Types of grass that grow in clay with very little sunlight face more challenges than other grasses. Clay soils are made up of small particles that are tightly packed together. The particles retain too much water and do not allow enough air to filter through them to develop a robust root system. Choosing shade-tolerant grasses does not ensure success because they actually prefer sun. Shade-tolerant grass require careful management as they are often weaker and thinner if planted in the shade. Gardeners can start adapting cultural practices to fit grasses for clay and shade by mowing high to promote better root development.
Turf-type Tall Fescue
Tall fescue serves as an ideal turf-grass selection for well-drained clay soils in the Transition Zone between northern and southern regions of the United States. Tall fescue shows excellent shade and drought tolerance and remains green year-round with regular irrigation. The deep rooted, cool-season perennial grass grows rapidly in the spring and fall and develops a bunch-type habit. The leaf-blades have serrated margins and glossy undersides. Turf-type tall fescue does not blend well with other grasses with the exception of non-aggressive bluegrasses.
Bahia grass prefers sandy soils but adapts to wet, clay soils. Bahia grass grows in an area that stretches from North Carolina, south to Florida and west to Texas. Bahia grass will grow with very little sunlight and demonstrates drought tolerance. The warm-season, perennial grass does best in late spring through summer and develops a mat-forming habit. The grass spreads by seed and short rhizomes. The rhizomes form large fibrous roots that contribute to a dense, but uneven lawn. The leaf foliage is dark-green and coarse.
The fine fescue group comprises five species that tolerate poor soils, including clay: Chewings fescue, creeping red fescue, hard fescue and slender creeping red fescue. Fine fescues exhibit excellent shade tolerance and adapt well to the cooler temperatures of the northern United States, especially the coastal areas of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. Some fescues are better suited for lawn turf than others. Chewings fescue produces a dark-green, low-maintenance lawn with an aggressive bunch-type habit that prevents weed invasion. Sheep fescue yields a finely-textured, blue-green grass, but it does not produce an elegant lawn.