Is it possible to have a luscious lawn with partial sunlight?

citressMarch 26, 2012

Hi, I have just moved into a house with a yard. Previously my husband and I lived in a condo. We are pretty much clueless about lawn care, and are in the process of finding a good lawn company to help with our lawn needs.

My question is that half of my back yard gets partial sun each day (3 or 4 hours at best). The other half I suspect hardly gets any direct sunlight. The grass is rather patchy as a result (at least I think it's due to the partial sunlight based on my novice opinion). Can I ever have luscious grass in my back yard - how do I have to do?

Thanks for any help!

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Billl(z7 nc)

You can get fescues to grow in partial shade quite well. In full shade, you are looking more at fine or creeping fescues. These grow slower and have thinner blades, so they don't look quite as "lush" but can still make a nice, green turf.

Some things to consider for growing in shade:

Mature trees do more than just cause shade. They also have roots everywhere sucking up water and nutrients. Some areas might require different treatment within the same yard.

Things that cause shade can often restrict air movement as well. That can lead to disease problems if the area stays moist.

Overall, if you want nice grass everywhere, you'll need to pick grasses that tolerate shade. You'll also need to monitor watering to make sure the grass gets enough, but do so infrequently eg once a week to assure that the grass isn't always wet. You'll also need to watch your mowing habits. The shadier it is, the more grass tends to flop over when it gets long.

Other than that, you should follow the general care advice you'll find in some of the other threads.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2012 at 1:30PM
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Thanks Bill!

Fescue grass sounds really promising, sounds like it will suit my backyard very well. My backyard seems slightly damp most of Spring just from the rain, I haven't lived here long enough to judge the summer months.

Can I put in fescue grass seeds directly on my lawn or do I have to remove the existing grass that's there? Can different grasses grow together? I know the previous owner seeded the lawn right before we closed on the house a month ago, but there's been so much rain I don't know how much of the seeds remain. I intend to call up a few lawn care companies to see if I need re-seeding and to see if I can plant a different type of grass now. I just want to sound like I "sort of" know what I'm talking about (so they won't rip me off). :)

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 11:10AM
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Billl(z7 nc)

Different grasses certainly can grow together. In fact, most cool season lawns you see are mixes of various combinations of fescue, rye, and bluegrass. How nice that mix looks together depends on the particular cultivars of each variety. There are a surprising number of shades of "green" and a variety of different blade widths. If you plant a wide bladed, lighter green grass with a fine bladed bluish green grass, it will look a little patchy. If you plant a bunch of fine bladed, dark green grasses, they will complement each other much better.

For seeding, the general method is to cut the existing grass short, rake up all the debris so you can see the soil, add seed and fertilizer, and keep watered until the grass germinates. The seed needs to get down in good contact with the soil to root properly, so make sure you give it a really good raking.

If your soil stays wet, it isn't draining all that well. You might consider aerating either before seeding or this fall. You also might consider using some organic fertilizers or topdressing with compost to improve the soil a bit.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 9:47AM
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brettn_10(4-5 Northern UT)

Not sure how large the area is, but there are some really nice steppable ground covers that work well in the shade if you can't get grass to work.

Or there are always the synthetics that are looking much more real these days. ;) hehe

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 2:19PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

The shade may have had something to do with the thinning. If it was Kentucky bluegrass, then it was the shade. If it was fescue to begin with, then it could be poor timing on water, disease, or dogs. Fescue is often reseeded every fall until you get the density you want.

You'll need to know something about watering, mowing, and fertilizing for success. Here are the basic 1-2-3 of lawn care to get you started.

Basics of Lawn Care

After reading numerous books and magazines on lawn care, caring for lawns at seven houses in my life, and reading numerous forums where real people write in to discuss their successes and failures, I have decided to side with the real people and dispense with the book and magazine authors. I don't know what star their planet rotates around but it's not mine. With that in mind, here is the collected wisdom of the Internet savvy homeowners and lawn care professionals summarized in a few words. If you follow the advice here you will have conquered at least 50% of all lawn problems. Once you have these three elements mastered, then you can worry about weeds (if you have any), dog spots, and striping your lawn. But if you are not doing these three things, they will be the first three things suggested for you to correct.

Water deeply and infrequently. Deeply means at least an hour in every zone, all at once. Infrequently means monthly during the cool months and no more than weekly during the hottest part of summer. Do not spread this out and water for 10 minutes every day. If your grass looks dry before the month/week is up, water longer next time. If that does not work, then you might have to water more than once per week during the summer's hottest period. Deep watering grows deep, drought resistant roots. Infrequent watering allows the top layer of soil to dry completely which kills off many shallow rooted weeds.

You will have to learn to judge when to water your own lawn. If you live in Las Vegas your watering will be different than if you live in Vermont. Adjust your watering to your type of grass, humidity, wind, and soil type. It is worth noting that this technique is used successfully by professionals in Phoenix, so...just sayin.' The other factors make a difference. If you normally water 1 inch per week and you get 1/2 inch of rain, then adjust and water only 1/2 inch that week.

Every week mulch mow at the highest setting on your mower. Most grasses are the most dense when mowed tall. However, bermuda, centipede, and bent grasses will become the most dense when they are mowed at the lowest setting on your mower. In fact there are special mowers that can mow these grasses down to 1/16 inch. Dense grass shades out weeds, keeps the soil cooler, and uses less water than thin grass. Tall grass can feed the deep roots you developed in #1 above. Tall grass does not grow faster than short grass nor does it look shaggy sooner. Once all your grass is at the same height, tall grass just looks plush.

Fertilize regularly. I fertilize 5 times per year using organic fertilizer. Which fertilizer you use is much less important than numbers 1 and 2 above. Follow the directions on the bag and do not overdo it. Too little is better than too much. At this point you do not have to worry about weed and feed products - remember at this point you are just trying to grow grass, not perfect it. Besides once you are doing these three things correctly, your weed problems should go away without herbicide.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 3:37PM
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Can I ever have luscious grass in my back yard - how do I have to do?

You sure can all it takes is a few days work with a chain saw clearing out the trees.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 6:03PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

LOL texas-weed has a point. Luscious? Well, maybe to some people. It is never going to look like an Elite Kentucky bluegrass lawn in full sun, but it will be presentable if you don't look too closely.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 9:02PM
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Thanks dchall_san_antonio. That is a very helpful summary.

My back yard looks like this. And yes there are a lot of trees. I was being fastidious when I said "luscious". But just "non-patchy" would be nice.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 9:13AM
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Billl(z7 nc)

Well, if "some" grass will grow there, then "more" grass will grow there.

One important note for fescues - they really don't spread. If one plant is damaged or killed, you end up with a bare spot. Plan on making overseeding a part of your annual fall routine to repair any damage. Also, be sure to seed everywhere, not just the thinnest areas. The big name seed companies all change the mix in their bags each year, so the seed you put out next year will be slightly different than the seed you put out this year. You won't notice it if they are spread everywhere, but you may if you just seed a patch here and there and don't kinda blend it in.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 9:44AM
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More than anything else - it looks like you just have a lawn suffering from several years of neglect that probably needs a fall overseed. You may or may not have a lack of amendments.. but a soil test will tell you that...

What happens with most "Bunching" type grasses when resources and water are lacking is that the strongest Bunch steals the resources from the weaker bunches around it, and those weaker bunches die off.... Likely, each one of those grassy Clumps has a root system that branches out and touches the root system of the clump next to it....

What can you do?
Start with what David says above... Especially the part about watering only when it's needed and NOT when it's not needed...

It's actually very important to NOT water your lawn if it doesn't need water...

Get a soil test and start working on everything that's deficient EXCEPT nitrogen for the summer....
Then, you can prepare for a Fall overseed with a carefully chosen grass....

Organic fertilizers like meal and grain products can also be a great choice - as they do provide more than just N, P, and K....


    Bookmark   March 31, 2012 at 10:52AM
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garycinchicago(Z5 Chicago IL.)

Here is a beautiful example of using the right tool for the job.

This is a shade tolerant KBG cultivar (Brilliant) and a fine fescue mix called "Bonnie Dunes" under the canopy of trees.

Enjoy Billhill's picture!

    Bookmark   March 31, 2012 at 3:18PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

DUDE! Where has billhill been and why have I never seen that picture before? I did not know there was a shade tolerant KBG variety. That's amazing?

Back to citress, thanks for the photo. You have classic fescue that has weakened for some reason. If you had more fescue clumps it would not look clumpy, so seeding in the fall with fescue will work. With your surrounding trees you might not have a weed problem - too much shade for most weeds.

Your shade does not compare with billhill's photo. If you would like a lawn like his (and who wouldn't!?), that will require a renovation. You could seed the Elite Brilliant seed in with yours and it would look like billhill's lawn interspersed with yellow clumps of fescue. When I say yellow, the Elite KBGs are so dark green that even a non Elite KBG looks yellow when mixed in.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2012 at 6:04PM
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Brilliant was the top rated cultivar in the 2000 NTEP shade trials for KBG (there was no 2005 shade trial). These trials are no joke, they are in deep shade. I contacted the professor, Dr. Ken Diesburg, who did these trials, here is what the trial site is like in his words:

"My shade trials are completely shaded, normally. The big wind of May
8, 2009, felled a few trees in the tall fescue shade trial. So two
patches of sunlight are making their way across the trial as the
canopy heals, adding error to the trial. Even so, larger LSDs should
reflect the increase in error. The typical irradiance intensity in
my trials is 300 to 400 micro-moles per meter-squared-second, which
is at the lower irradiance threshold for complete photosynthesis by
cool-season grasses such as tall fescue. In a nut-shell, the shade is strong.
I mow at a 3-inch clip; fertilize 2 to 3 lb N/1000 sq
ft/year; irrigate only to prevent summer dormancy. A post-emergent
herbicide is applied only in the case where broadleaf weeds might
threaten to ruin the data. The tall fescue trial received two
applications over the past four years."

Those felled trees were not an issue for the 2000 shade trials. Now the problem is that Brilliant was pulled off the market about a year ago due to low seed yields. Unfortunately if a great cultivar can't produce a lot of seeds it's phased out. The only Brilliant left on the market is old stock, and the germination rate (tested this year) is 70%. Now there are others that did well, but not as well as Brilliant. Now if your shady area gets no sun, then I suggest don't even bother trying grass. But if you get 3-4 hours in the morning, most of the top performers should be OK. Tall fescue is more shade tolerant than KBG, and if you decide to go that route, then I suggest your reference the 2005 NTEP's for tall fescue before selecting a cultivar as some TF doesn't do as well in deep shade.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2012 at 8:26PM
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garycinchicago(Z5 Chicago IL.)

>"DUDE! Where has billhill been and why have I never seen that picture before? I did not know there was a shade tolerant KBG variety. That's amazing?"

You're right, Dave, - that picture *IS* special and we need a little more Billhill .... but rumor has it, he got overwhelmed with family things.

But to that pictures credit, it's the Bonnie Dunes fine fescue mix that shines!

    Bookmark   March 31, 2012 at 10:55PM
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Thanks everyone for your replies.

I have a couple of follow up questions:
1) I plan on overseeding the lawn this fall, are there any recommended seed brands? I live in Northern Virginia (if that helps).
2) Might aerating the lawn help in my case? We probably won't do it because it sounds expensive, but I'm just curious because my husband says that's the lawn care companies made up to make money and doesn't really help the soil.

Thanks everyone!

    Bookmark   April 9, 2012 at 11:14AM
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Billl(z7 nc)

Aeration helps compacted soil. If your soil is compacted, it will help. If it isn't compacted, it won't help.

A quick way to test is to take a screwdriver and stick it in the ground. If it goes in up to the handle without too much fuss, your soil is great. If you have a lot of trouble pushing down into the soil, so will your grass roots. While it is possible to keep a shallow rooted lawn going, it is a whole lot easier if the roots can get down into the soil where moisture levels stay more constant.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2012 at 1:06PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

citress I tend to agree with your hubby on aeration. billl and I agree on just about everything but apparently not on compaction. You did not mention compaction but only asked if aeration might help. My personal opinion is that aeration is a waste of time. I can understand how people make it work, but I think there is a better way (faster, cheaper, easier) to get the same result. First it would help to understand why you thought to aerate. Is your soil hard even when wet? Does water runoff before soaking in? Has it been used for sports like baseball, football, tennis or soccer?

Compaction is a special case of soil damage. Before you can compact the soil, it has to be somewhat mobile when pushed on. That requires moisture. The more moisture the easier it is to compact. Once the soil is pretty moist, then you have to have repeated mechanical impact on the soil. That could be caused by livestock (even dogs) or by a sports activity. For example the soil to the left of home plate will become compacted if baseball is played when the soil is moist. If the soil is never moist, then the firmness will prevent the soil from moving on itself resulting in no compaction. The act of compacting the soil is to push the soil particles together and force out all the air. When that soil dries it is as hard as an unfired brick. Adobe brick is made by driving the air out of mud and compacting it into brick shapes.

To distinguish compacted soil from hard soil, I believe this is what happens. Soil is made soft by the organic matter in the soil. Organic matter consists of dead organic matter (old roots, etc.) and living organic matter (bacteria and fungi along with protozoa, microarthropods, and worms). When organic matter gets moist, it swells up and pushes everything around it away. When it dries out again, everything hardens up. Picture a sponge which is soft when wet and hard when dry. When the organic matter is moist you can step on it and it will give a little. That is exactly what soft soil feels like. When it dries out again, it will be very hard and will not pass the screwdriver test that billl described. So I'm saying you could have hard soil that is compacted or hard soil that is not compacted. But I'm also suggesting that most home owners do not have truly compacted soil.

Well that was probably more reading than anyone had planned to do. Hope some of you are still with us, because I'm just getting to the practical part of this. Several years ago I came up with a way to soften your soil using soaker hoses. It took weeks to do a small area and you had to buy lots of hose. Then about 2 years ago, one of the moderators on another forum tried using the soil softening products found in nurseries. Those are expensive by the gallon, but they worked. Frankly I'm not sure even he thought they would work but they did. Then he set about duplicating the formula for the products. One of the products is basically yucca juice. The other one is basically liquid soap. He combined the two recipes and published his recipe on another forum. With his recipe you can buy the products on eBay and make a lifetime supply for about $20. My approach was to simplify everything and try using just baby shampoo. I was not surprised to find it worked. The way you use it is to apply twice when irrigating with one watering in between the two apps. The app rate is 3 ounces per 1,000 square feet of area. If your lawn is 3,000 square feet, you put 9 ounces into a hose end sprayer and try to spray it evenly over the entire area. When the soap is gone from the sprayer, you're finished. Spray the soap, irrigate about an inch, and repeat in a couple weeks. That's all for the season.

Back to the OP, I don't think it will help to core aerate. I think it might help to spray soap if your soil is hard even when moist. Spraying soap is easy and inexpensive. You might try it to see what happens. I would suggest only baby shampoo. I use the generic brand from Wal-Mart.

Lagniappe: Using soap on the lawn was first made popular by "America's Master Gardener, Jerry Baker." And he was laughed at in all the forums for his potions to cure this, that, and the other thing. Well, here we are spraying soap on the lawn.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2012 at 8:13PM
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Billl(z7 nc)

I disagree with your description of compaction. All compacted means if that the soil particles are tightly bound with little room for water or air movement. It doesn't not take a herd of animals or anything similar to compact soil. All it takes is time and gravity. It just naturally gets pushed down over time. If you have healthy garden soil teaming with life, you have ton of little critters mechanically providing small scale continuous aeration. If not, gravity slowly pulls the soil down into a compacted mess.

Baby soap will certainly soften your soil - for about a week. It is just a surficant and makes water absorption easier by breaking down surface tension.

I agree that annual aeration is probably a waste of time. You should just adjust your cultural practices to favor healthy soil. In the short term though, mechanical aeration is a quick way to help jumpstart a neglected space.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 8:28AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

billl I agree with what you said. I did not go that far. Soil teaming with microbes will provide continuous aeration. When you let those microbes die, then the soil will settle and fill in where the microbes were. You're calling that compaction. I supposed it is, but it is not the mechanical compaction I described. I don't think you can create bricks without mechanically removing the air.

I used shampoo last summer when I got behind on watering during the drought. Our drought consisted of low rainfall, high temperatures, and very low humidity. My soil is still (too) soft when it gets wet from that app of soap. Give it a whirl and see what you think.

I just noticed that the OP is getting all this discussion in her email. Maybe we should take the compaction discussion to a new topic.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 8:49PM
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I lived in NM. My natural soil was caliche. I wanted a garden--a REAL garden, not some horrible stretch of gravel with a couple of prickly things on it.

I added about 3" of topsoil and a couple of bags of manure--which was really only a fine dusting--where I wanted my beds. I then had to water to soften the ground enough to get into the beds with anything but a pickaxe. (Literally, a pickaxe.) It's a huge no-no, but it was the only way to drill a hole big enough to squeeze a plant in.

The combination of the plants' roots, regular watering (every other day for the first summer, then twice a week for the first fall, then once a week the next year), additional plant matter created by the fallen leaves, and that little kick-start of top soil was enough to make the entire bed into honest-to-goodness garden soil in one year. You could dig with a trowel after than, and you could even find earthworms!

If needing a pickaxe or three hours of slow soaking isn't compaction, I don't know what is. It might not be brick, but it's close.

The same thing happened here in MD when I made a garden bed on a patch of lawn--lawn that was pretty darned good looking before I put my garden on it, BTW. When I first dug holes to put in bushes, it was extremely difficult. Now, I step on the spade and it goes all the way in. The difference is that all that lovely grass became compost, and I add a bunch more compost and mulch every year.

A nice, thick layer of mulch or plant matter keeps moisture in the ground and lets the micro-organisms go to work, if there's food to munch on. I haven't figured out how to make that work on the bare parts of my lawn under the trees, though. The baby shampoo looks like a start. If I could get a good top growth, no matter how jacked up on fertilizers, it could start a nice rolling chain reaction that could get me the kind of soil I really want.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 2:38AM
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