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Weekly Gardening Guide: Shady Business

May 14, 2015

Who doesn’t love to lay in the shade of a great big maple tree on a sunny summer day? Grass! That’s who! (This tip will focus on your lawn, however all of these concepts can be applied to any sun or part sun loving gardens affected by shade).

The most common question I hear in the store from frustrated homeowners is “Which one of these grass seeds will do well in shade?” Well the answer to that is, quite frankly, none of them!

We all have that corner in our lawn, or in some cases a large percentage of our lawn which is shaded for a good portion of the day. It is no coincidence that these areas are often patchy, sparse, weed infested or covered in moss. That’s because all the science in the world has yet to breed a beautiful, lush, thick turfgrass that thrives in shady conditions!

Sometimes the shade is something that we’re stuck with and we must learn to find solutions (I will get to those later), such as shade caused by a fence or structure. But in many cases the shade is produced by our beloved trees!

As much as we all love our trees, they are a nightmare for turf growers! A common refrain among golf course superintendents is “I would have a beautiful golf course if it weren’t for these darn trees!” Trees impact a healthy lawn in several ways, a couple of them you may not have considered: They compete for space, moisture and nutrients in the soil, they can block sunlight during the crucial morning hours, they can block airflow which can encourage disease, and prolong leaf wetness!

I will focus on that last point for a moment as the other points may seem obvious. When a tree or structure blocks out the morning sun, it is not only starving the grass (or flowers) from the most effective sunlight – the morning sun when the plant is still cool enough to utilize it efficiently -  but it is also not burning off the morning dew! Why is this a problem? Well first of all, dew is essentially sugar water. It has a very high surface tension and will stay on the leaf much longer than rain or irrigation water. This sugar water attracts bugs and disease, and helps the spores of disease to thrive and spread! You are also aware, I’m sure, that too much moisture is as bad as too little! This is true for dew as well!

The common complaint “I have a moss problem in my lawn”, is always met by my canned response “you don’t have a moss problem, you’ve got a grass problem”. Moss is extremely opportunistic. It can only grow where there are no other plants inhabiting the soil. This means that your lawn must already be thin and patchy for the moss to spread. Any guesses how moss spreads? MOISTURE! Does that sound like that wet shady area we talked about earlier?

So, we’ve talked about all the reasons shade is bad for lawns. So what do we do about it? Well if your shade is being caused by a healthy mature tree, the good news is that a skilled (certified) arborist can often thin out your trees, allowing crucial sunlight to penetrate the canopy, without significantly impacting the overall look of your tree! The most important sunlight hits the plant between the hours of 7-10am, so thinning out the branches that block this sunlight on the grass below will make a major difference! In the case of a structure like a fence or house, there’s not much you can do to reduce the shade. So, it becomes a matter of planting the BEST plants for that area. If you have 100% shade all day every day, this may unfortunately mean removing the grass in favour of some shade loving ground cover like ivy, vinca, or pachysandra.  If you get some sunlight, there may still be hope for growing grass! Certain turf species, such as fine fescues, annual ryegrass, poa trivialis (Rough bluegrass) and tall fescues are known to be the most tolerant of shady conditions. However, the disclaimer on these grasses is that they are not quite as attractive as some of the finer turfgrasses like Kentucky bluegrass or perennial ryegrass. They often grow bunchy and coarse, and may not be ideal for little ones playing – but still a better alternative to dirt!

We also made a mention of dew and moss. A very important habit to get into if you have an area that stays dewy late into the morning is “whipping” the dew off. If you’re a golfer you may have seen crews doing this on your golf course using bamboo poles, ropes or hoses. Quite simply, all this entails is disrupting the dew (the surface tension) by any means necessary. You can drag a hose across it, water it (ironically this is better than leaving the dew on it), or roll it with a roller. Mowing it does a great job of diffusing the dew as well! This is not necessary in areas where dew burns off naturally by about 9am or so.
Bottom line; it is possible to grow healthy grass in a partially shaded area, but if it’s searching for the sun for more than 75% of the day, you may want to explore other options!
Well look at that, 800+ words. I’m going in the wrong direction!

I hope you have found my lengthy rants at the very least informative, and I hope a little bit entertaining.
My lovely bride Sarah has just had a wonderful idea:
If you managed to read all the way through (Janet and Arden, I’m looking at you) and you have any requests for future “tips of the week” we would love to hear from you! If you have a nagging issue in your garden, or have a question you’d like to have cleared up please email them to us (sarah@heirloomgg.com) and we can feature them in future tips of the week!  

Thanks again, now put down your phone/computer and get out and enjoy this beautiful May weather!

- Bryan

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