The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Shady lawns can be a growing challenge

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Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Lawn under a shade tree reminds me of a baby bird -- mostly bald and not too beautiful. A popular question at our Extension office is, "How can I get grass to grow under my trees?" That's like asking, "How can I look like the model in the magazine?" Neither have much to do with reality.

First evaluate the amount of shade present. Does the area catch any full sun? Is it a dappled shade under a honey locust tree? Or is it the deep, dark and dry shade cast by a maple tree? Even shade-tolerant grasses need about 4 hours of sunlight. If reasonable, work with a certified arborist to determine if the trees may be limbed higher or selective branches may be removed to allow more light to penetrate.

Also evaluate the soil. Is it compacted, too wet or too dry? If it is compacted, core aerification can be done now. A thin layer of compost may be added to improve the soil, but do not add more than an inch. Turf grass grows best between 6.0 and 7.0 pH; therefore, do not add lime to increase soil pH unless a soil test reveals pH below 6.0.

Shady lawns are best established August 15 through September 15 using seed rather than sod unless the sod was produced for shade. When seeding areas, choose a shade-tolerant grass mixture of several species and cultivars, generally fescues and shade tolerant Kentucky bluegrass. Chewings fescue, creeping red fescue, and hard fescue are the primary lawn species for shade.

Cultivars are always changing but among the more commonly used cultivars of fine fescues are Bridgeport, Brittany, Eco, Jamestown II, Medina, Sandpiper, Shadow II, Tiffany, Victory (all chewings fescues); Dawson, Flyer II, Seabreeze (creeping red fescues); and Nordic and Reliant (hard fescues).

Perennial ryegrass and tall fescue offer intermediate shade tolerance. Perennial ryegrass cultivars for shade include Birdie II, Citation II, Manhatten II, and Palmer. Tall fescues best for shade include Falcon, Finelawn, Houndog, Jaguar, Olympic, Rebel, and Rebel II. Kentucky bluegrass generally does poorly in shade, but some of the more shade tolerant cultivars include Bensun, Eclipse, Glade, Nugget, Touchdown, and Victa.

Shady lawn management requires different management strategies than lawns in full sun including:

§ Mow higher (near 3 inches).

§ Fertilize less in the shade. About 1 to 2 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per growing season as opposed to 3-4 pounds suggested for sunny lawns. Fertilization should be split among a couple applications.

§ If fertilizing only once, the best time is the first week of September.

§ Water shade lawns as infrequently as possible and water deeply.

§ Reduce traffic. Lawns in shade do not have the ability to tolerate or recover from stress. Consider patios or walkways if the area has constant traffic.

Shade lawns often have problems with moss or shade-loving weeds such as ground ivy --also called creeping Charlie and a few other names I can't repeat. Despite the way it appears, the weeds or moss are not likely killing the grass. The weeds are taking advantage of bare soil areas created by poor grass growth.

If you have done everything right and the grass still won't grow in the shade, then it's time for a reality check. Many perennial groundcovers such as ajuga, sweet woodruff or pachysandra grow well in shade. Add some attractive perennials such as ferns, hostas or woodland flowers and quickly your baby bird landscape grows into an eagle's landing.

Ready to throw in the trowel on growing grass in the shade? Check out 2016 Midwest Regional Hosta Convention at Hawthorne Suites in Champaign, Illinois, July 7-9 hosted by The Illinois Prairie Hosta Society. Five speakers (including me) and local tours. For more information

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