Have you ever wished you could grow grass in the shade? The Houston Astros did. And when I was a young horticulturist in College Station, I drove past the shaded cold frames where Texas A&M agronomists were trying their best to find a grass that could be used in the new domed stadium — after they had to apply shading to one section of the roof to avoid the glare.
But that didn’t work out, and the team ended up with something called AstroTurf. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
That was 50 years ago, and we’re still tilting at windmills today. People don’t believe me when I tell them that there is no grass that will grow and thrive in fewer than five or six hours of hot, direct summer sunlight daily. I get a whole lot of pushback. “Oh, it’s not the shade. The soil has eroded. There — look at the tree roots on top of the ground.” Or, “Those tree roots are sucking up all the fertilizer and water. I just need to add more.” Or, “Grass was growing there last year, and now it’s all gone. I can plant it again.”
I could keep typing excuses for hours, and every one of them, much as I hate to say it, would be wrong.
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So here’s my new approach. If your grass is failing beneath a shade tree, and if that tree is out by itself in the yard, look closely at the pattern of turfgrass die-out. If the trunk of the tree is like an arrow into a bulls-eye, gardeners, that’s lack of sunlight. Need additional proof? If the pattern of die-out gets worse the closer you get to the trunk, that means the heavier shade there is taking its toll. As the tree grows larger, so does the bald spot.
St. Augustine is our most shade-tolerant grass. It’s planted from sod, so it gets pretty pricey if you’re trying to get it established over a larger space. In my 46 years helping North Texas gardeners, I’ve seen thousands of people who have invested big dollars in new grass, only to find that it wasn’t going to do any better than the old grass that died.
Some of us (yes, I’m in the group of antagonists) even tried fescue. It needs about the same amount of sun as St. Augustine, but we found out that we would have to overseed it anew every September, and that it would become browned and thin during the summer. (It’s a cool-season grass that is planted in fall, grows in the winter, and tries its best to survive the summertime heat.) Fescue is also a water hog, making it somewhat impractical in this land of curtailments.
We tried removing one or two lower limbs so our lawns could get more sun early and late in the day, and maybe that helped for a while. But eventually, even that gave out as the trees kept growing bigger. Plus, we decided that if we removed any more branches, our trees would begin to look like tall palms.
This is where I step in with a note of encouragement. Shade landscaping doesn’t mean you give up. It means that you just readjust the dial. You change to more shade-tolerant ground covers in place of failed turf. You choose from the wide assortment of shade-loving shrubs and small trees, and you rethink your annual and perennial choices in color. You do have some very nice options.
It helps if you can see all of this in actual practice. Drive to older parts of town where the trees are fully matured. See how they’ve handled the same problem we all eventually encounter. Visit the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, Chandor Gardens in Weatherford and the Dallas Arboretum. Take notes and make lists of the plants and ideas you like. Talk with your nursery professional, and perhaps even hire a landscape designer to interpret it all for you.
This is a great time to put all this into practice. Nurseries have the best selections of the year. Plants are vigorous — ready to be planted and grow. So stall no longer. Begin your life in the shade. And remember how much you appreciate that shade come mid-July.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.
Best plants for shade gardens
Ground covers: mondograss, liriope, Asian jasmine, purple wintercreeper euonymus, ferns, aspidistra (cold-sensitive), English ivy, and for smaller spaces, dwarf mondograss and ajuga.
Shrubs: many types of hollies, including (in increasing order of height) dwarf yaupon, dwarf Chinese, Carissa, dwarf Burford, Willowleaf, Mary Nell, Oakland, Nellie R. Stevens, Warren’s Red possumhaw and yaupon. (I’m not a big fan of Savannah holly in our alkaline soils.)
Vines: Carolina jessamine, sweet autumn clematis, evergreen clematis, crossvine, English ivy.
Annuals: coleus, caladiums, elephant ears, begonias, impatiens, nicotiana (flowering tobacco) and pentas (partial sun).
Perennials: ajuga, oxalis, summer phlox, hostas, hellebores, Solomon’s shield, ferns, and various bulbs such as jonquils, spider lilies, naked lady lilies, oxblood lilies and fall crocus.
Tropicals: for textural interest, use container plants such as crotons, Xanadu philodendron, aglaonemas, ferns, sansevierias, pony tail, peace lilies and dracaenas.
Small trees: Japanese maples, dogwoods, redbuds, Mexican plum, tree-form Nellie R. Stevens and yaupon hollies.