Will grass grow in my shady lawn?

Grasses need eight or more hours of full sunlight a day. If you’re struggling to grow grass even after water and fertilizing, a shady lawn may be the problem.

A mixed forest with about all the grass it can grow. Photo by Oliver Herold, Wikimedia Commons.
A mixed forest with about all the grass it can grow. Photo by Oliver Herold, Wikimedia Commons.

Every spring, many lawn-owners are frustrated they cannot grow beautiful grass even after fertilizing, watering and much fussing. They’ll often call the Michigan State University Extension garden hotline for help and when asked, the lawn-owner indicates there is some shade but not much. However, some shade identified by the lawn-owner may be more shade than their grass can handle.

Grass sees itself as a prairie plant. It wants sun from the time it peeks up over the eastern horizon until it drops into the west at the end of the day. This is full-on, blistering sun with no obstacles blocking the light. This is not partial or dappled sun, or full sun for part of the day and shade the other part.

Grass is a simple plant with simple needs. It can put up with a wider range of soil pH’s than almost every other yard plant. Water, either rain or from your hose, should be divided into two or three applications (or rains) per week to keep it growing. One inch of water total per week is usually plenty for most lawns. For optimum health, mow grass to a height of 3-3.5 inches. The grass blades will use photosynthesis to make food for themselves.

Where grass exhibits its diva side is with sunlight. Grass receiving eight or more hours of full sunlight a day usually looks good unless there are other problems. If the grass is getting six hours of full sun, the quality is diminishing. If the lawn has four or less hours of direct sunlight, the grass will “leave the building with Elvis” and simply not grow. With empty areas appearing where grass used to be, weeds and mosses move in. Moss is Mother Nature’s answer to a deep shade ground cover Band-Aid.

Michigan lawns are usually made up of bluegrass, fescue and rye grasses. Bluegrass is the most demanding when talking about sunlight, fertilizer and water. The only grass that is considered shade-tolerant is fine fescue – that does not mean shade-loving. Fine fescue has narrow blades and will never become the velvet carpet that many people crave. If there is too much shade, consider increasing the size of planting beds to include truly shade-loving plants like ferns, Hostas and dozens more.

For more information on getting the most of your shady yard, check out the Smart Gardening tip sheet on “Shady lawn alternatives.”

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