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Skaggs: Fighting for grass in the shade? There are alternatives.

POSTED: February 5, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Trying to maintain a thick, healthy lawn in a shady, "light-challenged" location is a losing proposition.

Grass won’t spread well and where the lawn is weak and thin, other better-adapted plants are sure to move in — including moss, chickweed, spurge, dichondra and other weeds.

Why not avoid the frustration of trying to grow good grass in the shade? You can turn your landscaping "sow’s ear" into a shade garden "silk purse" that will provide you with gratification rather than aggravation.

But before making any drastic changes, first assess how you use the shady portions of your yard.

If you’re content to replace the lawn with beds of shrubs, woodland wildflowers, shade-tolerant perennials such as ferns and hosta and expanses of interesting groundcovers, you should have no difficulty — except for the challenge of deciding which combination of plants you prefer.

One of the toughest obstacles to overcome when landscaping what used to be grass is the need to walk about freely in the shaded area.

Grass is just about the only hardy groundcover that can withstand regular foot traffic. Other groundcovers might bounce back from dogs or cats running through them occasionally, but human footsteps will smash them down, often irreparably.

If your family includes young children who must use the shaded parts of your yard as a play area, you might re-think your attitude toward moss and many of the shade-loving weeds. Many have a prostrate growth habit and only need mowing two or three times over the summer. These can bounce back from a fair amount of foot traffic.

Another option would be to spread a thick layer of shredded bark in the children’s play area.

Bark mulch compresses over time, decomposing where it contacts the soil, so you’ll have to add more every couple of years. But shredded bark makes a resilient, safe surface for romping around. You can also use it to create footpaths and define spaces for benches or other garden furniture.

Now, how do you go about turning that dismal, shady lawn into an inviting shady garden? Begin by observing the shade gardens of friends and neighbors. Also, why not take the opportunity to visit the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Atlanta or the State Botanical Garden in Athens.

As for plants, most shade-tolerant flowering perennials are best suited for light rather than heavy shade. And they’re rarely as flamboyant as sun-loving flowers. Make up for this lack of color by planting interesting combinations of foliage. Contrast dark green leaves with lighter ones or foliage that’s variegated. Also, use plants with lacy leaves alongside those with big, bold leaves.

Finally, look at your new shade garden as a work in progress. It won’t happen all at once. Plan to experiment with different plants, then build on your successes each year. After giving up the battle to grow grass in shade, you’ll soon recognize shade for the landscape asset it really is.

For a more information on plant selection, check out the UGA Extension publication, "Compilation of Low Maintenance Plants for Georgia Landscapes."

Billy Skaggs is an agricultural agent and Hall County Extension Coordinator. Phone: 770-531-6988. Fax: 770-531-3994.



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