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How to grow grass under a tree

Posted: August 21, 2014 9:51 a.m.
Updated: August 22, 2014 6:00 a.m.

I have many colleagues who are of the turf persuasion and we have come to an understanding to agree to disagree. I think grass is a weed, they think a tree is a weed -- in nature the two aren’t meant to meet. This is why only grass grows on the Great Plains and only trees grow in the forest. But since we aren’t on the Plains or in the forest, we try and get plants to co-exist in arranged landscape designs we like to see.

Take my Dad for example, who I often refer to as a “lawn ranger,” out there riding the grassy expanse of his Virginia property on his John Deere mower each week tending to the turfgrass. For many years, he battled to get grass to grow under or near the canopy of the beautiful large oak trees in his front yard. He would aerate, he would fertilize, he would apply lime, he would spread the seed of shade tolerant grasses and water, water, water -- year after year; all to no avail and despite the repeated attempts of his educated daughter to advise him otherwise. Finally, on one visit home he was proud to show me what he figured out. This is that you can’t really get a nice healthy full lawn to grow under the shade of a large tree. What did he do instead? He followed my advice, although he never admitted that it was me who planted the idea in the first place! 

My advice to him and to all of you out there trying desperately in vain to make grass grow under your tree(s) is to create a mulch bed. A mulch bed is nothing more than a circular area underneath the tree canopy. Ideally, a mulch bed is 3 to 4 inches thick and extends from the trunk out to the edges of the branches. The benefits of mulch are many and very important to trees and plants. Allow me to count the ways…

Mulch helps to maintain soil moisture, which is very important during the summer months. With mulch, water evaporation from the soil is reduced and can help minimize watering frequency. Mulch helps deter weed growth thereby reducing competition for water and nutrients. Some types of mulch can improve soil aeration, structure and drainage over time. Mulching around trees also helps facilitate maintenance and can reduce the likelihood of damage from “weed-whackers” (string trimmers) or “lawn mower blight” (repeated trunk damage from bumping into the tree). Lastly, mulch can provide a home landscape with a uniform, well-cared for look.

In my home landscape and on our newly planted trees, I like to use shredded hardwood or sometime referred to as double-hammered hardwood mulch as it performs better overall to its common counterpart pine straw. In the end it’s a personal choice on which to use just as long as it’s organic or biodegradable (wood chips, pine needles, shredded nut hulls or pine cones or leaves, etc.) and, that it’s installed properly; not too deep and not piled up against the tree trunk.

Now to be fair and balanced to my turf friends, there are many new turfgrass cultivars out there that are shade tolerant but still require a few hours of direct sun. So, an alternative to creating a mulch bed is to prune tree limbs to increase the amount and/or duration of sunlight reaching the ground. An increase in sunlight will help provide a better growing environment for grass. Keep in mind though, that pruning is the intentional wounding of a tree, it removes live leaves that are responsible for food production, it removes live wood responsible for water and nutrient transport to other parts of the tree and exposes the wood to potential decay fungi infection. The other more drastic option is to cut the tree down altogether and install sod, which, much to my horror, I have seen done in my neighborhood.

So, depending if you’re a turf person or a tree person the answer to the question is “It depends!” The tree people mulch, the turf people prune and sod. Either way, remember to water the trees or turf to keep them healthy and growing vigorously.


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