Tips for Growing Grass in Shady Areas

Forest area with grass covered in leaves and shaded by trees

A shaded part of your lawn should be perfect for relaxing on hot summer days, but it’s an eyesore when the grass is patchy, discolored, or dead. High levels of shade stunt root growth, weaken shoots and leave your grass vulnerable to diseases and pests. 

Luckily, there are hardy, shade-tolerant grasses ready to save your lawn from the shadows, and we have tips to help them thrive. 

To get your shady lawn lush and green, let’s go through the most shade-tolerant grasses for your region and how to grow them. 

The problem with shade

pathway passing by a tree casting shade on the ground
Albrecht Fietz | Pixabay

Shady areas make it difficult for grass to photosynthesize and grow strong, deep roots. In shade, grasses struggle to get adequate amounts of water, fertile soil, and, of course, sun. 

Growing grass under a tree canopy, next to a north-facing wall, or in the shadow of a building can leave your lawn bare or a sickly shade of brown. 

When sunlight is scarce, either due to tree coverage or buildings, grass will stretch toward the light, becoming thin and weak in the process.

When grass is shaded by trees and bushes, it’s especially difficult for grass to get the water and nutrients it needs. Its tiny roots must compete with much larger ones for photosynthetic resources. 

By overseeding your lawn with shade-tolerant seed and maintaining it with shade-friendly practices, you can conquer the dark side of your yard. 

Choosing grass seed based on your region

Where you live determines what type of grass will thrive in your yard. When choosing a shade-tolerant seed blend, it’s important to know your region, as this determines whether you need a cool-season or warm-season variety. 

illustration showing the cool and warm season grasses on the US map, along with the transitional zone

Cool-season grasses

If you live in the North or Midwest, plant cool-season grass. Cool-season grasses thrive in areas with warm summers and cold winters, growing rapidly in spring and fall and going dormant (turning yellow or brown) in the summer heat. They can be found in the upper two-thirds of the U.S. 

The best cool-season grasses for shady areas are: 

  • Fescues: With narrow leaves and an emerald color, fescues are popular for their rapid growth, hardiness, and drought resistance. Fescues boast the highest shade tolerance of the cool-season grasses because of their deep roots.
    • Fine fescue (especially creeping red, Chewings, sheep, and hard) is the most shade-tolerant fescue variety. These are excellent for lawns with few hours of direct sun and for growing grass underneath a tree. They grow best in highly shaded areas with dry conditions and at least four hours of dappled sunlight.
    • Tall fescue (turf-type and dwarf-type) is slightly less shade-tolerant than its fine-leaved counterpart, but it will grow well in moderately shady areas. It needs partial sunlight for at least four hours daily. 
  • Rough bluegrass (Sabre variety): This fine-bladed, waxy, yellow-green turfgrass is best suited for moderate shade in cool, wet environments with nutrient-rich soil.
  • Perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass (shade-tolerant varieties like Glade, Bristol, and Nugget): These grasses work well for lightly shaded areas with four to five hours of partial sun, but for moderately and deeply shaded locations, opt for fescues or rough bluegrass.

When to plant or overseed: Late summer or early fall. These grasses prefer cool air and warm, moist soil for germination.

Warm-season grasses

If you live in the South, choose warm-season grass. Warm-season grasses thrive in the summer heat and go dormant in winter.  

The best warm-season grasses for shady areas are:

  • St. Augustine (shade-tolerant varieties like Sapphire, Bitter Blue, Palmetto, and Seville): Sold in sod or plugs, St. Augustine is a coarse-textured, low-maintenance turfgrass that resists disease and can thrive in dry shade. It needs at least four hours of partial sun daily. 
  • Zoysia (shade-tolerant varieties like Diamond, Cavalier, Crowne, and El Toro): Zoysia is a heat- and drought-tolerant grass that retains its healthy, light-to-medium green color in shady areas. It needs at least six hours of partial sun.
  • Centipedegrass (shade-tolerant varieties like Oaklawn and Tennessee Hardy): With little maintenance required, centipedegrass is a popular creeping grass. It needs six hours of partial sun.

When to plant or overseed: Late spring or early summer, once the last chance of a frost has passed. 

Transition Zone grasses

If you live in the middle slice of the U.S. (extending from Virginia to California), then you’re in the Transition Zone where both cool- and warm-season grasses grow. If your lawn is shady, it’s a good idea to choose cool-season grasses, as they tend to be more shade-tolerant than warm-season grasses. 

To choose the best grass mixture for your Transition Zone lawn, check with your neighbors and your local Cooperative Extension office. They’ll give you advice about which grasses work for your climate and soil type. 

When to plant or overseed: Early spring or early fall. Check your state for its specific planting season.

If your lawn has both shady and sunny pockets, plant a combination of shade-resistant and sun-loving grasses to avoid a patchy lawn. That way, one grass can fill in the areas where the other can’t grow. 

Pro Tip: When reading the label on your grass seed, make sure that the germination rate is above 70 percent and the weed seed content is less than 1 percent. 

How to grow shade-tolerant grass

Once you have chosen the best grass mixture for your lawn, it’s time to prepare your yard for success. Even with the most shade-tolerant seeds, your lawn needs TLC for your grass to germinate and thrive. 

For heavily shaded areas, it may also be a good idea to consider ground covers or other shade-friendly lawn alternatives

1. Prune

Man trimming and pruning a tree up above his head
Claudio Barrientos | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

No matter how shade-tolerant a plant may be, it still needs sunlight. Most shade-tolerant varieties need approximately four hours of partial sun (i.e. direct sun in the morning or afternoon) or four to six hours of dappled sun (i.e. sunlight filtered through tree leaves). 

Before you plant, thin out the canopy so sunlight can reach your seeds. For deciduous (non-evergreen) trees, try “limbing up”: Prune the bottom branches so that sunlight can slant in toward your grass. Trim your bushes and trees while keeping both feet on the ground for safety. If you’d prefer professional pruning and trimming, you can contact a local lawn care expert

2. Aerate

With less sunlight to evaporate moisture, shady lawns are in danger of getting waterlogged. To alleviate drainage issues and soil compaction, core aerate your shady spots. 

Aeration — the process of removing small plugs of soil from your lawn surface — gives grass roots a place to grow and increases the availability of oxygen and nutrients. When your thatch is more than half an inch thick, it’s time to aerate

  • For cool-season grasses, aerate in early fall, at least four weeks before the first frost. This minimizes weed invasion and gives your grass time to recover before the frost.
  • For warm-season grasses, aerate in late spring or early summer. 

You can aerate using a handheld lawn aerator or a wheeled aerator, or you can rent or buy a tow-behind aerator.

3. Test your soil

Before amending your soil, test its pH and nutrient levels through your local Cooperative Extension office, or buy a basic DIY test kit. The results will determine what additions your soil needs. If your soil tests as highly acidic, you’ll want to lime your lawn before planting fresh seed. 

4. Add compost

Large pile of compost with a wheel barrow next to and i sign stuck in it that reads "Compost"
Oregon State University | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Apply a light layer of compost (approximately ½ inch deep) to give your seeds a dose of nutrients. Use a rake to gently spread the compost over the shady area. Make sure the compost layer is thin enough for you to see the grass underneath so that your new grass can establish.

5. Fertilize with caution

Stop fertilizing at least a month before seeding, so you can apply fertilizer directly before or after planting. Grasses in shady areas need half as much nitrogen as their counterparts in full sun, so avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers. 

You may fertilize all parts of your lawn on the same schedule and simply adjust the fertilizer dosage for your shady areas. Alternatively, you may opt to fertilize shady areas only twice a year: once in fall, and once in spring. 

6. Overseed

illustration showing the best time for overseeding on the US map,

It’s the moment of truth, and your seeds are ready for their close-up. Use a drop spreader to disperse seed evenly across your lawn, slightly overlapping with each pass. 

As a general rule, you’ll want 7-10 seeds per square inch of lawn. Rake lightly to ensure that seeds have contact with the soil.

To maintain your lawn long-term, you’ll want to overseed on a seasonal schedule

7. Water

For your first watering, thoroughly mist the shaded area. Keep the soil moist, watering once or twice daily until seeds have germinated

The watering needs of your grass depend on what is creating the shade. 

  • If shade is caused by a building or wall, your shady area will need less water than a comparable sunny area, because shade decreases the evaporation rate. 
  • If shade is caused by taller vegetation, grass in the shaded area will need more water because it is competing with bush and tree roots for moisture.

Once grass seeds have germinated, switch your watering routine to deeper, less frequent waterings to encourage roots to bury far into the soil. Water twice weekly, giving your lawn a total of an inch and a half of water. 

8. Mow

man mowing the lawn with an orange lawn mower
Pexels | Pixabay

When your grass is 4-5 inches tall, you can mow it for the first time. Stick to the one-third rule: Don’t cut your grass shorter than one-third of its height. 

Keep grass in shady spots half an inch to an inch taller than grass in sunny areas. This additional length gives grass a larger area for photosynthesis, which helps make up for the scarcity of sunlight.

Do not mow if your grass is less than 3 inches tall. After your first mowing, maintain a grass height of approximately 3-3½ inches. Keep your mower on its highest setting.

Pro Tip: Change your mowing direction from one mowing to the next. This will prevent lawn damage and soil compaction. 

9. Maintain

Now that your shade-loving blades are chilling in the shadows, you just need to keep them calm, cool, and collected. 

  • Avoid frequent herbicide use, as it can stress your grass. If weeds are an issue, make one broadleaf application in fall. Otherwise, simply spot spray weeds. 
  • To correct thin patches and ensure your lawn grass stays even, overseed annually in late August or early September. 
  • Consider stepping stones or a brick, mulch, or gravel pathway to keep foot traffic to a minimum. This will prevent stress on your grass. 

FAQs

1. How do I grow grass in shady, mossy areas? 

If you’d rather not have a moss garden, start off by pruning your trees to increase available sunlight and amending your soil to neutralize your soil’s acidity and increase nutrient levels. 

Moss tends to grow in acidic, poor soil with a high level of compaction. For lasting results, you’ll want to dethatch and aerate your lawn to rake up moss and loosen your soil, which allows more oxygen, water, and nutrients to penetrate down to grass roots. 

Aeration makes your area more hospitable to grass seedlings. You can also install sod after aeration for an easy, healthy lawn fix.

For a quicker (but more temporary) solution, you can grow grass over your moss by covering moss with compost or potting soil and planting grass seed over the soil. You can do this every spring and fall, watering your grass seeds thoroughly after planting. 

If moss keeps coming back, though, you’ll probably need to dethatch and aerate.

2. Can I put grass seed down over moss? 

Yes, but you’ll want to spread compost or topsoil over the moss before you plant the grass seed. In the long term, it’s better to amend your soil, dethatch, and aerate, rather than just seeding over moss. 

Getting started in the shade

Taking in the shade with a glass of cold lemonade can be the perfect afternoon, but sweating it out in your yard isn’t always appealing. Call a local lawn care professional to take the preparation and planting off your hands so you can relax and enjoy a verdant, shady lawn.

Main Photo Credit: Sebastian Unrau | Unsplash

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.