What follows is a basic guide to growing and maintaining a successful grassy lawn in shady areas. I’m going to be blunt in telling you that shade and grassy lawns do not sit well together. The combination of deep shade and new sod just do not combine well. However, I’m happy to provide some options those who choose to attempt to combine shade and a beautiful, grassy lawn. Some will say that the combination is hopeless, and it is often true that the two do not flourish together but for those of you who choose to pursue, feel free to take a look at what I’ve provided solution-wise.
First on my list of suggestions is to take a close look at your overhanging trees and decide how much trimming and pruning is feasible. Penetration of light is your main goal. As heavy as possible on the pruning is preferred, but please be careful not to compromise the shape or health of the tree. For large trees, I strongly suggest hiring a Certified Arborist (give me a shout if you need suggestions on who to hire) so as not to cause unanticipated damage to the tree. It is well worth the added expense, as you will be able to explain your goals and see end results that are contenting to you and your tree. Please keep in mind that pruning will now become an annual maintenance, as once your tree is trimmed and pruned it will need to be kept in that condition. This will help to avoid lack of proper light reaching your new sod and potentially killing your newly planted lawn. Low light equals no grass!
Secondly, you’ll need to remove any existing lawn or vegetation. I know, you’re likely groaning at the thought of clearing your property out but yes, it must be done! This can be accomplished manually with a shovel, rake or chemicals. You may decide for yourself which you are comfortable with. Personally, I prefer to limit the usage of chemicals unless absolutely necessary (see post on “Killing Poison Ivy”). If you are going the chemical route you will still need to remove dead materials before beginning to spray. I’ll advise you to spray the chemical mixture before digging, to kill vegetation. Spray the area, grub/dig up the materials and wait to see what vegetation continues to sprout. At this point, re-spray and continue this cycle until all weeds have diminished. Note that a healthy lawn that grows vigorously will prevent the re-growth of the weeds. A common and safe chemical that can be used is Round-up, available at your local garden store. For those against the usage of chemicals altogether, a method I happened upon is the purchase and laying of black plastic sheeting. After testing, I’ve learned that this is just as successful a method for you to use. Completely cover the weeds with the plastic, let it remain in place for two weeks, water the area and watch for re-growth over the next few weeks. Repeat this process until no new weed growth is noticeable and your soil appears sterile. The idea is for the plastic to starve and bake the weeds, killing them off completely.
Thirdly, you must be certain that your drainage system is working correctly. I often come across lawns with issues in shaded areas that have excess moisture present. A properly-functioning irrigation system with good drainage is a must for a shaded, lush lawn. As with the arborist, I’m happy to offer further advice related to irrigation and drainage upon your request.
The next step in your project is to lay sod. Seeding is a long process, and particularly frustrating to attempt in shaded areas. Starting a lawn from seed is an option in some cases but with shade in large amounts it is wiser to begin with sod. Trust me on this!
Sod selection depends on your location in the country. A friend of mine, (whose question prompted this post) is located in Florida so I suggested that she use Empire Zoysia or Celebration Bermuda grass. I strongly discourage the usage of Floratam and Seville in shaded areas, as both of these St. Augustine sod types do poorly in low-light. Alternative St. Augustine breeds are usable (though not highly recommended) as long as they receive four or more hours of direct sunlight daily. For those living further north, a strain of creeping red fescue is advisable rather than Kentucky Bluegrass. Remember, the more direct light, the better!
Here are just a few more tips for the maintaining of your lawn in shady spots:
- When cutting your lawn, keep the areas in shade higher than you would traditionally. When more leaf surface is left, more sunlight can be absorbed.
- Irrigate less than in direct-sun areas, as less water will be evaporated in the shaded areas. As well, you’ll need to use less fertilizer because the lawn will grow more slowly than in your direct-sun areas.
- Be certain to remove fallen leaves and debris quickly, as any vegetation of this sort will block penetrating sunlight. I also recommend an annual over-seeding with your sod type.
Growing a lawn on shaded acreage is not a simple task. However, once the decision is made to pursue this project, if a wholehearted attempt is given it can be accomplished. More sunlight is the key to a healthy lawn with shade trees present. As well, note that there are several attractive and usable groundcovers out there that will do quite well in heavy shade. Hope you enjoyed, again please do not hesitate to ask questions or provide responses with personal experiences!
I truly hope this helps, Cheri.