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Can’t Get Grass to Grow? Here’s Why

June 16, 2008

Homeowners struggling to grow grass under mature shade trees wage a losing battle. Each spring, they scuff up the spots where the lawn is missing or thin, then scatter new topsoil and grass seed.

They water. The grass seed germinates. But before long, the bare spots are back.

Big trees, especially shallow-rooted ones like some maples, cast dense shade, making it difficult to impossible for grass to survive underneath. In addition, the trees’ roots soak up most of the available water. No light, no water, no grass.

So change the game plan. Replace the grass under the tree with 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch or with a ground cover. As an extra benefit, that will also keep the tree’s trunk safe from damage during lawn mowing and trimming. Early spring bulbs like crocuses and snowdrops may be planted this fall amid the mulch or ground cover under the tree. The bulbs will flower and the leaves will mature in spring before the tree leafs out.

Right now, folks in some areas, including around Detroit, are likely to find an unusually high number of seeds, also known as helicopters, under maple trees. The big seed load is a response to stress on the trees during the 2007 growing season, Tom Dudek of the Michigan State University Extension writes in the Landscape Advisory Alert. In addition, frost-free conditions earlier this season led to plentiful flowering and seed production.

Meanwhile, in well drained, full sun beds where you want colorful blooms later this summer, plant tender bulbs and tubers like dahlias, gladiolus and cannas.

If you’re growing plants in containers, be ready to provide extra care. Monitor the soil around container-grown plants and water as needed, which may be once a day or even twice a day when the weather is sultry. Use a water-soluble fertilizer every other week for plants growing in full to part sun. Container plants growing in shade will get by with less frequent feedings.

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