Q: My lawn languishes under several large shade trees. Is there anything I can do short of cranking up the chain saw? — Paul Glmartin, Sunnyside, N.Y.
A: Turfgrass is a shameless sun lover. If it doesn’t catch enough rays, it sulks. In your case, the problem is aggravated because the grass has to compete with those trees for nutrients and water. Sure, you could attack the shade at its source by thinning the trees, but there are a few things you can do right now to give the grass a fighting chance.
First, raise your lawn mower, and let your grass grow up to 4 inches tall between mowings. The taller blades will have more photosynthesizing leaf surface to make use of the diminished sunlight. Then, haul out the sprinkler. If the lawn doesn’t get an inch of rainfall per week, irrigate deeply and slowly. This fall you can replace the grass with shade-tolerant fescues. Chewings fescue selections ‘Warwick’ and ‘Jamestown II,’ and the hard fescue ‘Reliant’ are all good varieties. Resodding will give you the fastest results, but overseeding is much easier. Start by mowing the area to a 2-inch height, then rough up the soil with a metal rake, and sow seed at 1 1/2 times the recommended rate.
Or you can take advantage of the sparse grass by interplanting small bulbs such as golden hoop petticoats, Narcissus bulbocodium, blue grape hyacinths, and crocus (Crocus tommasinianus is a good naturalizer and less favored by rodents than other varieties). These bulbs receive the sunlight they need in spring before the trees’ foliage has expanded, and then enjoy the cooler shaded soil the rest of the season. If all else fails, replant the struggling lawn with shade-loving perennials and ground covers. Evergreen ginger, epimediums, hostas, lamium, and Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumila’ are all good low-maintenance lawn substitutes.