How to Grow Grass in Shaded Gardens
Easily grow the perfect lawn in shaded areas of your garden in 10 steps
10 STEPS TO GROWING THE PERFECT LAWN IN SHADE
By the team at DIY gardening
An English garden just wouldn’t be English if it didn’t contain a near-perfect green lawn, preferably with stripes!
While grass does need a good dose of light to encourage growth, it is possible to grow a decent lawn in shaded areas, you just need the know-how.
There are also a few compromises you’ll need to make if you want to achieve that lush green lawn.
Don’t worry though, all you need to do is read our easy-to-follow 10-step guide to growing a lawn in shade.
Step 1) Increase Natural Light into 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 with a crown reduction, prune hedges, shrubs and other plant life to allow more light into the shady parts of the garden.
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).
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.
The bad news for those of you with shaded gardens is the type of grass seed that copes well with shade doesn’t withstand wear and tear so well, much less than regular grass you’ll find.
If you’ve chosen a good quality grass seed that’s recommended for shaded areas (see below for suggestions) you’ll need to minimise the foot traffic on the lawn.
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.
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 so this means turning 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, Japenese Knotweed 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 prior to 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.
A light, airy and nutritious soil is best for grass to grow in a shaded garden.
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, we should take the extra step of adding granular lawn feed fertilisers.
Granular fertilisers are preferable as they’ll release the nutrients slowly over many months.
Just rake the granules into the topsoil a few days prior to laying the seed/turf.
We 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 doesn’t wash away easily and most lawns only require an occasional top-up.
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, the best grass mixture for shaded gardens contains red fescues, creeping red fescues, bentgrass, smooth stalked meadow grass and perennial ryegrass. These grasses are tolerant of part-shaded areas and some cope very well in fully shaded areas too.
Our advice, based on years of experience, is to buy two different packs of shaded grass seed and mix them together. You should avoid relying on just one product, especially if it contains only one or two species of 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.
The problem with laying seed/turf in the spring is the risk of the ground drying out before the grass is established.
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 requires to grow.
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.
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.
A hosepipe with a fine sprayer is the best tool for the job.
You’ll find lawns that are laid in the springtime require more watering 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 are likely to grow on any bare patches of soil until the lawn is fully established.
If you’re attempting to grow grass seed in a shady garden, it may take longer to establish and weed infestation can occur.
During late autumn and winter, damp and shaded gardens may also be susceptible to moss growth.
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, we’ve found they won’t damage lawns only 2 months old).
Resolva is the best spot treatment weed killer we’ve found for lawns (you can buy from here).
It takes about 2-3 weeks for the chemical to work during which time the weeds may experience an increase in growth before dying off. This is due to the unique nature of the chemicals involved – they increase the growth rate until it’s unsustainable, the weed then wilts and dies.
Resolva is a specific rather than a general weedkiller, it targets only broadleaf weeds.
Expect this weed killer to work on dandelions, daisies, white clover, yarrow, buttercups, self heal, deadnettle, speedwell and broad-leaved docks.
You can apply this type of weedkiller up to 3 times per year.
Moss can be more difficult to remove, while chemicals can eradicate it in the short term, increasing soil aeration, drainage and sunlight are the only long term solutions. You may need to scarify, overdress and re-seed some mossy parts of the lawn on a yearly basis.
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.
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 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, we suggest you avoid aggressive cutting which would remove the grass blades needed for photosynthesis.
We 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.
Obviously, 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.
Soil Home Testing
This home soil testing kit contains over 350 tests, so you can quickly get actionable results for Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous as well as the soil’s PH level. No waiting for external sample analysis, get the results at home in a matter of minutes.
This type of testing is the key to growing the perfect lawn, plants and/or vegetables.
Shade Tolerant Seeds
Graminex shade-tolerant grass seeds contain a mixture of six different grass species. This pack is created specifically for shaded garden areas and the broad mix of grass seeds creates the perfect balance for optimal growth, colour and hardiness.
With Graminex, there is no need to buy different seed packs to guarantee germination.
Lawn Aeration Shoes
Advertised as a cheap and easy way to aerate the soil under the lawn, these shoes have mixed reviews on Amazon and other online retailers, so we tested them. Lawn aeration is a great way to loosen up a compacted ground, but do lawn shoes work?
Head over to our blog and see what we think of lawn shoes and a few alternatives.
Our Favourite Mower
This is our favourite mower for large areas; it’s petrol-powered, comes with a mulching bag and most importantly has six cutting heights from 25mm up to 75mm. This makes the Hyundai mower perfect for lawns in large shaded gardens.
This self-propelled petrol mower makes cutting grass easy with reduced effort.
Organic Lawn Fertiliser
This is our favourite lawn fertiliser as it ticks so many boxes for us. It’s organic, pet safe, won’t stain patios, contains high levels of potassium and includes bacteria that breaks down moss and excess dead thatch in your lawn bed.
We think this is by far the best fertiliser available for grass lawns in shaded gardens.
General Lawn Fertiliser
Westland’s Growmore Garden Fertiliser is a general fertiliser comprising 7% Nitrogen, 7% Phosphorous and 7% Potassium. This fertiliser is perfect for preparing the soil near tree and shrub roots where there is competition for both water and nutrients.
Use slow-release granules like this when preparing the soil prior to laying seed or turf.
The lawn Guide Book
Our favourite book: The Lawn Guide by Sharples and Hayman is a great read, learn how to prepare a garden for laying turf or seed. Where this book truly excels is in its lawn maintenance advice and tips which are extremely detailed and second to none.
Want to know how to grown the perfect lawn in any condition? This is the the book for you.
Seaweed Lawn Tonic
Concentrated seaweed extract is an excellent natural and organic pet safe lawn feed. This product encourages root growth, strong plant stems and bright colourful flowering of plants, it can also be used on lawns throughout the growing season.
100% organic and pet safe, this is a realistic alternative to chemical-rich fertilisers.
Can I Really Grow Grass in a Shady Garden?
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 shade.
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.
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.
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. Spring is also a good time to apply lawn fertilisers.
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