The Q&A Archives: Growing a Lawn in Shade and in Hot Sun

Question: I live in a townhouse in Maryland. My front lawn has no shade; subjected to the hot sun all day; has a lot of crab grass and weeds. The lawn in the back is subjected to a lot of shade with some. This lawn is all dirt with patches of crab grass. Pine needles from the trees are killing my lawn. How do I grow a healthy thick lawn in shade and sun? What type of grass seed do I use?

Answer: There are a couple of ways to renovate your lawn. You can rototill it up and start all over, or you can rent a core aerator and aerate your lawn, then spread some sand or compost over the area and reseed.

If you decide to redo the entire lawn, start by rototilling the area to break up the soil. Remove any debris (stones, sticks, weeds, etc.) and then spread 4-5 inches of organic matter over the area and rototill it in, then rake the area smooth. Sod produces an almost instant lawn because the grass is mature with a healthy root system. After laying the sod and watering it down well, it only takes a week or two to become firmly established. Seeding takes a little longer, but the results are eventually the same - a lush, thick, healthy lawn. If you decide to seed your lawn, choose a mixture of perennial ryegrass, creeping fescues and bluegrass. This mixture contains both cool season and warm season grasses and will ensure your lawn remains green all summer and winter long.

The second option is to aerate your existing lawn. A core aerator will remove one inch by three inch plugs from the lawn. Leave the plugs on the lawn and they will dissolve in rain or water from the sprinklers. After aerating spread a thin layer of sand or compost over the area and water it in well. The sand or compost plus the soil from the plugs will work their way down into the holes left by the plugs. You can then overseed your entire lawn.

Either approach should improve the soil beneath the lawn and help your lawn grow lush and thick, which will help crowd out any future weeds.

It is difficult to grow a thick healthy turf in the shade. While there are some shade tolerant grasses, most will need to be reseeded every few years. Fescues are the most shade tolerant grasses. An option would be an evergreen groundcover, although most will not take constant foot traffic.

Lawn establishment in a shaded site is more likely to be successful if seeded in early fall (mid-August through September). The area then has the maximum length of time with the leaves off the trees. This should allow good root development. It is extremely important to continually remove the fallen leaves. Sodding can be done at this time if the sod contains the correct species of grasses.

Once the lawn is established, mow the grass to a height of two to 3 inches. The longer leaf blade will have a larger surface to gather sunlight. This will result in a stronger plant.

Fescues, the dominant grasses in shade grass mixes, are not tolerant to high levels of nitrogen fertilizer. Therefore, apply fertilizer only once or twice a year. Limit each application to one pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. The first number of a fertilizer grade on the bag is the percent nitrogen by weight. For example, a 10-pound bag of 10-6-4 contains one pound of nitrogen.

If a once-a-year fertilizing program is chosen, apply the proper amount of fertilizer in late April or November. With the two application programs, the fertilizer should be applied in late April and early September or early September and November.

Water only when it is necessary during prolonged dry periods. Apply one-half to one inch of water, not more than once a week. Place a few cans in the sprinkler pattern to measure the water depth. To reduce disease problems, water in the early part of the day so the grass will dry before nightfall.

Good luck with your new lawns.

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