will pick up and fill in.

 

There are 3 requirements for grass seed to grow.

  • Seed-to-soil contact. Throw the seed down on bare ground only! Don’t sew it into an area full of dead, matted turf…rake it out first. (if you have some thin turf there that is still living, it is ok to let that stay) It is also necessary to cover freshly laid grass seed with peat moss or top soil about one-half-inch thick. Erosion mats work very well also, but cost more. If your soil is heavily compacted, it’s best to loosen it to a depth of 2 inches prior to seeding, using a stiff-bladed rake.
  • Moisture. Grass seed must be continually damp for 10 days to increase the germination rate. It only takes about 15 minutes of light sprinkling 2-times a day to achieve the proper moisture levels.
  • Temperature. I recommend night-time temps be at least 55 degrees consistently so the baby seedlings don’t freeze their tender crowns off! 

Further Considerations: Buy enough seed to re-apply 3 or 4 times over a 4-week timespan. Seed is cheap…lay it down often and heavily! Do not try to lay sod in heavily shaded areas. It will die! 99% of all sod you buy at the nursery has been grown in bright sunlight. That turf is used to full sun and will not adapt well to shade. In fact, it won’t adapt at all.

If your heavy shade is caused by an evergreen tree like a Pine or Spruce, then your main problem is a highly acidic soil condition that develops from lost needles. In this case, your best option to to build a tree ring around the evergreen and plant a nice ground cover like English Ivy. Most grass seed will not tolerate heavy acid levels and shade combined. Please feel free to post further questions in the comment section.