Growing grass under trees

Landscaping Ideas for Where Grass Won’t Grow

Seeding, sprinkling, watering, fertilizing—you’ve tried everything to remedy that trouble spot in your lawn. But the grass just won’t grow there!

There are a few reasons why grass won’t sprout in a specific area of your lawn but don’t fret! With a little creativity, you can spruce up that bare area.

What to Do with Areas of Yard that Won’t Grow Grass

Why won’t my grass grow?

Grass needs ample sunlight, good soil and adequate water to thrive. Even if you water your lawn regularly, another problem could be holding it back.

  • Grass needs about five or six hours of direct sunlight every day. So, shady spots below your trees or on the side of your home aren’t a good environment for grass growth.
  • Soil in areas with heavy foot traffic can become compacted, which stunts grass growth.
  • Sometimes a deeper soil problem lies below the surface. A lack of essential nutrients, like nitrogen or phosphorus, can limit grass growth. Or, excess deicing salts used on nearby sidewalks might be the problem.
  • If you’d prefer to remedy your grass (rather than give up on it), try to fix these problems.

Landscaping ideas without grass

You might not be able to grow grass in a certain area, but you can make up for it with plants or even a patio.

Instead of just leaving a bare spot in your yard, try one of these landscaping ideas:

  • Lay bricks, wood or cement over the area to make a patio.
  • Swap in artificial turf where grass won’t grow.
  • Add woodchip mulch, particularly in grassless areas under trees, for a cleaner look.
  • Create a small garden with flowers or shrubs. Perennials are an easy, low-maintenance option.
  • Cover the area with rocks or pebbles.

Shady lawn alternatives

Two words that don’t go together in a garden’s vocabulary are “shade” and “lawn.” Grasses used in lawns fancy themselves as prairie plants – the more sun they can get, the happier they are. There is no such thing as a shade-loving lawn grass. There are some that could be considered tolerant, but that is much different than loving.

This shady side yard was completely turned into a shade gardenusing shade loving ground covers and perennials. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

As trees grow larger and more are planted, the lawn begins to disappear. Seasonal sunlight shifts also cause the shade to lengthen and deepen, resulting in grass permanently retreating. Once the number of hours of direct sun sinks below six hours a day, the grass is gone or so sparse it looks unattractive. Unless you prefer bare soil, the choices are simple: cut down or trim back trees, or find shady lawn alternatives to fill the empty areas. Homes are more valuable and attractive with mature trees, so removing them or pruning them back may not be the best decision.

(Left) Through the season, deepening shadows from nearby trees cause this lawn to lose densityand quality. (Right) Lawns in deep shade will be sparse and poorly populated. Photo credits: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

There are choices to explore when repurposing the former lawn area. You may begin by making the mulch rings around the trees larger, beyond the dripline, or simply connecting mulched trees to make one large bed. Plants in beds created beneath a tree’s canopy may encounter competition from tree roots. Another choice could involve several beds with shade-loving plants with pathways wandering between them. Because of the lack of sunlight, concentrate on attractive plants and not flowers. With your new design, there will not be much in the way of plants to remove to begin the job. Get a soil test to determine if there are nutrients needed or the soil pH needs to be adjusted before plants are installed. Buy a Michigan State University Extension soil test self-mailer for $25 online at www.msusoiltest.com.

Design your garden on paper before the first plants are purchased. Decide where paths and beds will be. Research your plant choices to make sure they will work in your new garden. When preparing the area, do not cover existing tree roots with topsoil. Try to work around the surface roots or simply don’t plant in that location. Plants with shallow roots, like hostas, will adapt to this type of growing condition on their own.

Shady advice

Groundcovers are small plants that grow together to cover an area. Gardeners are only limited in the type of plants by their own imagination. Traditional choices include myrtle or periwinkle (Vinca minor), bugleweed (Ajuga species), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), English ivy (Hedra helix), Bishop’s weed or goutweed (Aegopodium podagaria) and pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis). You might choose a plant that is particularly adapted to growing among tree roots such as sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and barrenwort or fairy wings (Epimedium spp.). Plants such as lilyturf (Lirope spp.) can be used to retain a slope, yet look like grass. Check to see if lilyturf is winter hardy in your area. Even the lowly violet could be used.

Perennials with good foliage color such as Heucherella and Pulmonaria make great shady groundcovers. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

From a design standpoint, the same plant repeated many times over gives a static continuity. The plants listed above are small plants that may never exceed 12-18 inches in height. They may also be planted to grow around larger plants.

Consider that some of the plants listed above, like goutweed, may become invasive and therefore undesirable, especially if surrounded by a wooded area. Pachysandra does best in acidic soil, so it is important to know the soil pH before planting. These groundcovers will not cover huge areas; they work best in smaller beds. It will be important to keep them watered and well-weeded to prevent completion until they fill in.

Taller plants could be planted in groups and some, like hostas, come in a wide variety of sizes, leaf colors and patterns. Other choices include astilbe, Japanese painted fern, European ginger and Ligularia. While Japanese painted fern, astible, ligularia and ginger are critter-resistant, hostas are prone to deer damage and may require regular repellant. Designing with taller plants will help break up the flat plane of short groundcovers.

Made in the shade

Shady areas are well-suited for native plants, too. If choosing native shade plants, make sure your type of soil will work with these forest dwellers. They appreciate a humus-organic soil with decayed leaves used as mulch. Common choices include ostrich and cinnamon ferns, jack-in-the-pulpit, Canadian ginger, May apples, trillium, Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal, spring beauties and moss. A vine for shady areas is Virginia creeper. These are plants that are well-adapted to their environment and rarely require fertilizing. Some of these are classed as spring ephemerals, meaning they bloom and disappear by the end of spring to reappear again in the spring. Trilliums are very attractive to deer.

Deep shade of this maple is the perfect spot for Epimedium. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

Complete the transformation

Be sure to mulch around plants with woodchips or broken down leaves (leaf mold) to prevent loss of soil moisture. Add paths using woodchips, pea gravel or pavers to surround planting beds. Pavers or bricks could work as edges of beds or as path material. Consider a bench to sit on or several chairs. Add some vertical interest with a small fountain, bird bath, trellis or some attractive garden art.

For more information on a wide variety of Smart Gardening articles, or to find out about Smart Gardening classes and events, visit www.migarden.msu.edu.

Download a printable PDF: Shady lawn alternatives

The New Yorker, June 17, 2002 P. 88

MEMOIR about a romance with a stable boy… . One Sunday afternoon, the narrator, Alice, is taking a bike ride when she notices a huge apple tree in blossom. She gets off her bike, lies flat on her back underneath the tree, and stares upward at the branches. As she is laying there, the owner of the tree, Miriam McAlpin, comes running out to scold her. Her stable-boy, Russell, watches from far off… A few weeks later, the two meet again during a street parade. Russell, who played the trombone with the band, runs after Miriam when she turns to leave. “How did you know it was me?” she asks him, when he finally catches up with her. “I could tell by the way you walk,” he says… The two develop a relationship quickly; they meet each other on bicycle and ride together out into the country. One day, after bicycling to a creek, Alice tells Russell that the real reason she was under the apple tree wasn’t to find a bracelet, but because she wanted to see what it would look like from underneath. Russell tells her that he had always wanted to look at it also, but never had the courage. He looks at her and asks her to come over for dinner for the first time. Alice agrees… The Craik family belongs to the Salvation Army: Russell’s father is the drayman preacher and his mother, one of the hymn singers. The family, Alice notes, belongs to a class below her own, and she feel that by acting as if the two families are on equal footing, she is deceiving her own family.. After dinner, Russell takes Alice to Miriam McAlpin’s barn so that they can be alone. He leads her in the dark and the two lie together on the top of a bale of hay. As they are lying together, they hear the blast of a shot gun. All the lights in the barn go on, and they see Miriam McAlpin standing in the barn with a gun in her hand. Alice runs home and Russell concentrates on calming Miriam. Quickly, Miriam’s emotions turn from anger at them to fear that she could have accidentally killed her own stable boy. “What if I had, though? I lost my head. Oh, if I’d killed–” Russell holds her,calls her “honey,” and tells her it will be O.K..” After the barn incident, Russell and Alice don’t see each other again until after the war… When she got home that evening she walked straight past her family and towards the book shelf. Looking back, she realizes it must have meant something that at that turn of her life, she grabbed a book. It was in books that she would find her lovers…

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Growing grass under pine trees

What a thought-provoking opportunity for comment that you present. Thank you. Grab a cup of coffee, as this will take a while to cover all they areas you refer to, and a few that you do not. Let’s list a few of your requests (or hints), first: our first house (therefore moved from apartment or condo or someone else’s house). Large pine trees (not pines). Lots of stones (probably a truckload). No playground in front yard, (but kids play across the street in community park). Not lawn lovers (perhaps not garden lovers either, as had not previously owned land.) Flagstone patio between two trees (single tree and a pair of twins) Interested in native plants (suited to Calgary and less maintenance). a. Suggest you contact local native plant enthusiasts, perhaps join them for a social weekend walk to see natives to be admired, make new friends, (and perhaps future customers for your occupation.) Alberta Native Plant Council, 52099, Garneau PO, Edmonton, AB T6G2T5. Check website for Native Plant Societies or American Horticultural Society for more info. They will also help you get your kids connected to the natural world. b. Corner lots are a challenge, aren’t they. The former owner turned his back on the community to the south and west with that board fence. It does do a great job, however it sends a message that you have turned your back on half of your neighbors. Sometime in the future: Remove every other or every third or fourth board from the fence and replace it with a lath, or cut the removed board to 1/3 or 1/4 width and put it back. This will open the wall, without really opening it to view, but it will be more friendly. Then you can start adding vines and espaliered plants on the outside (street-side) of the fence to add personality to their view of your home, like a smile to the neighbors, saying "a new and friendly neighbor has arrived, won’t you stop by to introduce yourself and have a cup of coffee on my new flagstone terrace in my shady garden?" You can also place that entire truckload of rocks along the outside of the fence, to keep from hitting the new plantings when mowing, and enhancing the native plantings. c. The trees must remain. They are a part of your home. Look around your neighborhood, not even a shade tree, and you have these beauties enhancing the entire area, and admired from afar. You do need to make a few adjustments to their density to fit your family. Firstly, remove a couple branches that obscure or limit your view of the kids in the park from your front rooms and from the deck above. Next remove the lower branches that interfere with movement around your "outside room" – they are your ceiling, so move them up, say 7-8′, (2-1/2 meters or so). After you have moved the rocks to outside the fence, spade up or rototill the entire lawn area (within your property), and regrade it so the terrace area is more level. Perhaps removing about a foot of soil from near the stone planter wall and laying it just inside your property line to level it out, like that. d. Consider beginning your entry terrace at the driveway or front walk, extending over to about 4 or 5 ‘ from the twin trees. where a native shade garden will begin (very different and perhaps more interesting than the plants outside the fence). This may be backed on the northeast by some screen planting, or taller plants that will screen your terrace from the neighborhood beyond. The planting under the "twins" will sweep west and south along the property line to the driveway, enhancing the outdoor room from the street and park beyond. Move that dwarf evergreen from next to the mailbox into a plant bed, and jazz up the planting in the stone planter attached to the house, or convert it into part of your terrace sitting area, or add a sculpture to the stone wall for more personality. I might suggest a portable fountain from the garden center, but that is additional maintenance. And stop calling them pine trees! You can call them evergreen trees, without error, but they are probably spruce, and the "twins" are a different species from your proud "ceiling" tree (perhaps a blue spruce) above your outdoor room. As a final thought, you might invite your new acquaintances at the native plant society to have their next meeting at your house, where you will be the host, and they will all give you ideas on what native plants will do best and look gorgeous in the empty beds you prepared around your flagstone terrace, prior to inviting them to lunch. What fun! How about inviting me over, as well. Our youngest daughter lives in SW Edmonton, and I have never had the ambition to travel that far (from Virginia) to visit her and her family. I like my coffee black with sugar. [email protected]

How to Get Grass (And Other Plants) to Grow Under Your Evergreen Trees

For those of you with a plethora of evergreen trees in your landscaping, you may be struggling with growing anything underneath them. We are going to be sharing our top tips and tricks for changing that and transforming the space below your evergreens.

There are actually a few different reasons that nothing likes to grow under these types of trees, which we will discuss first. Then we will talk about how you can change that for your landscaping.

Why Doesn’t Anything Grow Under Evergreen Trees?

So why is it so hard to get grass or other plants growing under your pine trees? There are actually several reasons that it’s such a pain.

For one thing, your evergreens are extremely dense trees, meaning that they don’t let in a lot of extra sunlight. This limits what is going to thrive underneath them. Also, the soil around these trees is very acidic, which is also fairly limiting.

Underneath your pine trees, there is an intense competition for water too. The trees are going to try and suck up any and all moisture that makes it to its roots.

Lastly, pine trees drop hundreds and hundreds of pine needles on the ground around them. This creates a heavy blanket that limits the sunlight and water considerably, making it harder for any grass/plants to grow.

Because of all of these reasons, most professionals are going to recommend avoiding any planting in these areas. However, some have still had some luck with it, and if you are determined to try there are some steps you can take to make it a little easier on yourself.

Tips for Growing Grass Under Evergreen Trees

If your plan is to grow grass underneath your evergreen trees, you will need to take these following steps to make it as easy as possible for it to grow.

First you will want to clean out the area of any ground you want grass to grow on. Because of the heavy blanket of needles, it will be hard for grass to grow through them unless they are cleared out. Also remove any additional debris to expose the soil to moisture and sunlight. As you attempt to grow the grass, make sure that you keep the area clear and watered as much as possible.

Once you have a cleared out area for growing grass, it’s time to till the soil down about 5-6 inches. Make sure you take the tree roots into account however, don’t dig down enough to touch and damage them. Do this gently, preferably with your own hands rather than any hard tools.

Like we said before, the soil under your evergreen trees are typically going to be pretty acidic. If you are planning on growing grass beneath them, you should test the soil and apply lime to it as needed to raise the pH and decrease the acidity. Grass is best when it’s growing in a pH of 5.5-6.5.

You should also remove some of the lower tree limbs, as well as prune the thinner upper limbs to increase any available sunlight coming through.

Growing grass under evergreen trees is a fairly difficult task, and it will require you to pay a lot of attention to the area. It may take up to 2 years to have the ideal effect once you start attempting to balance the pH of the soil.

Tips for Growing Plants Under Evergreen Trees

If you would prefer to have other plants and flowers growing under your pine trees, we have some tips for that as well.

Some plants are not going to be able to adjust to the difficult conditions under evergreen trees, so we will be sharing some of the ideal options for that area. For the best results, give your soil around a year to balance the pH before planting anything.

Not sure what to plant? Some plants that will do fairly well under evergreen trees include Azaleas , Woodland Sunflowers , Hostas , Jacob’s Ladder , Lily of the Valley , and Ivory Sedge .

Happy Planting

No matter what you want to plant underneath your evergreen trees, these tips will ensure that it is a little easier on you.

What are you planning on growing underneath your pine trees?

Tips For Growing Grass Under A Tree

Everyone wants to enjoy a nice, lush lawn, including those of us with a tree or two in the yard. But, if you have trees in your yard, it’s a safe bet that you think, “Why can’t I grow grass under a tree?” While growing grass under a tree may pose a challenge, it is possible with the proper care.

Why Can’t I Grow Grass Under a Tree?

Grass seldom grows well under trees due to the shade. Most types of grass prefer sunlight, which gets blocked out by the shade casted from tree canopies. As trees grow, the amount of shade increases and eventually the grass beneath begins to die.

Grass also competes with trees for moisture and nutrients. Therefore, the soil becomes drier and less fertile. Rain shielded from the tree’s canopy can also limit the amount of moisture in the soil.

Mowing can lessen the chance of grass survival as well. Grass under trees should be mowed slightly higher than other areas of the lawn to help retain moisture levels.

Another factor making it difficult to grow grass under trees is excessive leaf litter, which should be raked regularly, especially in fall and spring, to encourage more light to reach grass.

How to Grow Grass Under Trees

With proper care and determination, you can successfully grow grass under a tree. Choosing shade-tolerant grasses such as fine fescue is about the only way to ensure the healthy growth of grass under trees. The grass seeds should be sown in early spring or fall and watered daily. This can gradually be reduced once grass has taken hold, but should still be watered deeply at least once or twice a week.

Other than choosing shade-tolerant grasses, you should increase the amount of light by pruning the tree’s lower branches. Removing lower branches allows more sunlight to filter through, making it easier for grass to grow.

Grass under trees should also be watered more, especially during periods of dry weather. It may be a good idea to fertilize the area more frequently as well, about two to three times a year.

Growing grass under a tree can be difficult but not impossible. Planting shade-tolerant grass while increasing the amount of both water and light should be enough to successfully grow and enjoy lush, green grass under trees.

How to Grow Grass in Shaded Areas

How Shade Affects Lawn Grasses

Lawn grasses need light, air, water and nutrients — just as all plants do. Trees, shrubs and buildings that shade parts of your lawn can keep grasses from getting these essentials, impacting your lawn above and below ground. Leaves on trees and shrubs can prevent light and water from reaching grass below, while roots from the same plants take water, nutrients and oxygen away from grass roots. Shade can also cause soil to retain too much moisture and compound drainage problems that exist.

In shade, grasses stretch to reach sunlight and grow thin and weak, much like houseplants that grow tall and spindly as they lean toward window light. Grass grows weaker, loses its attractive color, and becomes more susceptible to additional stresses, including insect pests and lawn disease.1,2 Roots on shaded grass grow shallow, and growth slows.

The effect of large trees even stretches beyond areas that lie in shade. Tree roots can cover an area up to seven times the shaded area beneath the tree’s branches. Even on very large trees, more than 50 percent of those roots stay in the top six inches of soil — primed to compete with grass roots.

Lawn Grasses and Shade Tolerance

Most grasses do best when grown in full, direct sunlight. However, some grass types and specific varieties tolerate various shade levels better than others. Premium grass seed mixes, such asPennington Smart Seed Dense Shade and Pennington Smart Seed Sun & Shade, contain improved varieties to meet the needs of lawns with heavy shade or variable sun.

If you’re an outdoor person, you already understand that noontime sun is stronger than gentle morning rays. Sun and shade patterns change throughout the day and through the seasons, as trees and shrubs leaf out in spring and drop leaves in fall. Take time to assess your shade patterns closely, so you understand what grass is up against. Then you can select grasses best suited to the challenge.

Your first decision in choosing seed involves warm- and cool-season types. This is determined primarily by where you live. Warm-season lawn grasses thrive in more southern and western zones, while cool-season grasses flourish in more northern areas. Zoysia grass is one of the best warm-season grasses for shady conditions. Bahiagrass and Centipede grass have moderate shade tolerance, but Bermudagrass doesn’t do well without full sun.

Cool-season grasses generally tolerate more shade than warm-season types, but they vary, too. Fine fescues have the greatest shade tolerance among common cool-season grasses, while tall fescues do well in moderate shade.1,2 Perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass need more sun, but some varieties tolerate light shade well.

We can’t seem to get grass to grow under the oak tree in our yard. Any suggestions?

Q. We can’t seem to get grass growing under the oak tree in our yard. Any suggestions?

A. Trees add beauty, grace and shade to a home landscape, but most grasses thrive best in full sun. Less light means less photosynthesis, which means less carbohydrate synthesis and less food for the grass plants. Also, under the leaf canopy of a large tree, grass has to compete with the tree roots for water and soil nutrients.

These tips may help you establish a carpet of grass under your tree:

  • Choose a shade-tolerant grass-seed mix. Species that do well in full sun don’t do well in shady locations.
  • Carefully prune the lower branches of your tree to a height of six feet.
  • Avoid applying excessive nitrogen fertilizer in shady areas. Fertilize sparingly in fall as the leaves begin to drop or in early spring before the tree leafs out.
  • Set your mower blades high and keep the grass relatively tall (about three inches). The longer grass blades intercept more light for more photosynthesis.
  • Water the grass under the tree only enough to prevent the topsoil from drying out. Water in the morning, as late-day irrigation may promote disease.
  • Rake the leaf litter from under the tree each fall.

If these practices fail to give you the desired results, consider planting a shade-tolerant, low-maintenance ground cover. Or you could maintain a 2” to 4” layer of bark mulch that extends out to the tree’s dripline (edge of the leaf canopy above). Don’t allow the mulch to touch the trunk of the tree, and certainly don’t pile a cone of mulch up around it. These “mulch volcanoes” may harbor mice, insects, and disease organisms that could harm your tree.

Step by Step: How to Remove Grass to Mulch Around Trees

Lots of things go well with trees: a complementary flowerbed, a tire swing for summer fun or a birdhouse hanging for feathered friends.

Something that’s not great for trees? Grass growing at a tree’s base.

Trees and turf compete for a limited amount of water and nutrients in the soil–and grass usually wins. Plus, grass needs mowed, and the lawn mower often damages tree roots. That’s why grass around tree roots causes problems for trees.

Learn how to remove grass around tree trunks to give trees—and turf—exactly what they need.

A Step-By-Step Guide to Killing Grass Around Trees and Adding Mulch

How to Remove Grass Around Trees with a Shovel

  1. Use a shovel to dig up patches of grass, making sure you don’t scrape the tree roots.
  2. Dig two-to-four inches deep to make sure you remove all the turf (roots and all).
  3. If an area is hard to dig, don’t force it. A small root may be lying under that section of turf.
  4. Once you’ve removed the grass, apply two-to-four-inches of mulch all the way around the tree, out to the drip line.
  5. Keep the mulch five or more inches away from the trunk to avoid attracting pests.
  6. Water the mulch thoroughly, and you’re set!

How to Remove Grass at the Base of Trees with Newspaper

  1. Cut grass under the tree to an even height.
  2. Grab a few black and white newspapers. Place about 10 sheets over each section of the grass.
  3. Overlap the paper as you work your way around the tree.
  4. Soak the newspaper with water, and then apply mulch on top as instructed above.
  5. Water the mulch thoroughly.
  6. In about a month, the grass will be dead. No need to remove the newspaper either because it will safely decompose into the soil.

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