If you think your yard has too much shade to grow vegetables, think again. There are plenty of vegetables and herbs that can be grown in constant dappled shade or in as little as three to six hours of sun.
Here’s the general rule for home vegetable growers plagued by what they think may be too much shade from their own trees or shade from those in a neighbors’ yard: Vegetables and herbs grown for their stems, leaves or buds will tolerate light shade. Some of these include:
Cooking greens, such as kale, collards, mustard greens and Swiss chard.
Lettuce, specifically the soft, loose-leaf types such as “Oakleaf," "Ruby Red" or "Salad Bowl." Don’t pull the plants up after your first harvest. Removing leaves encourages more to appear, which yield repeat harvests. Head lettuce, however, is not the best option for growing in shade.
Salad greens, including sorrel, endive, cress and arugula. These tasty additions to a salad mix will expand your options for flavor and texture.
Spinach, a cold-hardy vegetable that has growing requirements similar to lettuce.
Broccoli thrives in partial shade. (Photo: poppet with a camera/flickr)
Broccoli, a great choice for growing in the relative coolness of partial shade rather than full sun. After cutting off the large central head, leave the plant in the ground. Smaller heads will form along the stem in the leaf axils.
Cauliflower, which will tolerate partial shade, though it prefers full sun. It also prefers cooler temperatures.
Cabbage, another veggie that thrives in the cooler temperatures of partial-shade.
Herbs, such as mint, chervil, coriander and parsley actually prefer partial shade. Here’s a mint hint worth taking to heart: It is an aggressive spreader. Plant it in a container or you may spend years pulling it from places you didn’t plant it and don’t want it to grow.
Keep in mind that veggies and herbs grown in constant dappled or filtered shade or those grown in partial shade will not be as large as those grown in full sun. The yields won’t be as much, either. However, the taste will be every bit as good and so will the satisfaction of having grown your own food.
If you are wondering how to define what kind of shade you have, consider how the American Horticultural Society defines shade. Dappled shade is sunlight that filters in shifting patterns through tree branches all day. This is similar to woodland shade environments and the most common situation in suburban backyards. Partial shade is up to 6 hours of sun with four or more of those being in the morning. Full sun is 4 or more hours of afternoon sun or more than 6 or more hours of direct sun all day.
Raised beds can keep tree roots from stealing away moisture. (Photo: Patrice Beaulieu 12/flickr)
Here are a few other things to keep in mind to help you get the most from a vegetable and herb garden planted in shade:
- If trees rather than structures such as houses are the source of shade, garden plants may have to compete for nutrients and water as well as sunlight. One way to keep tree roots from wicking away water is to plant your crops in raised beds lined with plastic.
- Determine whether you have dappled shade, a condition where the garden gets some sunlight for all or most of the day, or partial shade, which can vary from a few hours of sunlight to long hours of shade for the rest of the day.
- Watch your garden through the seasons to see where the sun falls and how long different parts of the garden get sunlight. The amount of shade may vary at different times of the year as the angle of the sun and leaf canopies change. This knowledge may help you decide what, when and where to plant different crops.
- Be aware that the reflection of sunlight off bright and light surfaces nearby (think white fences or walls or, perhaps, glass walls from nearby office buildings) can increase the amount of light your garden gets.
- Use reflective mulches to cast light up onto plants.
- Understand that there is a difference in morning shade and afternoon shade when it comes to gardening. Some cool season vegetables, for instance, may perform better in morning sun and afternoon shade, especially during the summer. This is particularly true for a crop like lettuce, which has a tendency to bolt (send up a flower stalk) in hot weather. When a vegetable or herb bolts, the taste turns bitter. When this happens, the plant can be removed and replaced with another crop or left in the ground for the flowers to attract pollinators.
- Areas with partial shade in the afternoon can also extend the growing season for some cool season crops such as lettuce that are prone to bolting during in high heat.
- Because walls, tree trunks and branches can reduce air circulation, the ground in shade gardens will not dry out as fast as the ground in gardens that get full sun. The moisture retention can encourage plant diseases. To reduce the likelihood of this problem, allow extra space between plants and soak the root zone rather than watering from above and onto the leaves.
- Keep shade gardens free of weeds. Weeds will rob garden plants of the light, water and nutrients they are already competing for with nearby trees.
- If possible, judiciously prune nearby trees and bushes to increase sun exposure. One way to do that is to remove low-hanging branches from nearby trees.
- People who live in northern states will have more challenges growing vegetables and herbs in shade than those in Southern states. That’s because northern states have shorter growing seasons with cooler temperatures than Southern states.
Root vegetables like potatoes and carrots generally need somewhere between sun and shade. (Photo: Mike Mozart/flickr)
Root vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, parsnips and beets, fall somewhere in the middle regarding light requirements. In general, they need more hours of sun than leafy vegetables but not as much light as full sun for all or most of the day. If you are the adventurous type, why not give them a try in your shade garden?
Most important of all, make the most of what sun you have. If you’re lucky enough to have a few sunny spots that get more than 6 hours of sun, try growing tomatoes or other favorites in strategically placed pots.
With a little resourcefulness, you can have fresh vegetables and herbs from spring to fall in northern states and year-round in areas where the ground doesn’t freeze.