For all 45 years that I’ve been doing my radio programs I’ve kept logs of all the questions that have prompted listeners to call in for help. Season after season, for all those years, “Lawns” have been the source of 32% of the calls, and one question stands out above all the rest.
For one reason or another, almost every homeowner eventually asks, “What’s the best grass I can grow in the shade?” Sometimes it’s between two-story houses. Sometimes it’s against the north side “where the sun just don’t shine.” But usually it’s beneath shade trees that have grown taller and wider, casting long shadows from dawn until dusk.
My wife and I raised our family here in the Metroplex. We’re on 11 rural acres that are almost entirely covered by native pecans. At the outset we had enough sunlight that the boys and I could play ball on bermuda. Then I switched over to St. Augustine. But gradually, as the trees grew together, even the St. Augustine began to grow thin. Trimming to remove lower branches and unneeded trees didn’t help much, and so it became obvious that I was going to have to take a 90-degree turn in my travels and switch to a shade-tolerant ground cover that could survive on little or no direct sunlight.
I had (and still have) several beds of Asian jasmine and purple wintercreeper euonymus in the shade, but leaves get hung up when I try to blow them out in the fall. In any new plantings I save those ground covers for full sun. I used English ivy and Persian ivy (a large-leafed sister that I finally found and propagated), but they developed fungal issues one rainy spring, so I pulled back. Liriope is great, but it’s too tall, and dwarf mondo is nice, but it’s way too expensive and glacially slow.
But the ground cover that was “just right” also happens to be the one that goes by several common names: mondograss (regular, not dwarf), monkeygrass, ophiopogon and lilyturf. For the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to refer to it hereafter as “mondograss.” Botanical snobs can refer to it as “Ophiopogon japonicus,” but that’s probably not a good conversation starter at the dinner party.
Let me count the ways mondograss wins as a ground cover in shady locations.
▪ It’s readily available. In fact, you can often find people who want to share it because they’re changing a bed over to something else. Or they have more than they need. Once you have a bed, you can usually harvest your own new plants for use elsewhere in your landscape.
▪ It’s easily dug and divided, and at any time of the year. Fall is a sensational time, because it lets the new planting become established before next summer’s heat boils back into town.
▪ It requires modest bed preparation. Kill all the existing grass and weeds by using a glyphosate-only herbicide (no other active ingredients). Give the weedkiller spray 10 to 15 days to do its work, then rototill 4-6 inches deep. Incorporate twp inches of well-rotted compost and rototill again. Rake to a smooth grade.
▪ It’s quick to cover. Dig it in tennis-ball-sized clumps and space them eight inches apart checkerboard style. If you keep it well watered and fertilized those clumps should grow together by this time next fall.
▪ It is excellent at holding soil in erosion-prone sites. In those instances, you should prepare the soil differently. You may want to plant the mondograss into holes you dig specifically clump by clump. That will leave as little loose soil as possible to wash away in case of heavy rain. Plant the clumps much closer together so that their roots can bond the soil together more quickly.
It helps if you use jute landscape netting over the top of the soil to give rushing water a different surface over which to flow. As the mondograss establishes it will grow up through the jute netting. Within a year or two the netting will decay and disappear. I have even used cut logs as water diverters just a few feet away from our creek to slow the flow of runoff over the banks of the creek as the mondograss is starting to get established.
• You will probably never see the first insect or disease bother mondograss in your landscape. It’s one of the most durable landscape plants that we have. I’ve been growing it for more than 50 years and I’ve seen ice damage on it only two times, and each time new growth quickly filled in the following spring.
• Fertilize mondograss in early March, early May and early September with a high-quality, all-nitrogen lawn fertilizer (no weedkiller included). Water it deeply after the feeding. After that, stand back and prepare to be pleased.