Rent Shop Volunteer Join

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?

Share

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

 
rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

Thursday - August 19, 2010

From: McKinney, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Shade Tolerant
Title: Grasses for shade in McKinney TX
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

Dear Sir, We have lived in the same house for 25 years and when we originally moved in we had St. Augustine sod installed and for several years it did very well until my trees started getting bigger and then the grass in the shaded areas got very thin. In addition, for several years during the winter, I would use annual rye to over seed and in the past 3-4 years have gone to over seeding with perennial rye & fescue and during the past few winters the grass has looked great but, as you already know it seems that it takes even longer for my St.Augustine/Bermuda blend even longer to gain strength during the growing season. I just had a lot of my trees trimmed to allow more indirect lighting and would like your recommendations for what type of grass you would plant that would compliment the remaining St. Augustine. I have a neighbor with a lot of trees and he has a really nice stand of Fescue and it does very well in the shaded areas. Thank You for your assistance.

ANSWER:

We get a lot of questions every year from people who sound like they are married to their lawns. It's got to be perfect, cover everything right up to the trunks of the trees, green all year, etc. We feel you may be in that category. 

St. Augustine grass, Stenotaphrum secundatum, is native to Africa and therefore out of our range of expertise. Although it is somewhat shade tolerant, it does need some sun to prosper and all grasses find it difficult to do well in the shade of big trees, where their roots are in competition and sometimes the trees (especially oaks) have allelopathic qualities, whereby they emit substances that will discourage grasses or other plants from growing beneath them. Bermudagrass, Cynodon dactylon, is native to Africa and Asia and, especially in the American South, has become one of the most invasive weeds in existence. It requires full sun.

There are some native lawn grasses being developed, but they all need full sun, which we consider to be 6 hours or more of sun a day.  And they need protection from weeds and extra care, at least until they are well-established. You may have to accept that you are not going to have a perfect year-round lawn. Some of the shaded areas may need to be replaced with beds of native shade plants, including some native ornamental grasses. The areas directly under the trees should probably be mulched with a shredded bark mulch. This will shade the tree roots, help keep them cool or warm, depending on the season, and hold in moisture. As the mulch decomposes (and it will have to be periodically renewed) the decomposed material will help the soil, enriching it and improving drainage. 

We are not too familiar with the overseeding process of annual grasses to keep the area green in winter, but it does require a good deal in resources, water, seed and fertilizer, and then summer grasses with which you are already having difficulty are going to have to cope with the winter grasses. You probably have a lovely property, but in these days of diminishing resources, a lower use of those resources is certainly a better environmental choice. Cheaper, too. 

So, on to your neighbor's fescues. There are three members of the Festuca (Fescue) genus native to Texas:

Festuca rubra (red fescue) - intolerant of shade

Festuca subverticillata (nodding fescue) - can tolerate part shade, 2 to 6 hours of sun

Festuca versuta (Texas fescue) 

None of these is shown in the USDA Plant Profiles as being native to more than a few counties in Texas, although you could no doubt purchase them in grass nurseries. 

The main point we want to make is that selecting another grass and another and another in pursuit of the perfect lawn is not going to work. You need to rethink your lanscaping, putting shade tolerant plants in the shade, mulching bare areas over the tree roots, and confining the lawn grasses to areas with plenty of sun. If you let the plants do what they want to do naturally, you will spend less money on water, fertilizer and plants, spend less time trying to coax them into viability, and have the opportunity to enjoy your valuable trees and their shade. 

 

 

More Shade Tolerant Questions

Plants for a Narrow, Dry, Shaded Site in Georgia
April 03, 2014 - I am writing from Valdosta, GA. Could you please suggest three perennial shrubs and/or plants that flower at different times of the spring and summer? Also ones that can be planted in a 2 ft. wide s...
view the full question and answer

Shade groundcover under Magnolia in Austin, Texas
June 25, 2009 - I have a 50' Magnolia grandiflora casting full shade underneath with very shallow and some exposed roots. I have Horseherb (calyptocarpus vialis)in the area and have been encouraging it to spread und...
view the full question and answer

Texas native shade plants for metal troughs in Austin
December 22, 2012 - Interested in finding Texas natives that would do well in metal troughs in the shade.
view the full question and answer

Shade grasses for central Texas
November 16, 2014 - We are new to the area and bought a home this summer that has lots of shade in the very small backyard. The problem is that there was new sod laid in the backyard which now is 50% dead. We do not kno...
view the full question and answer

transplanting Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris)
October 25, 2011 - Behind our house is a huge grotto with a spring flowing through it that runs into a creek. Because of the constant flow of water, there are many of the Maidenhair Ferns (Adiantum capillus-veneris). I ...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.