News release: Growing Grass in the Shade

Tim Baker, MU Extension Horticulture Specialist
102 N. Main, Suite 1, Gallatin, MO 64640

Release Date: May 15, 2014

Headline: Growing Grass in the Shade

One common question I frequently receive concerns how to establish and maintain a lawn in the shade.  While we like to have shade trees in the yard, it’s sometimes difficult to persuade grass that it needs to grow underneath those spreading branches.  Grass prefers to grow in full sunlight, and the reduced sunlight and the increased competition for water and nutrients makes growing a lawn under those conditions a challenge.

Before attempting to establish a lawn in the shade, its best to realistically evaluate your setting.  Some situations are ready-made for disaster.  Grasses are very difficult to establish under certain species of trees, including willow, maple, sweetgum, and beech.  Trees which have very low branches may need some pruning to allow enough light penetration for grass establishment.  Pines and other conifers may make life difficult for grass directly under their canopy.  And if you have a wooded north facing slope, you will have a difficult time with grass.

If you find yourself in this type of situation, you may want to consider an alternative to grass, such as a shade-loving ground cover or other suitable plants.  Often, a good landscaping plan using shade-loving plants will not only be easier to maintain under reduced-light conditions, but will be more attractive.

The first step, if you have chosen to plant a lawn, is to choose the type of grass to plant.  Several species are adapted to shade.  The fine fescues often do well.  Creeping red fescue is an excellent choice.  Tall fescues and perennial ryegrasses are somewhat adapted to shady conditions.  Kentucky bluegrass is the least adapted of the cool season grasses.  Warm season grasses such as Bermudagrass and zoysiagrass should be avoided.

Before planting, get a soil test to evaluate the nutrition and pH status.  Sometimes, shady areas tend to be more acidic compared to the rest of the lawn.  Thus you may need a different lime requirement there.

Cool season grasses are best established in the fall.  When doing so, try to avoid excessive nitrogen applications.  Rake the leaves right away, so that the newly established grass isn't subject to even more light stress.  When mowing, set the cutting height higher compared to non-shaded areas of your lawn.  If you don't have a weed problem in the shade, don't bother with herbicides.  And if the shaded area is in a high-traffic situation, consider putting in a walkway.  The grass will have enough trouble making it without all those feet disturbing it.

Remember that when watering shady areas, you are watering both the lawn and your trees.  Thus, there may be a greater need for water under those trees, compared to the rest of the lawn.  Don't assume this though.  Always monitor the soil moisture carefully.

If you would like more information on growing grass in shady areas, call or stop in at your local University of Missouri Extension office and ask for Guide Sheet G6725, “Grasses in Shade: Establishing and Maintaining Lawns in Low Light.”  This publication includes a list of grass species and suggested cultivars for Missouri.  It also includes recommendations on lawn mixtures for shady conditions.