Too Much Shade Means Lawn Problems

Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.  |  5/30/2006 11:31:33 PM


Get It Growing News For 06/30/06

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Shade trees often are the things people plant first in new landscapes As time goes on, however, sun-loving lawn grasses and shade trees don’t go together particularly well.

Shade trees grow up to do exactly what they were planted to do – create shade. Eventually, areas where grass has always grown well before will no longer get enough sun.

Bare areas under and around trees occur because conditions are too shady for grass to thrive there. If you are trying to deal with this sort of situation, here are some things you can do.

The amount of sunlight reaching the turf can be increased by selectively pruning trees in your landscape. The lower branches and some of the inner branches may be pruned to allow more light to reach the lawn below.

Raising and thinning the canopy on older, mature trees is best done by a professional arborist who can determine which branches should be removed without affecting the tree adversely.

After this is done, the existing grass will (hopefully) do better, or if the grass has died out in the area, you can lay new sod. But remember the tree will continue to grow, so this should be considered a temporary solution, at best.

St. Augustine is considered the most shade-tolerant grass for our area and should be tried if shade is an issue. Understand that the word tolerance does not mean that this grass thrives in the shade. All of our lawn grasses prefer full sun. It’s just that St. Augustine will do well with some shade during the day.

Rye grasses and fescues will grow quite well in shady areas during our cool season, but they must be replanted every fall, since the heat kills them by about May each year. That means during the summer areas where these cool-season grasses were growing are bare.

Grass growing in shaded areas should be mowed with your lawn mower set slightly higher than normally recommended. This allows the leaf blades to grow longer and therefore to have more surface area to absorb what light is available and produce food through photosynthesis. St. Augustine can be mowed at a height of 3 inches.

Grass growing under trees also needs less fertilizer, since it grows slower, but it may need more irrigation since the tree roots compete with the grass for water.

If after these efforts you still can’t get grass to grow under your tree, it’s time to accept the situation and stop wasting your time and money trying to make grass grow where it can’t.

Unless cutting down the tree is an option, you have two choices. Cover the area with a few inches of mulch, or look at the area as an outstanding opportunity to create a new garden with shade-loving plants. Trees love a layer of mulch over their roots, and this is the best solution as far as the tree is concerned.

The most important thing to remember when creating a landscaped area under a tree is to respect the root system of the tree itself.

Avoid severing any roots larger than 1 inch in diameter. Use a garden fork rather than a shoved or spade to turn the soil under the tree, since the fork will cut fewer roots.

If you need to bring in extra soil to create the bed, use as little as possible – preferably no more than 2 inches to 4 inches. At any rate, do not pile several inches of soil up around the base of the trunk of the tree, becauses this can lead to decay. Also, if you intend to fill over an area which will cover a large part of the tree’s root system, do not apply more than 2 inches of fill.

The simplest solution is to plant the area entirely with a low-growing ground cover. I think the three best ground covers for large areas are monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), creeping lily turf (Liriope spicata) and Asian jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum). These ground covers are reliable, easy to grow and relatively fast spreading.

Other ground covers suitable for larger areas include holly fern, autumn fern, wood fern, English ivy, Japanese ardisia, liriope (Liriope muscari), Algerian ivy and the asparagus fern (Asparagus sprengeri).

There also are many other plants that thrive in partially shaded to shady conditions.

For colorful bedding plants, try impatiens, wax begonias, caladiums and torenias.

Shade-tolerant perennials include ferns, hostas, ground orchid, strawberry begonia, indigo, ligularia, aspidistra, purple heart, ajuga, cardinal flower, Indian pinks, violets and the many gingers, to name a few.

Shrubs to consider include hollies, azaleas, nandinas, cleyera, ligustrum, aucuba, fatsia, mahonia, pittosporum, hydrangea, mahonia, red buckeye, sasanqua, camellia, Christmas berry (Ardisia crispa) and many others.

When the lawn grass finally decides that an area has become too shady for it to grow there anymore, don’t fight it. Instead, open yourself up to the wonderful possibilities of planting a beautiful and satisfying garden of shade loving plants.

Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.


Contact: Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or
Editor: Tom Merrill at (225) 578-2263 or

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