Which vegetables can you grow in the shade, and what else that’s edible grows in a shady spot? Most gardens and many allotments have areas that don’t get a full day of bright sunshine, so here’s how to make them most productive.
First of all, there’s more than one type of shade. Yes, really. There’s:
- Partial shade, where there is full light on your plants for one part of the day and full shade for the rest of the day (often caused by nearby buildings that block out the light)
- Dappled shade, where there are branches overhead that sway in the breeze and let light through here and there
And to make matters a little more complicated, what grows best in partial shade varies according to the time of day that the sun hits it. If the area gets morning sun, it’s cooler and less intense light, if the area gets afternoon sun, it’s warmer and brighter. Generally speaking, a couple of hours of morning sun will have less beneficial effect than a couple of hours of afternoon sun.
There is also total shade, where no direct light gets through at any time of day. This is often most pronounced during the winter in the UK, where the sun is lower in the sky, and may partly improve in summer months when the sun is directly overhead at midday. I’ll break it to you gently – not much that’s edible grows in total shade – although you’d probably figured that out already.
You have two main options for the shady spot in an edible garden:
- Grow crops that thrive (or at least survive) in dappled or partial shade
- Make the shady area less shaded
Crops that grow in the shade
As a rough rule of thumb, most plants can get by fine on 5 or 6 hours of full sun. They may not be quite as productive if they’d had 8 hours or more of sun, but you can still get a fairly decent crop.
If that’s reduced to 2 or 3 hours of full sun, or limited hours of dappled shade, you need to have a rethink. Plants that are grown for their fruits or their roots will probably fail to give you a crop under these conditions. However, plants that are grown for their edible leaves, shoots or stems will probably thrive, or at least feed you a reasonable amount.
Vegetables that grow in partial shade
If there’s partial shade, try growing some of these plants:
- Leaf beet (perpetual spinach)
- Pak choi
- Choi sum
- Chinese cabbage
- Giant mustards
- Loose-leaf lettuces (salad bowl, lollo rosso, oakleaf etc)
- Spring greens and other cabbage
- Lemon balm
- Mint (in pots)
If the area gets four or five hours of sun, you may also have luck with strawberries, peas, radishes, carrots, beetroot, broccoli/calabrese and cauliflower, although they might end up a bit smaller than usual, or take longer to mature.
You can also try growing taller plants that reach up out of the shady ground into the sun above. These ‘feet in the shade and head in the sun’ plants include climbing beans, blackberry plants and small fruit trees.
Another trick is to get leafy plants off to a good start by sowing them in a well-lit spot, so they grow up big and healthy with plenty of leaves before you transplant them. Once replanted, they’ll be leafy enough to be able to make better use of the limited light that comes their way.
If your growing area is darker, remember it will often be cooler and damper. You can deal with this by watering less often, leaving more space between plants to increase ventilation, and growing varieties of plant that have increased resistance to mildew and other fungal diseases. If you have the resources, putting in raised beds can also improve drainage.
Food plants that grow well in dappled shade
If you think about it, there are quite a few food plants in the wild that grow happily in woods and forests, especially if they get dappled sun for a good part of the day, and some full sun here and there. This includes:
- Wild strawberries
- Lemon balm
Why not give one or more of them a try? Ideally, grow mint and lemon balm in pots, as their roots are invasive. All of these plants can survive in partial shade too, and the fruiting ones will give you a half-decent crop if they’re getting about four hours or more direct light per day.
To remedy dappled shade, you may be able to cut back or thin out some of the lower overhanging branches that are casting it. Or you might have to negotiate this with a neighbour if the tree is on their property – although sometimes this is easier said than done.
Food plants that grow in total shade
As mentioned earlier, there’s very little by way of food plants that grow in full shade. However, you may be able to grow some mint, oriental greens and loose-leaf lettuce, and perhaps mushrooms, although the greens won’t be that productive unless you take some of the remedial measures mentioned above.
Or you could just go with the flow and put some ornamental plants in this spot, or use it as the site for a garden shed or store.
How to make a shady spot less shady
Shady spots can often be improved, often for little or no money, but you might have to make an effort. For example you can:
- Move nearby structures that are casting light
- Prune back nearby plants
- Paint walls white or very pale colours to reflect light
- Add mirrors to reflect more light
- Surround the area with pale stones, paving slabs or gravel
- Use light reflective mulch to bounce light back up
- Plant the area carefully so nothing’s overshadowed
Do you have any tips of your own for crops to grow in the shade, or ways to brighten up a dark corner?