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Turf in Shade

May 26, 1999

Most cool-season turfgrasses perform best when they are grown in full sun. Unfortunately, many lawns contain shady areas that present problems for turf managers. Turfgrasses struggle in these environments because there is reduced light and air movement; also, in many cases, the turf must compete with other plants for water and minerals. The result is weak, stressed turf that lacks traffic or disease tolerance and may be overcome with weeds or moss.

If turf management practices are not modified for shade sites, problems with turf quality are likely. For example, a common management error is fertilizing shade areas at the same nitrogen rates suggested for full sun. In other cases, shaded areas are sodded with Kentucky bluegrasses best suited for planting in full sun. Unfortunately, many sites are simply too shady to support an acceptable quality turf, even if “shade-tolerant” grasses are planted.

Suggestions for Producing Turf in Shaded Areas. Use shade-tolerant turfgrasses. Shade tolerance among cool-season species and cultivars varies and is greatest in fine-leaf fescues and least in Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrasses. Tall fescue has intermediate shade tolerance. Within turfgrass species, there are differences in shade tolerance.

Cultural Recommendations for Turf in Shady Areas.
  1. Plant shade-tolerant turfgrass species and cultivars. Remember, shade tolerant does not mean the grass will grow in dense shade.
  2. Seed shade-tolerant turfgrasses during the late summer or early autumn.
  3. Avoid overfertilizing with nitrogen (apply about half the rate used in sun) and maintain adequate phosphorus and potassium.
  4. Mow at the highest recommended height for the turfgrass species.
  5. Reduce traffic in shaded areas. Heavy site use and shade turf is not a combination that works.
  6. Encourage light and air movement into shaded areas by pruning low-growing limbs and removing shrubs. Removing trees may be the only solution in areas where high-quality turf is a priority.
  7. Don’t overwater turf in shady areas.

Turf Substitutes. In shady areas incapable of sustaining turf of acceptable quality, plant shade-tolerant ground covers (for example, Japanese spurge, English ivy, hosta, periwinkle, or purpleleaf winter creeper), or use mulches such as wood chips, bark, or some other clean, organic material. Poor soil drainage may be another reason that turf does poorly, and it’s very likely the ground cover will have problems with poor soil drainage as well. Also, be aware that some ground covers, such as lily of the valley and goutweed, may become invasive if they are not contained.

Kentucky Bluegrass/Fine Fescue Mixtures. A bluegrass/fine fescue mixture is desirable for dry, shady locations where there is a wide variation in the sunlight’s intensity. Fine fescue does not perform well on sports turfs because it has weak traffic tolerance and slow recuperative potential. A traditional shade mixture consists of equal parts of Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescue. Shade-tolerant cultivars of bluegrass (for example, Bensun, Bristol, Eclipse, Glade, Nugget, Touchdown, and Victa) should be considered for the Kentucky bluegrass component of mixtures used in shaded areas.

The fine fescue cultivars that have performed acceptably in Illinois are listed below.

Fine fescue cultivar (type)
  • Bridgeport (chewings)
  • Brittany (chewings)
  • Dawson (slender creeper)
  • Eco (chewings)
  • Flyer II (strong creeper)
  • Jamestown II (chewings)
  • K-2 (chewings)
  • Medina (chewings)
  • Nordic (hard)
  • Reliant II (hard)
  • Sandpiper (chewings)
  • Seabreeze (slender creeper)
  • Shadow (E) (chewings)
  • Shadow II (chewings)
  • SR5100 (chewings)
  • Tiffany (chewings)
  • Treazure (chewings)
  • Victory (E) (chewings)
  • Victory II (chewings)

Author: Tom Voigt Bruce Spangenberg


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