Northern Lawns, Made in the Shade

I’m driven to write this because I saw something recently advising anyone trying to grow grass in the shade to use sod, not seeds. But the right seed mix will overcome most seeding problems, even in the shade.

The problem with sod, in the north, at least, is that very few types of grass are available, so if people are looking for sod in the north, they’ll all too often end up with Kentucky Bluegrass. Kentucky blue is a lousy choice anywhere in the western US or Canada because it requires a lot of water, and a poor choice for shade, because it requires a lot of sun. (More on the water issue in upcoming posts.)

A couple of companies (see below) have recently developed seed mixes specifically for northerners, consisting of several different fine-bladed fescues. These grasses, developed from natives that grow well in shade, put down deep roots (for grass), which makes them extremely drought-resistant. They grow more slowly in summer (needing less mowing) than in spring or fall, and top out at about eight inches, so in some places it’s not necessary to mow at all. Fescue mixes are therefore ideal for lawns in the north, in the west, or in any cooler area where water-use is an issue–which means just about everywhere, these days.

Establishing such grasses certainly takes longer than establishing sod or even than growing Kentucky bluegrass from seed. KB has rhizomes, shoots that extend outwards from the roots and start new plants. Most fescues are bunch grasses which propagate through seeds (and seeds never develop on most lawns) or through tillers, new shoots that grow up on the outside of already established plants, extending their size.

Since fescues sprout more slowly than some other grasses, weeds have an excellent opportunity to move in and take over. This is one of the reasons many people advise against seeding lawns with fescue, especially in shady areas, since shade will slow growth even more.

The solution is to include an annual ryegrass in the seed mix. The rye-grass sprouts quickly and will help hold the fort till the fescues establish themselves, then dies off in the fall, leaving the field (or fort) to the fescues.

I haven’t tried seed from either of these companies, so please don’t take this as an endorsement!  They’re just the two I happened to encounter in the course of my research.

Bluestem Nursery Enviroturf

Wildflower Farm EcoTurf

One Response to Northern Lawns, Made in the Shade

  1. Such a great post Kate. We’re getting rid of most of the grass, bit by bit. But, we do want a grassy area for the kids. We’re dealing with a lot of dry, sunny areas, but also dry shady areas under the large trees. I was thinking of a clover lawn, but I’ll keep these seed mixes in mind too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *