Groundcovers for shady areas

June 5, 2011 at 10:03 AM Leave a comment

By Tim Johnson, Special to Tribune Newspapers3:54 p.m. CDT, May 5, 2011

Q: In my backyard there is extensive shade and the grass has been replaced with moss. In my front yard I have a magnolia or crab apple tree and the grass beneath the tree has completely disappeared.

I have tried to use grass seed developed for shade but it does not seem to do much good. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Doug Barron, Milwaukee

A: The deeper the shade in any area, the more difficult it will be to grow turf grass. Normally, I would not expect a magnolia or crab apple tree to cast deep enough shade to prevent grass from growing.

As shade gets deeper, you will likely need to reseed every spring, with the lawn thinning out over summer as the tree’s foliage fills in and shade deepens. Reseeding needs to become part of your routine spring lawn maintenance.

When moss is thriving, as in your backyard, the garden conditions are shaded, cool and moist — not good for grass. In these situations it is best to leave the moss be, as you are currently doing.

Thinning your trees by pruning may increase sunlight enough to improve the growth of the lawn. But it is best not to overprune your trees just for the sake of the lawn. Prune to improve the health and beauty of crab apples and magnolias, which also may allow more sunlight through to improve the lawn.

Other options include planting a shade-tolerant groundcover such as pachysandra under the trees where grass is not growing well, or by replacing the grass under the tree with mulch.

A level mulched circle under the tree is a good idea in any case.

When seeding the bare areas under trees, it is important to cultivate the soil to loosen it up in order to prepare a good bed for the seed. Spreading grass seed on compacted soil will be much less successful. It should be adequate to loosen only the top inch or so of the soil, which will minimize the stress on the roots of the tree.

Next, purchase a mixture of grass seed that combines different species and varieties of grass and is labeled for shade. A diverse mixture of grass species has a range of attributes that make it able to withstand different stresses, such as shade, better than one variety alone.

Be sure to keep the newly sown grass seed moist with frequent light watering. Bluegrass can take two weeks to sprout, so keep up the watering. Spreading a light layer of compost or pelleted seed-establishment mulch over the new seed will help keep it moist.

Tim Johnson is director of horticulture for the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe ( Send questions to: Gardening Q&A, Sunday, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-4041; e-mail to

Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune


Entry filed under: Green Information.

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