This is the Moss Garden at Ryoanji (Peaceful Dragon Temple) in Kyoto, Japan. Moss gardens require years of growth, great care, devotion, and plenty of irrigation, but they are doable. I have been working on one out in East Hampton for a number of years now and patching are beginning to merge.
I have a house in Brooklyn with quite a lot of trees that shade the property. I would like to grow grass on the property. Can you recommend a grass that would thrive in the New York City climate in the shade? Also, I am very intrigued by the Grasspave2 product at invisiblestructures.com -- are you familiar with this product and would you recommend it? It seekms to make for a very hard-wearing but attractive grass surface.
Thanks for writing. This is certainly a question I could go on and on about but I will try and keep my reply brief.
The reason I could go on and on is because at heart I’m really more of an arborist, and my personal love is trees. Trees thrive in a fungal-dominated soil where turf, because grass is a herbaceous plant and not a woody plant, tends to prefer a more bacterial-dominated soil. Mixing the two can be tricky because it’s not as natural a combination as most people like to think. Again, to revert to my arboreal nature, when you take a walk in the woods under established trees you simply do not find turf grasses. So, right off the bat I can say that this might not be the easiest task, but as we have seen here and there people have made it possible to incorporate both trees and turf in a small area.
Before I get to grass options, let’s talk amount of shade. Depending on how large and established the trees are, you want to first think about how much shade you are really dealing with. And without seeing the site this becomes more difficult for me to speak to, so you’ll have to make a few judgment calls. If the area underneath is so shady that right now nothing is growing, except maybe a few weeds, then grass might not be the best option. Proper horticulture is all about the right plant in the right place, and trying to force grass in too shady a location it simply won’t take and you’ll just get frustrated. If some light gets through, what we’d call dappled shade, then that can still be tricky for growing turf grasses. Many ferns as well as shade-tolerant plants like hostas and astilbe, those kinds of plants will do fine in dappled shade and can fill in a space pretty successfully in the course of a couple years. If there are large shadows cast by the trees but otherwise some direct sun hits the ground then turf grasses are perfectly viable.
Scott’s and other large scale gardening companies have made great strides in terms of the products they offer. Scott’s has shade tolerant grass seed mixes that, if the light is dappled shade or better, should take just fine. (I just checked and unfortunately their website is down, but you will see there products in any major retailer or garden center). Not always, but most of the time shade mixes have a combination of ryegrass, fescue, and bluegrass. Ryegrass is incorporated because it germinates quickly and gives you some instant gratification, but ryegrass doesn’t last forever. As it fades, the fescues and the bluegrasses take over. Fescues are great for both their shade and drought tolerance, but take a long time to germinate and get established. Bluegrass used to be more of a sun loving turf grass, but as growers have grown and cultivated new varieties there are more and more shade tolerant bluegrass species on the market every year.
I once wrote an article on alternatives to traditional turf grass species and here is a little excerpt from that as well:
“For turf style grasses in a shady environment turn to the sedges. Catlin sedge, Carex texensis, is a fine, short sedge well suited for partial to full shade. Even though considered to be tolerant of sun, you might find that too much sun will lead to faded foliage and the need for more water. Hardy from zone 6 down to zone 10, this is an excellent choice for hot climates of the south. For the same success in cooler locations, turn to Pennsylvania sedge, Carex pensylvanica. Also a short, fine sedge for shady applications, Pennsylvania sedge is a strong alternative due to its tolerance for a wide range of soils. An amazing characteristic of both these sedges, as passed on by a colleague of mine, is that they only need to be mowed two or three times a year. The third recommendation for this category is the finest textured of the three, Carex senta, or Baltimore sedge. Very similar to Carex texensis, Baltimore sedge performs excellently in shade. For this sedge, however, you may find that it requires more regular mowing than others.”
Sedges you will not find in seed form, but more sold as established plants. I would hope that some local nurseries in Brooklyn sell sedges along with their grasses.
As for that Grasspave product, I am not familiar with it, but based on the reading I have done, I do not think I would recommend it for a situation such as yours. For a larger area where vehicles are being driven often (playing fields, car dealerships, driveways) maybe that system is of benefit, but for a property in Brooklyn I would again focus more on planting the right plant for the right place. Different grasses have different wear tolerance as well as recuperative potential, two phrases you will want to familiarize yourself with more, and if you can find shade tolerant mixes with those additional characteristics you should be fine. Since you are probably going to be dealing most with basic foot traffic I would fear that investing in a product like GrassPave might be a waste of money. Once we figure out the best grass for your property then we can talk about how to best care for it. People can gravitate towards strong chemicals and extremes when simply cutting your grass at the optimal height along with proper fertilizing will help minimize basic wear and tear and allow you to maintain an attractive property.