Try groundcovers instead of grass in shade

I covered this subject about a year ago, but I’m still getting questions about it in emails and when I’m out on projects for Randy Lemmon Consulting.   

Typical: “Why is grass not growing under my trees?” And “What grass do you recommend for shade?” 

The answers are (1) Grass won’t grow in shade, because it needs at least six hours of sun daily. (2) I don’t. 

Yes, there are a few grasses marketed as “shade-tolerant” or “shade-adaptable.” But in Southeast Texas, I believe only the Zeon and Zorro varieties of Zoysia can handle filtered light. I don’t think any type of turf will thrive in total shade, especially Bermuda and St. Augustine. 

Even the few grasses that are said to be a bit shade-tolerant can’t keep up with competition for nutrients and moisture in the soil from mature tree roots. A tree is always going to win the battle.   

So, instead of trying some new turf being marketed with claims it can handle shade, let’s do what Houstonians have been doing for the past 40 years - working in groundcovers that can actually handle shade and competition from mature tree roots. 

Mondo GrassPhoto: Southern Living

Now, before you run out to load up on flats and pots of groundcovers, remember our “starting over” protocol for grass: Kill, Till, Fill and Sod. When replacing sickly turf with a groundcover, you’ll need to kill off any existing grass, till out all the dead stuff, bring in an inch or so of really healthy soil (like rose soil), and till that into the existing dirt. Then, the new groundcover’s roots will have room to take hold. Unlike turf that can just be laid on top of tilled soil, groundcover roots need to be planted into a couple of inches.

Below are some groundcovers you can try. With some, you can often incorporate stones that will add a tasteful look and reduce the number of plants needed.

Asian JasminePhoto: Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

  • Asian Jasmine
  • Algerian Ivy
  • English Ivy
  • Monkey Grass
  • Dwarf Monkey Grass
  • Liriope
  • Variegated Liriope
  • Ferns (almost any type)   

If you can think of others that might be added, please email me or call 713-212-KTRH (5872) this weekend during the radio show.

To see a myriad of lawns whose owners have figured out groundcovers, take a drive through the Rice University or Bellaire areas. You’ll see everything from Asian Jasmine and dwarf monkey grass to ferns.

Monkey GrassPhoto: Getty Images

I will warn you that many groundcovers great for shade can get wiped out by simple winters or harsh summers. Examples of those include hostas, creeping Jenny and impatiens, so I didn’t include them in the list.

By the way, with groundcover you will never again need to mow your lawn. Sure, it’ll need a clean-up and light pruning a time or two, and you have to feed groundcovers and keep them watered, but those in the list have the ability to really be low- to no-maintenance. 


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