Lawns in the Shade? Really?

Are lawns supposed to be in the shade?  No, not really.  Yet, as you gaze out the window at your landscape, even in winter, many lawns are covered in shade.  Even in winter, even without tree leaves to cast a shadow.  How did this happen?


First, how it happened.  The most likely scenario is that the previous homeowner of your property, or depending on how long you’ve been there, 2 or 3 homeowners ago, wanted a shade tree for their patio.  That makes sense; you can’t really enjoy a patio without some sort of cover.  Naturally, if they wanted one there, they probably wanted them all over the yard too, and started planting them hither and yon without any thought to what might eventually be underneath them.  Of course, in the first few years, it didn’t really matter, because the tree didn’t cast enough shade to matter.  However, over time, the tree grew and began to cover more and more of the space underneath, greatly reducing sunlight in the process.


Is the case of the expanding a tree a problem?  Yes and no.  If there is a desire for a lawngrass under the tree, then the answer is yes.  The tree will compete with the turf for sunlight and nutrients, and guess which will win?  Yep, the tree.  In some cases, the tree roots will even raise to the surface, causing a trip hazard.  Now, if the desire is for something else as long as it is healthy and attractive, then, no, there is not a problem.  The “something else” usually turns out to be more shade adapted plant material such as certain groundcovers, perennial flowers and shrubs.  This is the classic “Right Plant, Right Place” tenet.


So, now what?  In mid-winter, why should we be concerned with this issue?  It’s a matter of reflection and planning.  If the space under the trees is shady now, without the leaves, this is a great time to be asking if turfgrass is the best plant for this place.  One easy way is to count the numbers of direct sunlight that are received under the tree.


If it’s 0-4, then turf is not a good plant for the site.  Plans should be made to remove it and replant with something else; lots of choices are available.

If it’s 3-4, then it’s possible, with certain restrictions.  Keep it as long as it’s tall or fine fescue.

If it’s 5-6 or more, then turfgrass moves into the good plant category.


Keep in mind that the sun angle will change greatly in winter vs. summer, and that deciduous tree leaves add significant amounts of shade, so it’s wise to be honest and accurate with the evaluation.  After all, in winter, the site is being influenced by a low sun angle and stems/branches but no leaves.  It’s best to estimate on the low side.  Of course, keep shade from nearby houses and buildings into account as well.



John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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