By Shannon Hathaway, horticulturist and turfgrass expert at Super-Sod of Cary, North Carolina. Shannon is the creative type and stays busy with many talents - from landscape design, to knitting, writing, and being a mom and grandmother. She ran her own landscaping company before selling it and joining the Super-Sod team. We got lucky! She takes her passion for plants home with her and gardens on the weekends too. Look for more blogs from Shannon here and on our sister website, Soil3.com.
An important aspect of my job is helping customers decide which type of grass to purchase. Once or twice a week I have to deliver the disappointing news that a client’s yard is too shady for the lush, green lawn they have been dreaming about. Inevitably the client gives me sad puppy dog eyes and asks the following: What CAN I do?
Read on to learn my solutions to your shady problems.
How much shade is "Too Much"?
As a living plant, grass needs sunlight, water, and healthy soil with nutrients. In order to thrive, each variety of grass has its own requirements for minimum amount of direct sun per day.
Fescue is the most shade-tolerant turfgrass in our region. It needs a minimum of 3-4 hours of direct, not filtered, sunlight per day. The warm season grasses, like Bermuda and Zoysia, require even more direct sun ranging from 4 to 8 hours.
The terms direct and filtered are important:
- Direct sunlight – the sun shines directly on the grass with nothing obstructing its path.
- Filtered or dappled sunlight – the path of the sun passes through the branches or leaves of trees, other plants, or structures before it reaches the grass.
Tall Fescue requires the least amount of sunlight of the grasses we grow, but it does require 3-4 hours of direct sunlight. This gardener uses Tall Fescue in the open area, but under the tree canopy she's planting Hostas and other shade loving plants, along with using mulch to define this shaded area.
Photo by Hillary Thompson, Horticulture Content Curator for Super-Sod.
This panorama of a Zoysia lawn shows that the area on the left is too shady, thus the lawn is thin and there are bare spots as the shade gets denser; while the majority of the lawn (middle and right) gets enough sun to grow into a plush carpet of grass. The thin area should be replaced by extending the mulch and planting more monkey grass. Photo by Hillary Thompson.
What can I do if I really want grass?
That depends entirely on the reason for the shade. Sometimes a tree can be removed, or branches trimmed to elevate the tree canopy and allow more direct sun to angle in during the morning and late afternoon.
These changes may increase the amount of direct sun enough to make grass an option. But sometimes there is just no way to get adequate light to the area and other solutions must be employed.
So what CAN you do in a low light situation?
A fire pit, entertaining area and playset are the perfect fit for the shady end of this garden. And a lush Zoysia lawn fills the area further away from the trees where it can thrive. Photo by Brad Hubinek, Regional Manager for our stores in Cary and Raleigh, North Carolina.
The answer varies depending on the topography, size of the space, your budget, and time you have available to devote to gardening. Your ground cover options include:
- hardscaping (paths, fountains, ponds, fire pits, decorative stone)
- or some combination of these things.
You will need to determine how you wish to use the space. For entertaining, hardscaping is a good option. If it is for recreation, mulch is the best way to go. But planting the area will do a better job of soil retention, and drifts of ground cover plants are really beautiful.
I recommend consulting a professional landscape designer first to avoid costly mistakes.
Gravel hardscaping and ground covers of Ferns and Pachysandra are completed by a bench and potted plants in this cozy, shady nook. Photo by Hillary Thompson.
Golden Creeping Jenny, Hellebores, and Monkey Grass combined with stepping stones create a path through a shady area that connects two areas of Zoysia lawn. Photo by Hillary Thompson.
Plants as ground cover
Some of my favorite low growing shade plants are:
- Golden Creeping Jenny
- Solomon’s Seal
- Vinca minor
- Monkey Grass
- Dwarf Mondo Grass
Variegated Solomon's Seal spreading in the shade of a tree. Photo by Hillary Thompson.
There are so many options! These are not plants that can hold up to a football game. These are plants that can control erosion, fill open spaces, and provide a lovely woodland garden look.
Dwarf Mondo Grass and Ferns in a shade garden. These stones are arranged like sculptures and add visual interest to the area. Stones, sculptures, and other architectural focal points are useful ideas for putting in the shade because, obviously, they don't need sunlight one way or another.
Photo by Hillary Thompson.
Assessing your Yard
If you are unsure how much sun an area gets, I recommend downloading the Lumos: Sun and Moon Tracker app for iPhone. It’s a great tool to help you track the path of the sun through the day and see how many hours of direct sun each part of your yard receives. You can see if the sunlight would be blocked by trees or by your house as the sun moves through the day. You can even adjust the time of year within the app.
Once you have gathered information on how much direct sunlight you have, our team of Super-Sod experts will be happy to give you some advice. We are here to help!