My Experience of Growing Grass in Shaded Gardens

Written by Daniel Woodley. Reviewed by Elizabeth Smith. Published to Lawn Care on 26th December 2019. Updated: 21st February 2023.

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An English garden just wouldn’t be English if it didn’t contain a near-perfect green lawn, preferably with stripes!

At my previous property, I spent a lot of time and effort achieving a perfect lawn in what was, a very shaded garden.

Yes, it can be done. My lawn looked lovely, it was green, lush and dense but based on my experience, you’ll need to make a few compromises as you might not be able to use the lawn in the same way you do now.

Get started by following my 10-step guide to growing a lawn in shade.

Step 1) Increase Natural Light in the Shaded Garden

Did you know most lawn grasses require a minimum of between 4 and 6 hours of light per day to grow and flourish?

Before sowing your grass seed, laying turf or even attempting to rejuvenate an existing lawn, you should make every effort to increase the amount of light, both direct and indirect, that reaches the garden.

Certain trees block more light than others, for example; Oak, Dogwoods and some hard Maples offer thick light-blocking coverage. Elms, Sycamore and Pear trees produce a thinner, more sparse cover that allows dappled light to penetrate through to the ground.

Where possible, cut back tree branches, prune hedges, shrubs and other plant life to allow more light into the shady parts of the garden.

I know from experience that even a small dose of extra sunlight can make a big difference.

Also, if you’re redesigning the entire garden, consider replacing solid fence panels with a part fence/part trellis combination, this allows more light into the shaded garden (see photo below).

Crown reduced tree

A Eucalyptus tree with its crown reduced by two metres to increase light penetration. (Image by Benton Tree Surgery)

A trellis-topped timber fence allows more natural light to reach down to the ground

Step 2) Design Your Garden to Minimise Foot Traffic

Excessive wear and tear causes stress on the grass and is the number one cause of bare patches, ahead of pet urine and even shade.

Through trial and error and years of testing, I’ve learnt that grass species that cope well with shade, usually struggle with wear and tear.

The way I see it, you have several options:

1) Create a path or lay stepping stones so you can walk to washing lines, sheds and gates without having to tread on the grass itself.

2) Partition off children’s play areas, so they are separate from the lawn.

3) Create separate areas for dogs to go to the toilet, dogs can easily be taught where to go and where not go to the loo.

In short; if you have a very shaded garden, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to use the lawn in a practical way as kids, dogs and foot traffic in general, will damage it and there won’t be enough sunlight for it to repair itself.

I experienced this with my lawn – when I stayed off it, I managed to grow it thick, green and lush but when I started walking on it, it was near impossible to repair the damage.

Step 3) Soil Preparation For Growing Grass in Shaded Areas

Soil preparation is an important step when laying a new lawn, even more so if your garden is shaded and receives very little light.

Make sure your soil’s condition is optimal for growth.

Grass thrives in light, nutritious but well-aerated soil. In my garden, I turned the soil over to a depth of around 15cm.

If your soil is of the heavy and clay-based variety, add some sharp sand, well-rotted manure and coarse compost to boost the nutrient value and aeration.

If your soil is overly sandy, just add well-rotted leaves, fine manure and fine compost.

The top 15 cm of soil should be fine, light, well-aerated and workable.

Pre-treat the soil with a general non-specific weedkiller if your garden was overrun with nettles, bracken, weeds and other unwanted plants. Ideally, this should be done when pollinators such as bees aren’t active, but you can cover the the soil with a tarpaulin if feasible.

If the soil contains wooded plants or weeds that are tough to remove such as brambles, bracken or elder, try removing as much as you can and then use Glyphosate, which is a general non-specific weed and root killer.

This will kill everything, including grass so should only be used two to three weeks before laying the seed/turf, by which time the chemical will have broken down to a harmless level.

After weeding, turning and treating the soil, it’s usually a good idea to leave it for around 10 days before sowing the seed or laying the turf. This allows the soil to settle and you’ll be able to dig out any nasty persistent weeds that didn’t respond to the weed killer treatment.

Based on my experience, I think you’ll get better results if you spend the time preparing the ground properly before laying the turf or sowing the weed.

Perfect soil for grass

A light, airy and nutritious soil is best for grass to grow in a shaded garden.

Weedol

Weedol Glyphosate can be used to prepare the ground by killing weeds and roots but should never be used on established lawns. Use when pollinators such as bees aren’t active or cover with a tarpaulin.

Step 4) Add Lawn Granular Fertiliser

Although a lawn fertiliser is optional, given that the seeds/turf will be growing in an area with limited sunlight, I recommend adding granular lawn feed fertilisers.

Granular fertilisers are preferable as they release the nutrients slowly over many months. 

Just rake the granules into the topsoil a few days before laying the seed/turf.

I recommend a fertiliser that is high in potassium, as this nutrient will benefit grass grown in shaded areas the most.

If you’re using a granular fertiliser that also contains nitrogen and phosphorus, be aware that while a little extra potassium can be a good thing, too much nitrogen/phosphorus can damage the lawns in shaded areas.

Nitrogen, in particular, encourages top growth and colour, but often at the expense of root growth. 

While phosphorus can help with the early growth of newly laid lawns, it doesn’t need to be applied frequently as it persists in the soil.

Step 5) Choose the Best Grass Seeds for Shaded Gardens

Grass requires a minimum of between 4 and 6 hours of daily light to encourage growth, however not all grass varieties are the same.

Some varieties can thrive with around 4 hours, while others require 6 hours of daily sunshine.

Some require direct or dappled sunshine, while others require only indirect light.

Which grass variety is best for your lawn will depend on where you live in the world and the climate.

For those of you in the United Kingdom, I feel the best grass mixture for shaded gardens should contain:

  • Red fescues.
  • Creeping red fescues.
  • Bentgrass.
  • Smooth stalked meadow grass.
  • Perennial ryegrass.

From my research and based on my experience, I’m confident that these grasses are tolerant of shade and part shade.

When I chose my grass seed, I purchased packs from different suppliers and mixed the seeds together. If one batch failed to germinate or performed poorly, there would be a good chance the other would get the job done.

Groundmaster grass seed

Step 6) Laying The Lawn – Timing

Whether you choose to lay turf or seed, the best time to lay a lawn in a shaded area is in mid-autumn and this is when I laid mine.

The problem with laying seed/turf in the spring is the risk of the ground drying out before the grass is established.

Sure, you can go ahead and lay your lawn in the spring but you’ll need to keep the grass well-watered all the way through to the summer. This could mean daily watering for up to three months if there’s little rain.

Remember; with little direct sunlight in your shady garden, it’s vital that you optimise all the other key ingredients that your grass needs.

Water is essential and sowing or laying a lawn in a shaded area with insufficient water is likely to lead to failure of the lawn.

There are two ways to sow grass seed – either sprinkle on top of loosely raked soil and tread in with flat shoes or sow the seeds and rake over around 1cm of topsoil – either method will work provided the soil has been turned over to a depth of 15cm and levelled.

If you have a small garden, cover the area with a mesh to prevent birds from stealing the seeds, otherwise increase the amount of seed you use by one-third.

Grass close up

Step 7) How Often Should a New Lawn in a Shady Garden be Watered?

After laying turf or seed the garden should be watered every evening. The amount of water required will depend on how dry the soil gets during the day.

As a general rule of thumb; one heavy watering in the evening is better than lots of light watering during the daytime.

If you water during the daytime, much of the water will evaporate, while in the evening, much more of the moisture will be retained by the soil.

You should thoroughly soak the soil but avoid pooling on the surface as the seeds may get washed away.

For small gardens, I’ve found that a hosepipe with a fine sprayer is the best tool for the job.

I’ve had issues with sprinkler systems in the past, as the water pools in some areas and washes the seeds away so I don’t recommend using them until the lawn is more established.

You’ll find lawns that are laid in the springtime require more watering (and more risk of the seeds washing away) than those laid in the autumn, hence why most experts suggest sowing seed and laying turf in the autumn if possible.

Step 8) Spot Treat Lawn Weeds/Moss Removal

Weeds and moss are likely to grow on any bare patches of soil until the lawn is fully established and if left unchecked, they could smother out the grass.

I’ve found the best way to get rid of lawn moss is to use one of two products, either iron sulphate or moss bacteria.

While general non-specific lawn weedkillers shouldn’t be used on new lawns until at least 6 months have passed, weed-specific spot treatments can be used on lawns only a few months old (even though the labels suggest waiting 6 months, I’ve found they don’t damage new lawns).

I’ve used Resolva to spot-treat weeds, and it worked fine (you can buy from here).

Resolva is a specific rather than a general weedkiller, it targets only broadleaf weeds.

I used this weed killer to successfully treat dandelions, daisies, white clover, yarrow, buttercups, self-heal, deadnettle, speedwell and broad-leaved docks.

I’ve applied weedkillers like this up to 3 times per year without any problems.

Step 9) Fertilise and Feed (With Care)

One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is to use excessive levels of fertiliser to compensate for the lack of sunlight in a shaded garden.

If the biggest issue your garden faces is a lack of sunlight, fertiliser won’t compensate for this and you could end up doing more harm than good.

Nitrogen turns the grass a lush green colour but can reduce the grasses ability to fight diseases and cope with draughts, extreme temperature and foot traffic damage.

Phosphorous helps with early root development but in excessive quantities can reduce the grass’s ability to absorb other nutrients, including zinc and iron. Phosphorous also lingers for a long time and isn’t washed away with rain.

Potassium increases the strength of the grass cell walls and helps the grass to withstand drought, heat and cold conditions.

Most lawns can cope well with an over-application of potassium, a salt burn is the biggest risk but is usually rare.

The Royal Horticultural Society recommends a fertiliser higher in potassium for lawns in a shaded garden.

If you have trees or shrubs with shallow roots nearby, your grass will be competing for water and nutrients so consider a general all-in-one lawn fertiliser for these parts of the lawn.

As a general rule of thumb; only apply fertiliser when the lawn isn’t stressed due to excessive foot traffic or drought. Apply the fertiliser when the weather is optimal – overcast with light rain forecast is the best time to apply it.

The only way to tell if your soil is deficient in nutrients is to have the soil professionally tested.

The Royal Horticultural Society offers a soil testing service for around £30. You send in a sample of your soil and you get a detailed report and customised fertiliser recommendations in return within a week or so.

More information about RHS’s soil analysis service can be found here.

Soil testing kits can be purchased online but they lack the detailed report and recommendations offered by professional soil analysis service providers.

Step 10) Cutting Frequency and Height

As you probably already know, photosynthesis is the process where plants use the sun’s energy to create chemical energy. This allows the plant to grow and flourish.

To capture the sunlight, grass blades need to be long enough to capture the light.

If you cut or strim the grass too short, you’ll find the grass has too little surface area exposed to the sunlight.

With less exposure, photosynthesis and growth is reduced.

In a nutshell; if you’re trying to grow grass in a shaded area you’ll need to maximise the levels of photosynthesis by leaving the grass slightly longer. 

The Royal Horticultural Society recommends for shaded lawns, you should keep the grass no shorter than 6cm (2.5inch) and preferably between 7.5cm and 9cm (3 /3.5inch).

Also, as the green tips of the grass blade are the most active in photosynthesis, you should therefore never cut more than 25% of the grass blade in one go. 

If you want to grow grass in a shaded garden, I suggest you avoid aggressive cutting which would remove the grass blades needed for photosynthesis.

I think you should aim to keep the grass between 5cm and 9cm during the growing season which is still quite tall compared how low many gardeners cut their grass.

Also, a sharp mower blade will cut the grass neatly while a blunt blade will tear and pull the grass, leading to lawn stress and damage. 

So check your mower blade and replace or sharpen as required.

Our cylinder mower

FAQs:

Can I Really Grow Grass in a Shady Garden?

Yes, I have done it, but the lawn required regular maintenance.

Most grasses require a certain amount of light to grow and spread. By choosing shade-tolerant grass seed, increasing the amount of light coming into a garden and following best practices, most gardeners can grow grass lawns, even in the shade.

However, based on my experience, lawns grown in the shade do not tolerate wear and tear or foot traffic very well.

Also, they are more likely to see moss growth which can spread quickly.

What is the Best Grass Cutting Height?

To increase photosynthesis, the grass should not be cut any lower than 6cm, with the ideal cutting height between 7.5cm and 9cm. Any shorter and the grass blades will be so short that photosynthesis and growth will be limited.

I have witnessed this first-hand when I kept my lawn grass long, but I cut it twice a week; it looked lush and healthy. However, when I cut it low, it really struggled to recover and lost some of its green colour.

In short; increase the grass length to maximise photosynthesis – something that grass in shaded gardens lack.

What Are the Best Grass Seeds For Shady Lawn Areas?

To guarantee fertilisation and good growth in gardens, choose a mixture of several kinds of grass, rather than relying on just one type. Fescues such as Tall Fescue and Creeping Red Fescue perform well in shade. Add companion grasses such as Perennial Rye Grass or Bentgrass for diversity.

If I Can't Get Grass Seed to Grow Should I Try Turf?

If you can’t get grass seed to grow well in shade, turf won’t perform any better. Grass grown from seed or turf require good soil nutrient levels, sunlight and appropriate amounts of water. Turf laid into a garden with poor growing conditions may perform well for the first few weeks but will gradually thin out.

I witnessed this first-hand as my previous neighbour has issues growing seeds in his shaded garden so he turfed it.

Within three months, the turf was thinning out and looked very similar o how the lawn was before.

In short; grass and turf are the same both require some sunlight, water and fertiliser to thrive.

Which Fertiliser is Best For Grass in Shaded Gardens?

Excessive amounts of lawn fertiliser should be avoided, it won’t compensate for a lack of sunlight. The best lawn fertiliser for shady grass is high in Potassium and the best time to apply it is in autumn and spring.

Meet The Author: Daniel Woodley

Daniel has over 18 years of experience in the construction, home improvement, and landscape garden industries.

He previously worked as a project manager and has experience in managing teams of tradespeople and landscape gardeners on both small and medium sized projects.

Daniel is also a keen gardener and enjoys growing unusual plants and tending to his lawn.

More About Daniel Woodley.

Daniel Woodley

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This guide was reviewed and fact-checked by Elizabeth Smith.

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This guide to growing grass in a shaded garden was published at DIY Gardening

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