Best Grass Seeds for Shaded Lawns

Growing and maintaining a beautiful lawn is not only a case of picking the right mower. Did you know that over 25% of lawns in the US today are shaded to some degree or other? Unfortunately an increasing number of us do not live atop a sun drenched plateau near the subtropics. The difficulty faced when tackling a degree of limited sunlight exposure will vary according to a variety of different values, including:

  •  The local climate;
  •  The makeup of the soil you use;
  •  The surrounding types of plants;
  •  Most importantly,the type of grass you use and the degree of light actually available to that grass;

Therefore, obtaining a perfect lush green turf in the shaded areas of your lawn, isn't as simple as just choosing any of the seeds more suitable to shade and leaving them to grow. Understanding the best grass seeds for shaded lawns will highly influence your success or failure. It is worth pointing out, that if an area receives less than four hours of sun daily, unfortunately it is quite unlikely that you will cultivate a successful and vibrant turf there.

Types Of Grass Seeds For Shade

Warm Season Grass For Shade

These grass types are recommended for areas of lawn that are obstructed from the sun by something other than trees or other plants, as they will not have the benefit from the fall seeding of Cool Season grasses, which takes advantage of the lack of competition from leaves. They should be seeded in mid-spring (depending on location.)

1. Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon)

Bermuda grass

This popular grass seed is very hard-waring and easy to maintain, which is the reason it is considered one of the best warm season seeds for shaded areas, providing the shade doesn't allow it to become too cool.

Whether the 'common' or more attractive 'Hybrid' variation, it is spoken of with fondness by all who have worked with it.

Most productive in warmer climates, with a soil temperature exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it will enter a dormant state when cooler weather arrives, turning a light-brown color.​

Some cultivars are only able to be established by use of vegetative propagation, such as sod, sprigs or plugs, but once established it offers exceptional resistance to drought, disease and weeds.
It also boasts a very forgiving pH tolerance, performing well between 5.0 to 8.0, preferably over 5.5.

The best degree of watering to apply ranges according to such a broad spectrum of variables that it is best to let your Bermuda grass tell you how much water is correct. If you notice the color leaving the deep green range and becoming a lighter, slightly bluer color, you need to increase your watering frequency accordingly. And remember, in such warm soil, that water is evaporating out again at a much higher rate, so be more vigilant with your monitoring of the soil saturation. With it's excellent tolerance to other factors, water and warmth are your primary concern when cultivating Bermuda grass in a shaded area.

As for mowing bermuda grass, with it's tendency to become thinner the longer it is allowed to grow, the common consensus is not to let it exceed 1.5 – 2.0 inches and mow twice per week, though in shade it's recommended to allow up to 3 inches, both to take advantage of the limited sunlight, but also to help keep the soil as warm as possible.

2. Kikuyu Grass (Pennisetum clandestinum)

Kikuyu Grass (Pennisetum clandestinum)

This plant will be familiar to anybody who's ever seen an Australian lawn, though you might be surprised to find it is also a viable option for those individuals growing in shade.

Kikuyu is very tolerant to wear-and-tear, making it a perfect lawn for those with children or pets. A very fast growing grass, Kikuyu propagates very quickly indeed, and is very resilient as far as water, temperature and disease are concerned.

However, the double-edged sword dictates that as a result of its superb regrowth rate and ability to repair, you will find yourself mowing several times a week to keep your lawn from becoming overgrown.

With an ideal pH of 6.5, this grass provides a fantastic option for those whose lawn receives a moderate level of shade, however, may not be able to cope with less than 5 hours of sunlight a day.

3. Carpetgrass (Axonopus fissifolius)

Carpetgrass (Axonopus fissifolius)

This is a slightly more challenging and maintenance-heavy plant to maintain in the shade than the others, having poor tolerance to drought and temperature, and performing poorly outside a pH range of 4.5 – 5.5, as well as a very low salt tolerance, this requires a great deal of care, and must be mowed regularly with the addition of fertilizers for greater results (though it's tolerance to fertility is actually very good relatively).

However, if these conditions can be met, it will thrive in moderate-high levels of shade. Whilst not quite as shade tolerant as St. Augustines, a well maintained, healthy lawn provides a more vibrant view than it's hardier alternative, and is much more tolerant to everyday wear-and-tear.

4. St. Augustine (Stenographer secundatum)

St. Augustine (Stenographer secundatum)

If your lawn suffers from a high level of shade, down to four hours of sunlight a day, then St. Augustine is probably the best option 90% of the time as far as warm season grass goes. It really is the best at coping with shaded, dark conditions.

As well as this it boasts excellent pest and disease resistance, as well as being tolerant in regards to water and heat (though will not tolerate compacted or waterlogged soil, so bear that in mind when laying your base).

Its pH range is another satisfying quality, performing comfortably between 5.0 – 8.5 range (although it will develop a chloratic appearance above pH 7.5, so bring the acidity up slightly if this occurs). The downside of course, is it is not suitable to high-traffic areas, owing to it's poor recovery rate from wear-and tear.

Also, it is very unsuitable to cold conditions. Some gardeners have been known to lay down Wimbledon Arena-style covers on nights when cold frosts are forecast, to help keep that vital warmth down in the soil as much as possible.

Mowing is recommended once a week in summer and early autumn, and left to grow dormant during the winter. For heavily shaded areas, it is best to let your grass grow around the 3 inch mark. Mowing weekly a this height should reduce the need for thatching too much, which can actually be to the detriment of the plant.

5. Zoysia grass (Zoysia sp)

Zoysiagrass (Zoysia sp)

There are three cultivars of Zoysia grass that are suitable for moderately shaded areas, they are 'Emerald', 'Zeno' and the slightly more tolerant 'El Toro'.

Be aware that Zoysia grass is a very invasive plant, and particularly in cooler climates, it will spread to all areas of your (and your neighbor's) gardens. It also has a very low tolerance to drought and salt, Although it does not actually require very frequent watering as long as you remain vigilant against the soil drying out.

Other problems are its slow rate of growth. And while this does mean less time spent mowing, you will spend that time thatching your lawn, which is a problem with Zoysia, and means a much more labor-intensive task.

These cultivars would be best suited to a soil pH of around 8.0. Discoloration will occur if the pH drops below 7.0.

Zoysia is more vulnerable to disease than most grasses, and due to it's prolonged annual dormant period, it's ability to recover from disease is significantly compromised.

It is recommended to mow this grass at between 2.5- 3.0 inches in shaded areas.

Cool Season Grass For Shaded Lawns

1. Rough Bluegrass (Poa trivialis)

Rough Bluegrass (Poa trivialis)

Starting with the most tolerant to shade, rough bluegrass can do exceptionally well provided it is kept in fairly damp soil. Despite being considered an invasive weed to some, it is used for decoration in many gardens in America these days. If an area is too damp and dark to sustain anything else, this may provide a much more productive use of shaded, damp ground-space. Kentucky bluegrass is adapted to a wide range of environmental conditions but does best in soils of moderate to high fertility and soil ph of 6 to 8.

2. Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)

Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)

This grass will tolerate moderate shade quite well, being native to the meadows and valleys of northern Europe it has evolved naturally to adapt to darker conditions. Whilst it prefers moist soil, this hardy perennial has the ability to become dormant during droughts, minimizing the effect on ground-cover, and speeding up the recovery time after a dry period.

They are most suitably adapted to areas of the US in the 'transition zone' and yield the greatest results when in a well-drained but moist, clay-rich soil.

It will, given adequate care and maintenance, perform well in even heavily shaded areas that are simply too dark for warm season grass varieties. It must not be mowed shorter than 1 ½ inches however. And in shaded areas, you should really not be going below 2 ½ inches.

It has a strong pH tolerance, ranging from 4.5 to 9.0, but excels when the soil is maintained between 6.0 to 7.0

3. Fine Fescues (Festuca sp)

Fine Fescues (Festuca sp)

A less common turf grass, the fine fescues will provide some resistance to shade, as well as boasting excellent resistance to salt (6-10 mmhos/cm) , cold and drought.

In fact they prefer a dryer soil and will not grow in overly damp conditions.

It will provide a fantastic leaf density, even in poor soil conditions. Germination is also a very speedy process, allowing the grass to start taking advantage of that extra light at ground level during Fall.

This species however, does not flourish in high-traffic areas, and its recovery is a sow process. Regular thatching is required and mowing can be a difficult process, due to the high leaf density, and the fine texture of the blades.

Soil pH is recommended to be maintained between 5.00 to 6. More info on Fine Fescues can be found here.

4. Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)

Fine Fescues (Festuca sp)

If your lawn only suffers from partial shade, Kentucky Bluegrass may be worth considering, particularly 'Glade' and 'Bensun' having the highest shade tolerance.

The only things to be aware of are its inability to cope with high temperatures, drought and high traffic, this grass has very good capabilities and has a good tolerance to everything else. It prefers moderate to high fertility, and mowing is recommended every 5 or 6 days in shaded areas down to a minimum of 2.0 inches. Optimum soil pH is between 6.0 to 8.0

Things to consider

The success you will achieve will rely on your ability to adapt to your environment. In the immediate sense, this means considering how to maximize the light available to your grass.
This can range from removing the lower leaves of trees, or adapting your garden with plants and trees that have deeper roots and will drain less water and nutrients away from the grass roots.

Is there anything near the lawn that you have painted? Like a fence or shed? It's surprising how much difference painting a surrounding fence or wall with a brilliant white sheen can make. Be quick to remove any tree leaves that have fallen on your turf as soon as possible. Remember, Fall is the time of year your grass is able to take advantage of increased light and store the energy for future.

This storing of energy is done in the form of carbohydrates in the roots, and when nutrients are sparse and conditions unfavorable, the grass will take energy out of the roots.

This makes root growth essential in the shade, and a phosphorus fertilizer is recommended, but do check it is suitable for the grass you choose.

You must also consider the wider environment, and seek the opinions of a number of local merchants and lawn gardeners to see what they recommend for your local climate.