You invest money, time, and effort into greening up your dirt and you want to see tangible results not your hope of lush green turf grass squashed again.
How do you accomplish growing grass under tree shade? The simple answer is forget it don’t waste your time, money, and effort. Here are the quick 1,2,3 solutions.
- Identify where the turf grass will grow well. Mulch the questionable areas and everywhere else. Your trees are happy. Your turf grass is happy. You are happy.
- You want more? Then install shade tolerant plants that will compete with the mature trees in the mulched beds.
- But you still think growing grass under tree shade is for you. Okay then, Mondo Grass, dwarf or regular is your ticket. It is an ornamental grass that is competitive and shade tolerant. It will take more time and investment to establish than turf grass. The nice thing is you can sell your lawn mower unless you just can’t help yourself because mowing is in your DNA. Mow maybe once or twice a year just to even everything up.
Healthy Happy Trees and Turf Grass
For the most part trees and turf grass don’t like each other. They are the healthiest and happiest when they are separated into two different areas.
Trees love to grow in the forest like areas. They love the recycled, nutrient rich, moist topsoil produced by decomposing leaves and other organic matter. Tree canopies provide shade that stamp out sun loving competing plants like turf grass.
Turf grass is an aggressive grower that adapts well to dry conditions with dense root system. Full sun is important to them because it provides the photosynthesis energy needed to support dense healthy root development. Healthy roots healthy turf grass.
Young trees often lose the battle to turf grass when planted in small mulched beds. The turf’s aggressive dense root systems invade and often win the battle for nutrients, moisture and light. This weaken state stunts the young tree and it becomes susceptible to insect and environmental stress.
Large established trees block sunlight and weaken turf grasses. There is often few nutrients and moisture left over for healthy turf grass growth around mature trees.
Design for Successful Trees and Turf Grass
Everybody is happier when you avoid the conflicts between turf grass and trees as much as possible. Replicate each plants native condition when designing your tree and turf grass area into your landscape plan. Here are some “Good to Know Guides for Success”.
- Plan large tree planting bed areas: Let’s say you are planting a 2” caliper (diameter) Oak, Maple, etc. I would recommend that the no turf grass mulched area surrounding the tree be at least 10 feet across. Here is how you determine the size. Take the diameter of the tree at the base and multiply that number by five. Then change inches to feet. This distance will give the tree enough area for a good starter zone. Mulch the zone. Larger mulched bed areas are always better than smaller mulched beds.
- Mulch Heavy: Trees are really the happiest and healthiest when you can duplicate the forest. The quickest and easiest way short of a real forest is to mulch 3” to 5” deep with wood mulch or pine straw. As the mulch breaks down wonderful things begin to happen in the soil. Trees love it. Be careful to never place mulch against the tree’s trunk. Bad things will happen!
- Expand planting beds: You will begin to see turf grass weaken as trees grow and expand. Shading and root systems encroach into the surrounding turf grass area. The easy solution is to expand the mulched bed out to the stronger turf grass areas.
- Group Trees: Multiple trees located close enough together on your property will easily turn into a grove. Connecting these trees with mulched bed areas will benefit all the trees because they support and nurture each other.
- Tree under plantings: Use low maintenance shade adaptable plants for a good alternative to turf grass under tree canopies.
- Large separations: Put some distance between turf grass and your trees to avoid mechanical injury to the trunk and roots from lawn mowers and trimmers. Injured trees are more susceptible to insects and disease attacks.
- Unequal rates: Tree and turf grass fertilization rates are different. They conflict along with irrigation and herbicide application rates.
Improve the Turf Growing Environment
- Match your turf grass variety to growing conditions: All turf grass has a favorite place to grow, an adaptable place to grow and you’re wasting your money, time, and effort place to grow.
- Establish successful turf grass with soil preparation: Compacted soils are a challenge for all plant growers. Well, unless you are a moss geek. In our area of the world compacted hard clay soils are the norm. Breaking these soils up 4 to 6 inches goes a long way in establishing the green luscious turf grass worthy of your picnic blanket.
- Know your ideal cutting heights: Remember too high promotes disease and too low harms root systems. In shady areas allow turf grass to grow to the upper end of their ideal cutting height to strengthen root systems.
- Define bed lines: Easy flowing curve-a-linear or straight and square bed lines are a very strong design element in your landscape. Although shade patterns and root systems ignore your bed lines, make them work for you. Study your site. Make the low light shade areas planting beds for low light plants. Designate turf grass to the higher light full sun areas. Don’t forget structures like your home also throw a shade pattern on your landscape.
- Minimize turf grass growing zones and maximize tree growing zones around mature trees.
Yes Growing Grass Under Tree Shade Will Work for Me
Okay, so you’re going to continue pursuing turf grass under mature trees. Here are some pointers that will help. Optimum results should not be expected. Remember no whining allowed.
- Maximize sunlight reaching the turf grass blades: Remove lower limbs all the way back to the branch collar. This will allow for more side lighting. You can also look at thinning the tree canopy to allow for more light reaching the ground. Never remove more than 25% of a tree’s canopy.
- Use the more shade tolerant turf grass varieties: Don’t fall victim to marketing hype. There is no such a thing as a super duper fail safe grass. It is important to research. Find out if all the varieties in a mix are reliable in your area. Just because they sell it in your local store does not make it automatic that it will work for you.
- Select open high canopy trees: You want as much light to reach the ground as possible. A minimum of 50% sunlight increases your odds.
- Avoid shallow root plants: Breaking up the soil deep and wide helps roots run deeper especially in clay and shallow top soil areas. Some tree varieties just can’t help it. They are going to produce shallow roots because their genes are weird that way. The less roots you damage the better for the tree.
- Always think mature height and width: Before any plant is ever placed in your landscape design or planted in your garden know the mature size. It is very important to know if you desire a healthy low maintenance garden. It is double important for trees. The overhead utilities companies don’t mess around. It’s their right-of-way and their cutters show no mercy on your misplaced tree.
- Wider tree spacing: Think more light reaching the ground to power up your turf. May need to remove some trees. Did I really say that?
- Water deep: It works best to water for longer time periods less often. Short frequent watering periods generate shallow lazy roots. There’s nothing worse than a lazy root when the next drought shows up. You’re just asking for trouble. If water runs off the soil you are applying it too fast. Help water absorption rate by cultivating the soil, adding mulch, or both.
- Allow turf grass clippings to remain: Allow the nutrients from the cut grass blades to recycle back into the soil. It’s a good thing. Happy soil happy plants.
- Talk more often: The lawn care professional people and the tree professional people should talk. Too much of a good thing can be Dead-Tree-mental.
- Only garden goobers: Avoid placing fill soil over tree surface roots. It reduces the soil gas exchange critical to healthy trees. Cover the unsightly roots with mulch. Even trees need a good gas exchange.
Alternatives for Growing Grass Under Tree Shade
If your shady areas just will not support turf grass then think ground covers or repurpose the area’s use.
- Visual substitute for turf grass: An ornamental grass like Mondo or Dwarf Mondo are very close turf grass mimics in my world. Select liriope varieties are my next best choice. My least favorite are vines. They have visual appeal, they just don’t understand the concept of boundaries.
- Visual highlight: If you are into low maintenance then picking a low growing plant that will stay in bounds is important. Just like turf grass they will serve as a low plain planting design element. I often use this low plain design element technique to highlight a significant tree on a stage.
- Power to the Landscape: Line is another powerful design element in the landscape. A defining bed line when done well between turf grass and mulched tree planting areas is a high visual impact that should not be overlook.
- A place to relax: Build a new garden room to get away or fellowship with your favorite people
- Moss: I’ve seen some beautiful moss gardens that started out as turf grass areas. Now the moss geeks aren’t mad at me anymore.
I love trees and I love turf grass. When done right they both do big things for our quality of life. They both clean the air by taking in carbon dioxide and giving us oxygen. They both hold down dust. They both clean the water by preventing erosion and holding storm water. They also help keep us cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
Let’s grow more turf grass and trees. Just separate.