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Growing Grass Under Trees or in the Shade


One of the most common concerns with a lawn is growing and/or maintaining grass in shady conditions. When customers ask us why the grass under a tree is dying, most often, shade is the answer. Thin or no grass under shade trees is a common problem – but what is shade exactly and could there be more to the story?

Will Grass Grow Without Sunlight?

Most lawn grasses need between 2 to 4 hours of direct sun light or 3 to 6 hours of “filtered” sunlight to prosper.  Sunlight is needed for the plant (grass) to produce its food.  Without adequate sunlight, photosynthesis (food making process) cannot take place. Without food the plant cannot sustain itself and declines.

What Else Does Grass Need in Shady Areas?

Lawn grass also needs nutrients and water to complete the food-making process. When the ground begins to dry out, you will often see the grass under the trees turning brown – but the grass away from the tree is still green.

Besides the shade – water and nutrients can be a problem. These other elements must also be available in the right amounts, so the food-making process can be successful.

There is only so much water and nutrients available in the soil and, the tree is always going to win that battle. A healthy, large tree has a tremendously large root system. The roots spread out further and deeper than the grass roots.

All three, sunlight, water, and correct nutrients, must be available or the process stops and the grass plants decline. This process must go on continuously as the plant is using the food storage to produce enough energy to grow through mowing, drought, wear and tear, let alone natural pests and disease. It’s a very tricky balance to keep the grass population healthy and surviving.

The environment under a tree or in any substantial shade eliminates the sunlight part of the equation, but also affects the other two components.

How to Grow Grass Under a Tree

The large tree(s) that are causing your shady environment have needs of their own. In addition to sunlight, these trees need to take up large amounts of water and nutrients to survive throughout the growing-season. Trees use the same food producing processes as the grass – but on a much larger scale.  These plants are in direct competition to the grass trying to grow underneath.  Both the landscape material and trees must be managed to help the turf survive.  This may mean extra watering in times of drought, additional fertilization and soil amendments for the larger plants and trees, and proper pruning to help more sunlight reach the grass.

There are some other factors affecting grass growth in the shade.  Sometimes the soil itself may not be suitable for grass growth. There could be a soil-compaction problem caused by the tree removing so much moisture from the soil that the top few inches become hard for seed to penetrate.

There could also be a soil chemistry problem, pH (the level of acidity in the soil), caused by the tree shedding leaves or other organic matter adding to the acidity of the top few inches of soil. Acidic soil can promote the growth of moss, which thrives in an acid soil, creating more competition for the already struggling grass plants.

Correcting these factors as much as possible will certainly help the grass plants survive, however, they may never be a lush as the grass plants growing in full sun.

What Grass will Grow Under a Tree?

Finally, there are grass types and varieties that are more tolerant of shady conditions, however, as discussed above there are numerous other factors to consider when trying to get grass to grow in a very shady condition.  Controlling all the growth conditions is essential or otherwise it’s going to be a futile effort.  There may come a time when one just has to come to the realization that grass will not grow there and another type of ground cover or mulch maybe the answer.



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