Planting vegetables that grow in shade can turn even the dimmest of gardens into a vegetable-growing powerhouse.
Every year, I seem to run out of sunny garden spaces long before I’ve finished planting my veggies. The dozens of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, along with multiple varieties of summer and winter squash, take up the majority of prime garden space in the sun. I always thought this left me little to no room for growing leafy greens, broccoli and other veggie favorites. But not anymore.
Now I’m taking advantage of dappled sun and shady areas in the garden by growing a variety of vegetables that do just fine with only three to six hours of sun. I’m even growing veggies in perennial beds under renovation, with spaces left to fill until the new perennials are planted and grow to fit their allotted space.
Shady sites are something that most of us have in the garden. These light limitations are often the result of the canopy of a nearby tree, garden beds located on the east side of a wall or house, or a bed sheltered by taller crops, fences, sheds or other structures. These somewhat shady niches, however, serve as ideal sites for growing beets, leafy greens and broccoli. In other words, veggies grown for their roots, leaves, or edible buds and flowers are perfect candidates for shady spots in the garden.
Not all shade is created equal, coming in varying degrees, duration and intensity. Deciphering the clues to how much shade an area gets will help you know what vegetables are best suited for that site.
Your best bets are areas receiving partial shade or dappled shade. Partial shade areas receive sunlight for about three to six hours a day, whether in the early morning or late afternoon. Dappled or light shade refers to areas that receive filtered light through a tree canopy or overhead lath.
Areas receiving deep or dense shade have little or indirect sunlight, and may be located beneath a dense tree canopy or on the north side of a building or wall. It’s best to forgo growing veggies in this case. Save these areas instead for growing hostas, bergenia and other more tolerant perennials that thrive in deep shade.
Growing certain vegetables in partial shade rather than full sun does have its merits, especially for veggies like broccoli, arugula, spinach, cilantro and other leafy greens that are quick to bolt in full summer sun. Just keep in mind that the more shade an area gets, the slower the growth and less productive your veggies will be as opposed to the same plants grown in light shade or full sun.
With a bit of strategy and a plan in hand, you can make full use of potential garden space. For example, tuck in shade-tolerant leafy greens between taller plants like caged or staked tomatoes, or beneath an east-to-west trellis or A-frame covered in pole beans or cucumbers. Radishes, green onions and other veggies that grow fast can be planted between crops that are slower to mature. You can also grow parsley, spinach or lettuce along pathway edges.
In many gardens, there are often areas left seasonally bare. When daffodils or other early spring-blooming bulbs have ceased blooming and their foliage has turned yellow, grow potatoes in a bin placed on top of the soil. That way, when it comes time to harvest the potatoes, the soil below, where spring-blooming bulbs reside, remains undisturbed.
Another way to utilize your garden space is to maximize your yields. One way to do just that is to brighten up the shady spaces of your garden. For example, a shady bed next to a wall, fence or other tall structure becomes brighter when that structure is light or bright in color, thereby reflecting more light and heat to your crops.
Reflective mulches also boost yields by casting light back up into the plant canopy. Gardeners have utilized this principle for decades by mulching the soil with sheets of crumpled aluminum foil or by painting a mulch material, such as cardboard, white. If you’d rather go high-tech, you can buy silver reflective mulches or metalized reflective mulches, which look like aluminum foil, at garden centers or online.
While Asian greens like bok choy, komatsuna and tatsoi do just fine in bright shade, having as little as two hours of direct sun, other vegetables fare better with a bit more light. Though the majority of these veggies grow faster, more lush, and produce greater yields in sunnier sites, what they do produce in limited sun is well worth every inch of shady soil that you have to plant.
Veggies that excel in three to four hours of sun include arugula, chard (for baby leaves; give about five hours of sun for crunchy stalks), collards, culinary herbs (chives, cilantro, lemon balm, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley), green onions/scallions, kale, leaf lettuce, mustard greens, radicchio and spinach. Leaves of kale, chard and other greens are best harvested while small or at the “baby green” stage. The plus side is that the shadier conditions make them less likely to bolt in hot weather.
If you have areas that receive four to six hours of sun, your best bets are root crops and vegetables grown for their stems, buds or flowers. Root vegetable options include beets, carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes, radishes and turnips. You can harvest the roots while small or baby size for a gourmet treat, but in general it will take a bit longer than usual if you want roots to reach full size. The wait, however, is minimal. Case in point: We’ve grown potatoes in partial shade for a few years now with great yields that take only a week or two longer than if grown in full sun.
Vegetables grown for their stems, buds or flowers that do well in only four to six hours of sun include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, peas and beans.
When growing peas and beans in part shade, choose bush and dwarf varieties rather than pole varieties that are destined to grow up some sort of vertical support. This will give you another added advantage for quick growth, better yields and faster harvests. You should also be sure to give plants enough room to spread out and absorb as much light as possible.
As for our potatoes that thrive in shade? Well, I think I’ll be carving out space next to the potatoes to grow a few heads of cabbage, which makes for a great companion plant. But then, that’s another story in the endless pursuit of vegetable gardening prowess.
Read more:Discover more plants that grow in shade in Shady Characters.
Kris Wetherbee lives in Oakland, Oregon, where she and her husband, Rick, grow, cook and eat all sorts of shady veggies.
Be observant. The only way you’ll know for sure how much light a shady area in your garden receives is to see where the light levels fall and how they change through the seasons. It may be that an area near a deciduous tree receives more sun in spring than in fall, making it a prime site for growing spring veggies.
Consider the time of day. Shady sites that get their peak of sun in the morning rather than the afternoon are better suited for leafy greens and cool-season vegetables that tend to bolt in hot weather.
Win the war on weeds. They will also compete with your veggies for light, water and nutrients.
Weigh in on water. Shadier sites do not dry out as fast as veggie beds in full sun, and moisture retention is maximized if the crops are grown by a wall, fence or near a tree. These structures not only serve as windbreaks but also reduce air circulation. If the ground stays too wet, though, the added moisture can encourage plant diseases. Give veggies more room when you plant and be mindful of moisture to reduce potential problems.
Build your soil. Vegetables grown in shade are already dealing with the challenge of reduced light. One of the keys to success in shade is to keep challenges to a minimum. That said, make sure your soil is set to give plants exactly what they need by amending soil with balanced nutrients and organic matter from extra-rich compost or aged manure. You’ll see your plants growing by leaps and bounds.
Tune in on trees. Their roots may win the power struggle for water and nutrients. Veggies are already competing for sunlight; don’t make them compete for other essentials as well. Build a barrier between tree roots and veggie roots by growing vegetables in raised beds lined with landscape fabric or used carpet.
Trim your trees. Removing low-hanging branches from nearby trees will shed more light into your growing space and plants.
Gear up for speed. Why wait for broccoli that takes 85 days from seed to harvest when you can choose a variety that is ready to harvest in only 60 days? Veggies grown in part shade often take longer to mature than if grown in full sun. Trim down the time factor by choosing varieties that mature more quickly than others.
Jumpstart your harvest. Whether you call them transplants, starts or seedlings, you can usually start harvesting 4 to 6 weeks earlier from transplants than from seeds planted directly in the ground. Track down transplants at garden centers and your local farmers’ market, or grow your own from seed.
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