Gardening in the Shade

David Trammel's picture

Next year I'm going to be in a completely new situation. While I thought the backyard of my new place got some Sun with some shade, its a bit worse than I thought. That means I get to start experimenting with the plants which make food but need less light.

(I'll post photos soon)

It means less full size vegetables like tomatoes and corn, and more leafy plants. I might be able to get somethings like squash, which have huge leaves, but the stuff that loves sunlight and heat are probably going to only be a small part of my new harvest.

Here is an article to get me started.

Planting Vegetables that Grow in Shade for a Successful Harvest

Do you have any space that gets less than optimal light?

Most of my shade gardening is with ornamentals but they do have lessons to offer.

It MIGHT help to space veg plants more widely, with more mulched empty ground between the plants so they don't compete as much for light.

I can see it will matter a LOT how you plant taller plants (at maturity) around shorter plants. Everything taller will have to go behind the shorter stuff.

After that, I just don't know with veg and shade. However, you can't be the only person with this problem. There may be more unusual food plants from around the world that are grown in shade but because they produce less food, they get short shrift in the gardening world.

From my own experience, morning sun and afternoon sun are not the same. It's probably the heat differential and not the light. Shade varies enormously from high, dappled shade to deep, all-day shade. It can also vary enormously season by season. I have garden areas that are in full sun from late fall until late spring. Once the trees have leafed out, that area is in shade.

Cold frames might let you grow veg in areas that are sunny in late winter and early spring.

ClareBroommaker's picture

I have bush beans in a couple very big pots that get shade both in morning and late afternoon. They are not productive. Plus, when bean leaves get wet, they need to dry off faster in the sun than they do in the shade. Beans tend to get leaf diseases when wet a long time.

Earlier in the year, sugar snap peas did vaguely okay in those same pots, but not at all as productive as in full sun. It was suitable to give us a handful of peas for stir-fry or salad, but not enough to even add up to a side dish for two people on any one day.

Years ago, while living in an apartment, I had tomatoes in ground on the east side of a privacy fence that ran north south. They did okay, but they were multiply disease resistant. Tomatoes are yet another plant that I think want to not have their leaves wet for a long time after a rain.

I've seen some quince bushes used in landscaping an alcove that had buildings on all four sides and trees in the center. The bushes had very nice sized fruit on them, probably 3.5 - 4 inches in diameter.

Garlic chives can take a lot of shade, but I never intentionally plant them there. They just volunteer and grow anywhere a seed lands. Garlic chives don't give you much to eat--just a lot of flavor and some charming flowers at this time of year.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Coming back to add that shade from a building or fence is different that shade from a tree, or shrub. Take my tomatoes, for example. I said that tomatoes planted against a solid fence did okay. But when I plant tomatoes in the shadow of my neighbor's shrub, I hardly get any tomatoes. I'm careful to remove roots from the shrub on my property before planting, but in a few weeks the root competition returns. This year I have cabbages close to that shrub. They make beautiful plants, but they aren't heading up well.

I also tried planting cabbages as sort of an edging around an ornamental bed. Those get shaded by a crape myrtle from the east, then some midday sun, followed by shading from another crape myrtle to the west. This is in a very small yard, and no doubt, root competition is a factor again. I probably should have watered a lot more, too. The result is really pretty silver-blue cabbage leaves with very small to no cabbage heads. I still might try that again with a variety of cabbage that has been generally better in the past. We'll see.

David Trammel's picture

I did a time lapse of the Sun's progression this week (end of August). Here is the progression of sunlight in my backyard to be:

11am: Dappled sunlight all morning

1pm: Starting to get sunlight out to where the raised beds will be. First will be two rows of 4 raised beds, 3x9' with the beds long axis running East/West.

3pm: Full sunlight over all of the growing area. Second year I may put an additional row of 4 raised beds towards the house, ending about half way to the closer tree.

Area on right in shade, and towards the back, past the small bush will be where the shed and green house will be built.


6pm: Sunlight reaches the back of the house. We're planning a large patio off the back of the house, from the step to the right.

Here is the shed design I'm going with. Size is 8x16' and will sit on a concrete pad, offset from the fence by about 6-8 feet.

High side of the roof would go towards the center of the yard (South facing). A small greenhouse will be attached to the shed, with the highest part just below the transom windows, and opening in the front. I figure I'll be using the small greenhouse, in the early Spring and late Fall, when leaves will be alot less.

ADDED: Here's a general spacing layout

Shed and concrete pad are on the left. The lighter green square would be the lean to green house. Unfortunately, my sister put in a large flower bed against the back fence. I need to see how I can convert that to eatable plants or herbs. The open area to the right of that, up against the fence and in the corner is where I plan on putting some composting bins. She wants to complete the privacy fence on that South side, so I'm not sure what kind of plants I can put there. Maybe some berries or taller root perennials.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Once again. your photos show that you already do have a small amount of edible plants that are productive and adapted to the conditions. Elephant ears, Colocasia esculenta, corms are edible. and can grow in sun to shade. They do like lots of water. The amount growing in the yard now could probably be enough to sow a short row of them next year if you dig and save them through the winter. If interested in trying them now, you can buy them in import produce markets. I caution though that some people are really sensitive to the sap from the plants and I don't know if the sensitizing chemicals are in the corms or not. So I'd just recommend a skin patch test before you even try eating one.

David Trammel's picture

Yes, I need to see just what my sister has planted, and which ones are eatable. Then encourage her to stick with ornamental which are eatable when she replants the next year, especially ones which come back year to year.

One of the reasons I want a green house is to be able to grow from seeds. I can't build one so big I can walk in, but I thought I could make the front of it from glass doors, that way I could put shallow shelving in the green house secured to the front of the shed, and just open the doors to access the plants. I'll lose a ton of heat when I open them, but seems like the problem with green houses is too much heat, not too little.

I added a blueprint of the back yard. Looks like I have space for 4 not 6 raised beds across because I need to leave 3 feet or so between the beds to walk, and to mow. I can go 3x9 feet instead, and do two rows. Going to 9 feet, allows me to make the sections of the raised bed consistent at 1' tall and 3' long. Here is the Youtube video on the type of raised bed construction I'll do.

I have liked using concrete for durability and these stacking kind will let me make them tall enough I'm not on my knees when I weed the beds. The raised beds can also be two panels tall if I want, since they are sectional. I figure to dig down a foot or so into the ground, lay a metal mesh to keep out moles/voles, then add a ton of cut tree limbs and leaves to build up organic matter, then cover in the soil I remove. Might take a year or two to get the soil up to peak condition.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

One word. Chainsaw.

Shade trees (properly situated against the arc of the sun) provide incredible value against the heat of the sun. They are free, unlike air conditioning.

More importantly, a good-sized shade tree takes decades to reach a decent size. For what air conditioning costs, you can buy a lot of veg at the farm stand.

If you can limb-up your shade trees, you can still get a decent amount of sunlight under them, while keeping the house shaded.

Do NOT pollard your trees unless a) you really know what you're doing and b) the tree will accept pollarding (most won't) and c) you're willing to keep up with annual pollarding! Irregular, harsh pollarding of trees that don't accept it result in whomping willows that eventually die, rot, and fall over onto your car while it sits innocently in the driveway leading to unpleasant encounters with insurance companies, dealership repairs, and salvage titles.

David Trammel's picture

Here's a better picture of the backyard for clarification. It was taken during the Winter a few years back.

I actually took out a whole tree (red Arrow) that was in the area. I was going to trim back the two on either side as well, (Yellow Arrows) and maybe even remove the one on the left. The one on the right doesn't shade the grow area much. We did have the three small ones closer to the white fence removed this Spring. The big one near the house was trimmed back so that the lower limbs in the picture are now gone. The trees though are so tall now getting up to crop their tops would be difficult.

I had to pause any yard work because we have a situation in the house itself I have to take care of first. We're having to replace one, and now part of a second exterior wall, in one bedroom, due to water damage in the inside of the wall. That's going to eat into my budget badly ($5-7K). I'll know more at the end of the week once I remove the interior plaster and get a contractor in for an estimate.

In some ways I'm leaning towards leaving the trees as is. What I have now, provides a lot of overhead cover versus the Sun. Missouri Summers are getting hotter and more humid it seems to me. Saving on electricity bills for cooling, and keeping the home naturally cooler with shade, might be a better long term option moneywise, than expanding my grow area. I've been living without air conditioning for several years now, and adapting to ways to stay cool but that won't work with my sister. One she's just not committed to the sustainable living as much as I am, and two as she likes to point out, old women get hot flashes. She's not going to live without air conditioning.

Dropping the trees might at most add again half my garden space. As planned right now at 3x9' times 4 raised bed, I'm getting 110 sq ft per row. Three rows plus some side plantings around the yard, plus any ornamental I can get my sister to plant is probably going to give me 450-500 sq ft equivalence. Might be all I can work given my age. Not being able to bend easily anymore is why I'm going with the raised beds and not just tilling the entire area and doing rows.

I do plan on looking into what I can buy from local farmer's markets during the season, and then canning myself. At the right times, many of my normal veggies get real cheap if you don't mine not perfect fruit. I'll have to see what our eating habits and diet is once I'm in there and we're both sharing meals and eating out of the same pantry.

I'm going to talk to my current landlord as I get closer to moving out. As I've posted, I have a pretty good small garden set up here at the duplex. I would prefer not to just rip it up and grass over it. The landlord is a friend, so I'm going to see if I can convince him to let me leave it, then have him market the rental as a "...With Garden". Perhaps see if I can work a deal where I come over and greenkeep the garden for who ever ends up renting it after me for either part of the harvest, or a small fee added onto the rent.

I wouldn't mind seeing what I can work up as shared gardens with neighbors to increase my food production but then as I mentioned, its whether I'm physically able to do the additional work.

We've made multiple raised beds of varying lengths, usually sticking to three to four feet wide.
We built them all out of composite decking (Trex is the usual brand) and they hold up astoundingly well. Bill held the corners together with 'L' shaped brackets and screws. Trex cuts and saws and screws just like regular wood.

The difference is it DOES NOT ROT. Ever. Bill just disassembled (July of 2020) one of the long beds to turn that space into a patio close to the house. The screws were rusted but the Trex looked exactly like it had when he built those beds over ten years ago. Except for being dirty, I mean. No degradation at all.

Trex or any composite decking is expensive but it lasts and lasts and lasts. It's inert. It doesn't seem to exude any chemicals. We used it to line the chain-link fence where it ran along the slope to capture rainwater runoff and that row of Trex has held up perfectly.

Over a decade ago, we tried potato towers (which did not work) built from Trex. Those boards got repurposed as steps and ramps. Other pieces of Trex have been repurposed as landscape edging. Yes, we repurposed our used Trex.

If you can afford composite decking and you'll be in your house for the long haul, I can't recommend it highly enough.

I have a similar situation. I have about 200 square feet of garden bed that is reliably sunny and 1/2 of that is in native wildflowers for the bees. I think my approach needs to be to focus on vitamins and find staples elsewhere. I am also thinking about native shade edibles - ground nut (Apios Americana), pawpaw, bladdernut, mushrooms, ostrich fern for fiddleheads, blueberries in the 1/2 shade, and herbs like horse balm and blood root.

A friend said his peppers took some shade, but I’m not sure my experience agrees. Perhaps better soil nutrition would make a difference. I may be able to grow cover crops in the shade for compost so that I can be more intense in the sun. Another strategy is to focus on winter crops when the leaves are off the trees.

Any chance your sister’s trees are oak or hickory? If so, you could try acorn meal and hickory milk. I find my big challenge is to learn to eat the unusual edibles that are already around me. I picked a hand full of air potato vine bulbils today trying to keep them from growing more darn vines. I’m pretty sure they are edible and also pretty sure I’m not going to eat them - at least not this year. Day lilies might grow in part shade and both the buds and the roots are edible; although I’ve heard some modern varieties are not, so that would take research.

It seems like, looking at your photos that your vegetables should be in a long strip along the fence because that is where the most intense mid-day sun is. Is the bamboo in your diagram already there or something you want to plant. I think there is shade tolerant bamboo.

I think you may have a hard time building up the soil height for a raised bed without bringing soil in. Would a garden kneeler/seat make in ground beds tolerable?

I agree about the importance of trees for staying cool, not to mention the expense of taking trees down. I like your idea about supporting growers at the farmers market and sharing garden space with other people. Perhaps people would trade seedlings for vegetables later in the season. It seems to me that you have lots of skills that would be appreciated in the community, and sharing and trading might be a better use of resources than growing maximum food.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

Gardening in the shade. To be avoided to the extent possible. The photo below illustrates how great an effect a reduction of just a few hours of sunlight can result. The two rows of okra pictured run East West and are only 5 feet apart. To the due South is a tree of the right height and distance that it shades the Southmost row [to left in picture] for 2-3 hours in the midday but the Northmost row is largely spared of this shading. I would estimate that there was at least a factor of 2 difference in productivity of the two rows over the course of the Summer.

add photo: 
David Trammel's picture

I've only tried a few plants, this year, two of them in a couple of 5 gallon containers. They come in better in the Fall than the Spring. You definitely need to have more than two plants to get any okra for a meal. They never seemed to have more than 2-3 pods at a time growing that you could harvest small and tender.

For some reason I thought they climbed. I remember as a child, my parents growing them up a utility pole wire. Or maybe I'm thinking a different veggie.

Beautiful flowers though.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

Probably the best use of 2-3 pods of okra is to use them fresh in salads. When in season I almost always add a few sliced fresh ones to salads. The remainder of the year the same with pickled ones.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Luffa is edible when picked young and small. I think it is sometimes called okra gourd. It is a vine that will climb.