As we all wind down for the slower months, we can take this time to think about next year’s garden and how to make growing food a reality no matter where we are.
I’ve heard from many of you who have said that you would love to grow your own food, but feel it is nearly impossible due to a lack of sunlight on your little plot of land (or back porch, as it may be).
I want to encourage you today to buck off the false notion that you are cursed with a barren backyard (or windowsill if that’s all you have). No matter where you are, in an apartment with a small balcony or even a home with a super shady yard, if you can make a shadow with your hand at some point in the day, then you’ve got enough light to grow something!
There are many plants that will do well in dappled sunlight, and even some that only need 2-3 hours of light per day. If your plot is in deep shade for the majority of the day, you can still grow most herbs, leafy greens, and a few other cool weather crops, you may just have a small yield. But hey, anything is something, right?!
Don’t be afraid to experiment with plants that you think won’t do well. You might just be surprised at how much you can actually grow!
Here are a few plants that do well in a shady garden:
1) Greens: Lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard, collards, arugula, endive, crest, mesclun, swiss chard, Chinese cabbage, and cabbage are all good choices.
2) Broccoli: Broccoli prefers cooler temperatures and a little bit of shade. You may find that you are able to grow it for a longer period of the summer versus if you were growing in a sunnier setting. In fact, sun can cause rapid flowering in broccoli, which destroys the taste, while shade will encourage tighter heads and delayed flowering.
3) Scallions: Scallions are related to onions and grow well in a shade garden. They add a ton of flavor to your food and are best used as a garnish.
4) Cauliflower: Another vegetable that likes the shade is cauliflower – too much sun and your cauliflower will end up looking brown and scorched.
5) Celery: Celery adores cold weather, so you will want to plant it in the shade to improve its growth.
6) Peas: Peas grow well during the early spring – they don’t like a lot of sunlight, and too much sun can cause them to become hard and bitter.
7) Beets: Beets are good root vegetables to grow in shade. If the roots fail to develop by the time you need to harvest them (even though you can keep beets in the ground past a frost), you can always eat the tasty greens!
8) Brussel Sprouts: Brussels sprouts are basically miniature cabbages – so it’s no wonder that they grow well in the shade.
9) Any root crop: Root crops are well-suited for shade gardens since they are grown underground anyway! Good options to consider include parsnips, carrots, turnips, radishes, potatoes, beets, horseradish, and onions.
You might have to wait a bit longer for a full crop, but otherwise you’ll have plants that have more root growth than leaf growth – which is what you ultimately want.
10) Most herbs: Many medicinal herbs thrive in the shade. Herbs thrive on neglect, so planting herbs in a shade garden is almost always a safe bet. Some good herbs to consider include:
Many medicinal herbs also thrive in shaded patches.
11) Certain kinds of tomatoes: Tomatoes can tolerate shade, cherry tomatoes do especially well, though harvests will be smaller. For best results, you should select a variety that will tolerate light to partial shade.
Specifically, bush tomatoes that are adapted for growth in cold regions or ready for harvest in 55 days or less are the best options. New York, Siberia, or San Francisco tomatoes are good varieties to consider.
12) Beans: Beans can tolerate partial shade in most cases. Many people assume that green beans require full sun, but this is a myth – they grow just fine in the shade, and the shade actually helps prevent the beans from becoming too hard.
13) Summer squash: Believe it or not, summers quash is a great plant for being grown in the shade – the large leaves protect the fruits from being cooked by the sun anyway, so they’re well-adapted to the shade. Just make sure you are careful about watering these plants in the shade, as the lack of sunlight to dry them off can make them more prone to powdery mildew.
14) Cucumbers: Cucumbers can tolerate partial shade but you will need to be careful about overwatering them.
15) Rhubarb: This plant can tolerate a little bit of neglect and grows quite well in partial shade.
16) Strawberries: A fruit that doesn’t require a lot of care, strawberries do well in the shade.
17) Endive: Endive can be challenging to grow, but if you can get it started, a shade garden is the perfect setting.
18) Kohlrabi: Not many people are able to grow kohlrabi in their gardens – and even fewer know how to prepare it in the kitchen! But if you have a shade garden, you have an advantage – this plant thrives in the shade.
19) Leeks: Like garlic and onions, leeks are root vegetables. They prefer to be grown in the shade.
20) Rutabagas: Again, not a super common fixture in most homestead gardens – but if you can grow rutabagas, they’ll last forever in your root cellar without requiring you to do a single thing in terms of preserving them. Plus, they love the shade!
21) Sorrel: Sorrel is a great crop to grow to feed your rabbits or chickens, if you have them, but also makes a fantastic addition to raw salads. It has a somewhat bitter flavor but it softens when you grow it in the shade.
22) Watercress: A leafy green, watercress grows best in the shade.
23) Gooseberries: Gooseberries, currants, and sour cherries can all grow in the shade. However, instead of planting them as bushes, consider spacing the branches and training them against a wall. If you have a light-colored wall, it will even reflect some light back onto the bushes.
24) Raspberries and blackberries: Cane fruits also do well in the shade. However, you’ll want to leave plenty of space between them to allow light to penetrate. This will also prevent the air from becoming too stagnant and damp and encouraging disease.
See what I mean? There’s a ton of stuff you can plant even in very little light!!
For super shady spots, there are a few tricks you can implement to help make the most of what little light you do get…
Reflective mulches have been proven to increase yields in shade gardens by using a metallic surface to reflect sunlight off of the ground and back up at the plant for maximum exposure.
As an added benefit, reflective mulches also raise the temperature of the air surrounding the plant, increase photosynthesis, repel insects by disorienting them, and also hold moisture in the soil. Some gardeners say you can use aluminum foil for the same effect.
Use White Paint
If you are planting near a wall or fence, consider painting it white as a way to reflect light toward your plants. A light colored surface will greatly increase the amount of heat and sunlight that reaches your garden.
Pay close attention to pests which thrive in damp conditions, such as snails and slugs. Pick them off as you find them so they don’t damage your plants.
Make The Most of Your Site
If you have a choice in where you place your garden, morning sun is better than afternoon sun, so keep that in mind as you plan your planting location.
Pruning or trimming low hanging branches will be helpful in allowing more sunlight to penetrate your yard, porch or window.
If removing a few trees to make a clearing is an option, you may find somebody who would be willing to do the labor for free in exchange for the wood. Put an ad out on Craigslist to test the waters.
If you are planting in an area surrounded by trees, build your garden in containers or raised beds. This will help prevent the tree roots from sucking all of the water away from your tender veggies.
You will also need to water often, and add more compost, fertilizer and manure to your beds to keep the nutrients up in your garden. Remember, your plants will be competing with the surrounding greenery for survival, so keep them strong.
Experiment With Different Varieties
If you try a particular crop and it’s an epic fail, don’t give up quite yet. Not all varieties of a plant are the same, so do a little research and experimenting to see if you can find a variety better suited for the shade. For example, not all tomatoes will tolerate low light, but cherry tomatoes can actually do quite well in the shade.
When selecting plants for your shade garden, look for short season varieties of heat loving plants such as tomatoes and peppers. Without lots of light, it will take longer for your plants to grow to maturity and produce, so you want something that will grow as quickly as possible.
Choose varieties that have a maturity range of 50-65 days, and expect them to start producing much later than this estimated date.
This is now your motto: ‘If at first you don’t succeed’… you know the rest.
Start crops indoors
Your plants simply aren’t going to yield as much as they would if you were growing them in a sunny setting, in most cases. Therefore, you need to be realistic with your expectations. You can improve your results by starting seeds indoors – this will speed up germination and hasten your time to harvest.
Plant in containers
If you can, grow vegetables in containers. This will allow you to pick them up and move them to the sunniest areas of your yard. This is particularly helpful if you have certain chunks of property that receive more sunlight during certain times of the day.
Use high quality soil
If you are going to be presenting your vegetables with a challenge by growing them in poor sunlight, you should at the very least make sure they have super-nutritious soil! Consider a raised bed so you can supplement the soil each year with a top dressing of compost or fresh manure.
Be careful about watering
It is very easy to overwater a shade garden. Moisture won’t evaporate as quickly in the shade as it will in the sun, so you might not need to water as often.
However, if your garden is located near trees, you will need to water more often than you expect since your plants will compete with trees for moisture – plus the canopy of the trees will prevent all the rainwater from reaching your plants.
Be careful about overwatering, though, because the lack of sunlight can make it easier for fungal disease to set in. One to watch out for in particular is powdery mildew.
Plant in succession
If you have a small shade garden, start off small and grow just a couple of plants at a time. Select those with short maturation times and then succession plant other crops to see which veggies succeed.
Mind your spacing
Allowing plenty of space between your plants will help the light penetrate through – this will reduce the likelihood of disease and will help your plants thrive.
Write it down
Keep a garden journal where you can jot notes through the seasons on what has worked and what hasn’t. That way you won’t repeat the same mistakes twice, and you’ll always be moving forward!
Change things up
Absolute worst case scenario- you live in a box. If you have nothing but full shade all day long, no ledge to put pots on, no windowsill to stick a few herbs, consider using grow lights indoors. A standard shop light fixture with fluorescent bulbs is enough to have a countertop full of leafy greens and herbs.
You might also see if a friend or loved one might allow you to have a small area of their yard to plant in, in exchange for fresh produce.
Whatever the case, don’t roll over so easily. You can do this!! Start with one plant and grow from there.
Growing your own food and herbs means you’re one step closer to independence. Every plant is a move in the right direction, so stop making excuses and get creative!!
Remember, shade gardens also present a lot of benefits – leafy vegetables that are grown in the shade won’t have a bitter taste, and partially shaded gardens also provide for a longer growing season for cool-season vegetables. Plus, a little bit of afternoon shade will protect your veggies from that scorching midday sun!
Next year, I want to hear that you’ve taken that step and have devised a way to grow something edible… anything edible… where you are.
Do you have any expertise growing vegetables in shade? I’d love to hear your tips!
updated by Rebekah White on 07/25/2019
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.