Problems of Growing Grass in Shade

growing grass in shade

Summary: Growing grass in shade can be a major lawn problem for homeowners. Even with excellent grass seed germination, sowing grass seed does not solve this problem. In this article we will begin looking at the issue of grass in the shade.

Question: In parts of our yard where the trees shade much of the grass the lawn is very thin and does not do well. What is the best grass that grows in shade under trees and when should we sow grass seed for the lawn in those areas? Mike, Milford CT

Answer: Mike, the grass problems associated with growing grass in the shade can be the most exasperating of all lawn problems.

The causes of “grass failure” to get good turf growing under trees are wide ranging, most of which are interrelated.

So, it is not possible, to give an exact answer that this thing or that thing is the cause when grass does not thrive in shade. As with most plant, garden, landscape and lawn problems, there is almost always a chain of circumstances is responsible.

For our discussion of – grass that grows in the shade – the problem is divided the contributing difficulties into four groups listed in the order of their importance:

  • Lack of sufficient plant nutrients
  • Shortage of moisture during summer months
  • Absence of sunlight
  • Other unfavorable factors

Strangely enough what at first might be considered most important is almost the least important. Absence of sunlight is the factor most easily solved.

This can be fixed by supplying a mixture of grasses that are actually adapted to growth in shade. Unfortunately, because of lack of information, the cost of seed, or because it is a little extra trouble, the proper grass seed is seldom provided.

The other difficulties are not so easily solved. To overcome them it is necessary to understand the trouble, so we need to consider the various causes in detail and then prescribe what have been found the best corrective measures.

Lack of Plant Food

There is strong competition between trees and grass for the limited supply of plant food being lawn fertilizer for the grass or landscape fertilizer for the trees.

The nurseryman says grass robs the trees of nutrients, while the grass man says the tree, being more aggressive, gets all and little remains for the grass.

However that may be, we have it on good authority that a medium sized tree each year requires nutrients equivalent to 20 pounds of a high analysis complete fertilizer.

Sod under this same tree would need about the same quantity per year if it were to make a satisfactory growth, factors being favorable.

Thus a plot of ground 30 x 40 feet on which a tree is growing and which is in sod must supply each year plant nutrients in the amount contained in approximately 40 pounds of commercial fertilizer.

It is, of course, better for trees if they can find sufficient nutrients located fairly deep in the soil. But if it is not there they will send their feeding roots toward the surface and thereby enter into direct competition with the grass.

Usually the tree will emerge victor, take most of the available surface plant nutrients and leave nothing for the lawn.

A permanent remedy for such a condition requires:

  • Regular and Correct Feeding of the Tree Roots
  • Regular Feeding of the Grass

One of the best methods of feeding trees we discussed in “How To Fertilize a Tree“.

Feeding grass is not a difficult matter. To insure a constant and adequate supply of nutrients, shaded lawns should be fertilized three times yearly, namely in spring, early summer, and fall.

Moisture Conditions

As previously indicated, the supply of nutrient materials is only one of many problem factors affecting grass for shaded areas. In some ways the moisture condition, deficiency or over-abundance, exercises a greater influence because of its close relationship to mechanical and chemical soil composition.

Botanists tell us that trees as well as grass require much larger quantities of water than we might suspect. A medium sized tree might well transpire some 500 pounds of moisture over a period of twenty-four hours in a normal summer day.

From the soil under this tree we could reasonably expect an evaporation and transpiration loss of about 700 pounds of water which must be replaced if the tree and grass are to be kept from suffering.

This would total a monthly loss of about six inches. Compare this with the average summer rainfall in the north central states of about 35 inches per month.

In general it seems that for grass growing under trees an average of at least one inch of water per week should be supplied (to keep the turf growing vigorously). This would be equivalent to an application of about 5000 gallons on every 1000 square feet.

The image to the right gives some idea of the extent of a tree’s root system. Obviously grass roots are not a match for such roots and so if moisture is deficient, trees get the surface soil moisture leaving little or none for the lawn.

Another condition affecting the water supply available to tree shaded lawns is the action of the tree foliage in diverting water, so that such areas do not get even their share of the scant late spring and summer rainfall.

Many Other Problems

So far we have only considered a few of the many conditions affecting shaded lawns.

Next we will look at the matter of soils and particularly their relation to moisture supply. Other difficulties include damage by the heavy wash of rainfall down tree trunks and the dripping of large drops of water from tree branches and leaves.

The problems of acid soils and toxic soils, unfavorable bacterial environment, moss and grass smothering by leaves will also be look at.

Other Conditions Which Can Prevent Grass From Growing In Shade

Question: Nothing we do seems to help grass grow in the shade under our trees. We have tried watering more, putting in special grass “designed for shade” and put more fertilizer down, but nothing seems to help. What else can we try, as we are just about to give up on the shaded grass project! Dale, Johnson City, TN

Answer: Dale, failure of grass to thrive directly adjacent to tree trunks may be the result of the heavy wash of water down tree trunks during rains.

This is particularly noticeable in winter. The excess water collects in pools at the base of the trunk and may smother the grass, at the same time puddling the soil.

Such a condition may be overcome by mounding a shallow layer of soil at the tree base to provide immediate carry-off of the excess water. This soil mound should not be deep enough to smother the tree roots.

Another solution is to have a cultivated area at the base of the tree, extending out four or five inches. This should be of fairly light soil which will permit ready absorption of water. This treatment is suitable only for use around medium sized trees.

Rainfall adds still another difficulty in that water collects on tree limbs and falls to the ground in large drops. These tend to wash away the soil and expose the grass roots. This is particularly bad in winter when such exposed roots will be subject to severe heaving.

Nothing can be done to prevent falling of these large drops but if a lawn under trees is built and maintained properly the turf developed should be sufficiently thick and solid so that the large drops will not wash the soil.

Soil Often Toxic or Acid

There are still other unfavorable soil conditions that may interfere with growth of grass under trees. For example, the soil may be extremely acid or may contain toxic substances which have been exuded from tree leaves and washed into the soil.

Extremely acid soils are improved by liberal applications of lime. However, the soil should be subjected to test before lime is added as it is not advisable to use it unless it is actually needed.

By sending a sample of soil to your own experiment station you can ascertain the actual amount of lime needed.

An ordinary surface application of lime does little goad as the lime is usually washed off before any benefit results. The lime must be incorporated into the soil.

Many folks still think that an early spring “whitewash” of their lawns is necessary. Actually it may do more harm than good because too much lime encourages certain types of weeds.

Certain Bacteria Essential

Enormous quantities of certain types of bacteria must be present in soils if they are to support a good growth of grass.

These bacteria break down soil organic matter into humus, at the same time liberating certain chemical food elements to grass roots.

So often soils in shaded areas are very unfavorable to the development of soil bacteria. They may be water-logged during winter and early spring, and excessively dry in summer.

Or, the soil may be extremely acid. An unfavorable bacterial environment is another cause of lawn failures in shady places.

Remove Leaves When They Fall

After good turf is established in shade, care must be exercised to prevent losing it when leaves are falling. They should be removed promptly else the grass may be smothered.

It is a mistake to place leaves or other materials over grass as a winter covering. They do more harm than good. To keep them from harming grass, leaves should be removed at least once weekly.

Certain kinds of oaks and other trees hold part of their leaves all through the winter. This means that some of them are falling during winter months, particularly during heavy rains.

If these are not removed frequently they will become packed down against the ground, sometimes even becoming frozen, and thus smother grass in spots. By spring the lawn may present a sorry sight.

As with other phases of the shade problem, a sturdier stand of turf will be better able to withstand smothering. The turf will hold up the leaves and prevent their packing against the ground.

In this section we covered what we regard as the most important problems of growing grass in heavy shade. Now we will look at how soil conditions play a role in growing grass in shade.
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Soil Conditions And Growing Grass in Shade

Summary: Many believe the absence of sunlight is the only problem of shade. Of equal or even greater importance is the lack of moisture and plant nutrients resulting in part, at least, from unfavorable soil conditions.

Question: The grass does not grow in the shade under our trees. I wanted to know what part soil plays in the grass growing – is it all from a lack of the grass getting enough light.

Thanks for your help as we want to make our lawn look better – none or thin grass in the shade is the next landscaping problem we are trying to solve. Stacy, Conway, Arkansas

Answer: Let’s look at the issue of soil conditions and growing grass in the shade.

Soil Conditions

The enormous water requirements of trees is one reason for the lack of a sufficient moisture supply for the grass. Another reason, strangely enough, is the direct result of an excess of moisture during certain seasons of the year.

In late winter and early spring practically all lawns receive and hold too much water unless they are well drained.

If this saturated condition lasts very long it does considerable damage to grass, directly, by keeping much needed air from the grass roots, and, indirectly by causing a “puddled” soil. The unfavorable effects of keeping oxygen from grass roots is apparent but the puddling damage requires some explanation.

Texture and Structure

All soils are composed of particles of varying sizes. In one gram of very fine sand there will be approximately two million particles while in the same amount of clay there would be about forty-five million particles – more than twenty times as many.

The size of particles in a soil determines what is called its texture. These particles have a certain arrangement.

In some soils each particle acts as a separate unit whereas in other cases various minute particles become grouped together so that groups act as single units. The arrangement of soil particles is called its structure.

These mechanical characteristics are of great importance in determining the moisture movement in soils.

The best turf soils are those having a “crumb” structure.

Where many small particles are grouped together to act as a single large unit such a crumb structure permits easy and rapid movement of air and water, at the same time presents a condition where the optimum moisture supply is retained.

Soil “puddling” occurs in the heavier soil when small soil particles are forced or floated in between larger particles. Thus the soil becomes more compact and at the same time plastic.

The potter works clay to break down the crumb structure to make it plastic so he can mold it into any desired shape.

Heavy soils become compact and tight because of excessive moisture or of having been worked when wet.

In the case of soils under trees, these remain wet until late spring because evaporation is slow. This means that the soil gradually becomes more and more compact until in late spring there is a heavy, gummy mess.

Read the article – Best Soil for Lawns here

Excessive Drying

Sooner of later, this soil under trees will dry out. It will dry very fast with the advent of warm weather coupled with the scant rainfall that reaches such soils in summer.

As the soil loses so much water its volume shrinks greatly, making large cracks in the lawn. These in turn cause a great loss of moisture from the subsoil by evaporation.

So the condition is continually aggravated until by midsummer both tree and grass are suffering acutely from moisture shortage, unless drastic measures are taken to prevent this situation.

Mere artificial irrigation during dry weather will not provide much of a remedy. Temporary improvement may follow the use of enormous quantities of water but in the end it will only aggravate the unfavorable soil condition.

It is not possible to describe in this article all of the steps necessary to overcome a puddled or unfavorable soil.

One of the principal factors involved in improvement of compact soils is provision for adequate surface and underground drainage. The former can be taken care of by surface grading while the installation of tile drainage is about the only means of improving underground drainage.

Friable Soil Needed

At the same time a friable, loamy top soil should be installed, if possible. Extremely sandy or clay soils will never support good turf. Heavy soils should be broken up with coarse sand and a liberal supply of organic matter.

This furnishes a home for the needed friendly bacteria, and retains moisture and plant food. A sandy soil may be made more compact by adding soil of heavier texture and also incorporating enormous quantities of organic materials.

Given a fairly suitable soil, the moisture problem of tree-shaded lawns can be solved. Water should be applied infrequently during drought in the form of a medium fine but long continued spray.

The soil should be thoroughly soaked to a depth of five or six inches. No definite period of watering can be prescribed because of the many variable factors.

However, a lawn cannot be considered as having been properly irrigated unless an actual examination shows the water to have penetrated six or more inches into the ground. It does not take any more water to give a lawn a good soaking once a week than to give it daily light sprinklings.

Absence of Sunlight

As indicated, shade in itself is not a considerable problem in lawn making. There are certain grass species which tolerate shade, in fact do best where they are protected from direct sunlight.

Unfortunately many so-called shady lawn mixtures are that in name only. They are prepared to sell at a price rather than to solve the shade problem.

An acceptable shade mixture must sell for more than open place seed because the suitable varieties cost more to produce. There is less seed of such varieties harvested, greater difficulty in threshing and re-cleaning them, and added expense in importing.

Hot Weather And Readers Solutions To Problems Of Shaded Lawns

Summary: Hot weather can cause lawn problems for grass growing the in sun, but it can also cause issues for grass growing in the shade. Some of our readers give their shade grass growing solutions

Question: Last summer the hot weather hit our grass really hard even the grass growing under the trees in the shade. What steps can we take for our lawn this summer if we face high temperatures again? Keith, Huntsville, Alabama

Answer: Keith, summer heat can really push a lawn and the grass that makes up a yard to its limits. This is not limited to grass but high temperatures also affect plants in the landscape.

The hot temperatures and weather conditions of summer can bring other lawn problems front and center. Those who have shaded lawns to battle generally think theirs is the worst burden.

True enough, the growing of grass in shaded conditions is quite a problem, but there are certain compensations. For one thing, very few weeds will grow in the shade; crabgrass not at all, and dandelions to only a limited extent.

Then, too, shaded lawns are favored by being protected from the ravages of the burning sun that destroyed so much turf in open places during the past summer. In contrast to the usual conditions shaded lawns came through the summer in much better condition than ordinary lawns.

Here is some input from readers on their solutions to problems of shaded lawns:

Flagstone Terrace Option

One reader brought us an interesting problem regarding treatment of a lawn area around a tree.

As this particular place in his yard received a lot of wear he was considering putting down a flagstone terrace on the area with grass between the stones and wondered if this would be injurious to the tree.

We immediately took up this problem with a tree professional who replied as follows:

“We see no objection to the method of treatment of the shaded place brought up by your reader. This would certainly be preferable to an all concrete covering over the surface of the soil occupying the tree roots.

“The crevices between the stones should be fairly effective in allowing for entrance of air and water to the tree roots and would also permit of the application of fertilizers to the tree roots by some modification of the perforation system which we recommend.

From the standpoint of the tree, it would probably not be any more harmful than a heavy covering of grass.”

Some other interesting emails we received since we started the growing grass in shade articles.

Growing Under Evergreens

“With us, the only problem we have is growing grass under evergreens. Nobody can grow grass under evergreens that grow close to the ground.

Up to the time an evergreen reaches 10 or 12 feet in height, it should be kept cultivated as far out as the branches reach, and therefore, up to that time, you have no grass problem.

“My rule has always been, never to trim an evergreen of its lower branches until forced to do it. A beautiful evergreen is one that has its branches complete, from the ground up to the tip; regardless of the height.

But when the time comes that you have to do trimming, don’t do it all at once. Begin by trimming out several rounds of the lower limbs, and let it rest for a season, then take a few more.

In fact, trim no more off the bottom in any one season than the distance the new tips will grow on the top. This prevents them from looking like a bush on the end of a pole. We reseed with a shady grass seed each year, and keep grass growing right up to the trunk on most of them.

“All evergreens will shed a lot of needles each year, and you can not grow grass in a bed of these. So, we always remove every trace of the needles each spring with a spring tooth rake or sometimes a dandelion rake will do better work.

Then we top dress the bare spots, using plenty of lawn fertilizer, and sow with the shady lawn mixture. This is work for almost every season, but the results are worth it.

We have had no trouble in growing grass under any of our trees but the evergreens and not much under these after they have been trimmed up to five feet from the ground. We find that a shady grass mixture, plus top dressing, does the trick.”

Growing With Light Sandy Soil

Then, here is a man who thinks it is easy to grow grass in the shade if he has a light sandy soil with which to work. This is in line with our previous article on of the importance of the lawn soil condition.

As pointed out then it is better to have a soil that will not puddle. Clay soils will, but sandy soils will not. This email came from Adam in Evanston, Illinois:

“Growing a lawn in the shade – I would like to give my opinion. Being in this line of business for many years, my experience is that it is fairly easy to raise a lawn in the shade in sandy soil, but very hard in soil which is mostly heavy or even clay.

The use of shady grass seed only will not make a permanent lawn. Where there is shade and sandy soil the top soil should be well fertilized every spring and fall, plenty of perennial grass seed put in with a heavy mixture of Fescue.

“Very important is, not much watering and especially not to cut the grass too closely during the summer months. Where there is heavy soil and lots of trees, etc., the best way is to put a heavy layer of sand or gravel under the surface.

There surely will be good results if the surface consists of only two or three inches of good well fertilized light top soil; and, remember, not much watering during the summer, possibly once a week will be plenty.”

From our experience we are not so sure that three inches of topsoil over a layer of sand or gravel would be sufficient. It seems to us that a minimum of six inches should be provided. Otherwise there would hardly be enough of a moisture and food retaining layer.

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