Growing Grass in the Shade

Can you picture the perfect yard in your mind?   Beautiful stately trees, trimmed out by deep chocolate colored mulch, all being surrounded by thick, luscious, dark green grass.  Perhaps even a hammock strung between two trees. Sounds beautiful right? I agree, but when trying to achieve growing thick grass in shady conditions, there are a few key elements to consider, which can have a significant impact on the ultimate success or failure of your efforts.

Lawn Plan

Evaluate the Sunlight

There is no magic shade seed. Grass needs sunlight to grow, typically 3-4 hours of direct sun or 4-6 hours of dappled sunlight per day.  Even shade grasses will need some sun, so understanding what an area is receiving for sunlight is important. Before implementing some of the other techniques detailed below, pick a sunny day to monitor the area and get an idea of just how much sunlight, and what type, it’s receiving.  Knowing the ultimate amount of sun an area receives will help avoid frustration and wasted effort. You may ultimately find that the area is just not a good fit for grass.

Type of Grass

There are a multitude of grass seed options available for all types of locations and environments.  Depending on where you live and how much sunlight you’ve determined the area receives on a given day, will dictate the type of grass that gives you the best chance for success. For the North or cool-season grasses, ryegrass, and fine and tall fescues tend to be the most shade tolerant.  For the South or warm season grasses, Zoysia and St. Augustine tend to perform better. A good seed blend should include a mixture of different shade tolerant grasses, this way if one grass type fails to succeed another will take its place. Finally, spend a little extra for quality grass seed, it is worth the extra expense and ultimately performs better, which saves you overall.  


Sometimes an area just needs a little extra sunlight that a good pruning can offer. Removing lower limbs, or raising the canopy, allows early morning and late afternoon sunlight to get to the grass.  Pruning interior branches opens up the tree canopy and permits dappled sunlight to reach the ground beneath. Either pruning option may be just what is needed to allow that extra bit of sunlight in for grass to grow.  

The type of trees creating shade also plays a part in how well grass ultimately grows.  Maples typically have dense canopies and shallow roots that create sub optimal grass growing conditions.  Dogwoods, Oaks, and Pines are also tough on grass as well. However, locust, sycamore, ornamental crabapples, and elms are great hosts to luscious lawns below.  


Of course watering is still necessary even in the shade, but not at the same levels for the rest of the lawn.  If the shade is caused by a building then watering less frequently is necessary. However if the shade is due to trees, extra water may be required due to the tree roots absorbing available moisture, or the rainfall may not be reaching the ground due to a thick canopy above.  Overall keep an eye on the dampness of the area, as continually wet conditions can cause diseases and inhibit growing grass.


Typically shade tolerant grass needs less fertilizer than the rest of your lawn. It is still imprint to apply fertilizer on the same schedule as the rest of the lawn, so simply adjust the amount.  A good rule is shade areas need only 1/2 the amount of nitrogen compared to sunny areas. Weeds typically aren’t as big a problem in shade, so limit herbicides to these areas only when needed.

Minimize Stress

Try to limit traffic on the area and vary the direction you mow, both of which helps reduce the overall stress on the grass at any one time.  Also, keeping shady area grasses 1/2 to 1 inch taller than sunny parts allows each blade that much more surface area to conduct photosynthesis, which in turn fuels growth and greater resiliency.

Even after following all of the recommendations above, you may be faced with an area that is just not hospitable to grass.  In those instances, to save your time, budget, and your sanity, consider planting shade loving ground covers, or creating an oasis of some kind with pavers, benches, stones, shade loving plants etc.  As welcoming as shady grass is under a big tree, sometimes mother nature has other plans.

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