Growing Grass in the Shade
The shade of a mature tree may be the perfect respite for those looking to escape Kansas City's summer heat. But for those wanting to establish a nice stand of grass, shade can create an ongoing battle.
Growing a nice stand of grass is difficult for a number of reasons. The main problem is that the low light levels impede the plant’s ability to manufacture food for the plant to grow, or in most cases, even survive. Remember basic science — photosynthesis is the plant’s ability to use sunlight to manufacture food for growth. No matter how much water or nutrients you apply to the lawn, sunlight is necessary to drive photosynthesis. Without it the plant withers in a matter of a few months.
Overcoming the shading factor is difficult here in Kansas City. Most of the options I offer clients are not met with a resounding cheer. Here are some options to explore to see if it suits your particular situation.
The shade in most yards is the result of mature trees. The dense canopy limits sunlight penetration. One option is to raise the canopy of the tree by pruning limbs to allow more light to shine onto the turf area. This is not always practical or works. Thinning the tree canopy can provide some temporary relief, but over time the branches fill in and the grass thins or dies out. Removal of the tree is only recommended as a last resort. The tree is more valuable to the landscape than the grass.
From experience, my recommendation is to forget this option. Several shade-loving grasses are on the market and while they have very good shade tolerance, their ability to withstand heat, drought and disease are downright pathetic. These varieties include true fine fescues, creeping red fescue and a few others that will meet with failure in most yards. These grasses will require a constant, even supply of water. Even with meeting these needs, most just fade away under the summer heat.
Tall fescue has a slightly better shade tolerance than bluegrass. The warm season grasses such as zoysia and buffalo will not tolerate any shade. If you have tried tall fescue and it has failed then give up on the idea of growing grass in the shade.
The best solution is to stop fighting the shade and learn how to work around the challenge. Wall-to-wall grass is not necessary for a beautiful yard. Somewhere our culture has determined that a yard full of grass is the best way to go. Instead of planting a carpet of green how about a shade garden under the tree? Granted, more intensive planting beds are not for everyone. A garden full of hostas and other shade-loving perennials might be the perfect problem solver.
Other landscape suggestions include a patio area. With the shade providing the cooling effects, maybe a couple of benches or chairs with a table will fill the space. Add some garden art or a birdbath and you have now developed an outdoor room.
The problem with a bare yard with no grass is the muddy mess after a rain. A layer of mulch will hold the soil and provide a nice look. Mulching under large trees is one of the best ways of preserving their health. A 3 to 4 inch layer of wood chips will provide a natural look to the area and solve the dirt issues. Here again, a brown backyard does not always fit the aesthetic bill, but maybe in combination with the previous ideas it would become part of a long-term solution.
The use of a perennial ground plant is the best solution for most situations. Travel to other parts of the country where trees are abundant and most landscapes are covered with a ground cover, not turf. Our challenge is that few plants will provide a thick, dense cover for large areas.
The two most common plants used in the Kansas City area are Vinca and English ivy. Both are somewhat evergreen and vigorous spreaders, but for some they may be too rampant. Occasionally these plants show up on an invasive plants list which means they have the potential to escape to native areas, choking out the indigenous vegetation. Ground covers can be planted in the spring or fall. When spaced on 1-foot centers the plants will fill in in about a year.
While there is no perfect solution, there are creative options. Anyone blessed with shady areas in their yard will need to determine which method best solves the issue. The first step is to let go of the idea of having a lawn. Then the possibilities will become more real and palatable.