Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
May, 2005
Regional Report

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A little judicious pruning can help brighten a shady area enough to give turf a chance to thrive.

Turf Tips for Shady Spots

Here in the south we really appreciate a little shade in the landscape, especially when summer rolls around. But we also appreciate a nice lawn. Turf and trees tolerate each other at best. Warm-season turf species need at least some sunlight for best results. Less sun means a progressively thinner, weaker stand of grass.

In a landscape filled with trees, the light intensity the grass receives is decreased a little each year as the trees grow larger and denser. So, don't be surprised if an area where grass once thrived begins to decline over the years.

Lawn grasses differ in their tolerance of shady conditions. St. Augustine is the most shade-tolerant of our southern lawn grasses. If a spot is too shady for St. Augustine, it is too shady for any warm-season lawn grass. A close second is zoysia. Bermuda and buffalo are the least shade-tolerant of our turf species.

Once a lawn begins to thin out from lack of sunlight, other complications will likely arise. Soil compaction from foot traffic increases, thus reducing water infiltration, aeration, and root growth. Weeds often become a problem in these spots, further stressing the remaining grass.

Compensating for Shade
If you have a shady spot, there are several steps to take in order to improve your lawn:

1) Consider having some tree limbs in the upper canopy removed to allow more light through. Remove some low-hanging limbs, as well, to allow reflected light in from the sides. In many cases this will solve the problem while still providing us a little break from the sun.

2) Avoid compacting the soil. Reroute foot traffic until the area fills in. Severely compacted soils may benefit from mechanical aeration by a lawn care professional.

3) Speed reestablishment by spot planting plugs or sod strips in bare areas.

4) Set your mower higher for shady spots. The leaf blades of the grass are its solar panels. More leaf area enables them to catch more light to support new growth. Plus, it makes thin areas look thicker.

5) Avoid the temptation to overfertilize or overwater. You can't make up for a lack of light with an excess of nutrients or water. In fact, heavily shaded areas need only one-half to two-thirds as much water and fertilizer. Overfertilizing and overwatering can result in increased disease problems, not to mentioned pollution of surface and ground water.

Of course these tips, although helpful, will not guarantee a lush lawn in deep shade. Some spots are just too shady to grow grass! Shady spots may be better suited to appropriate shrubs, perennials, annuals, or ground covers. With a little planning and creative design, these areas can become a beautiful addition to the landscape.

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