Q: My small backyard doesn’t receive a lot of sunlight. Are there edibles that I can grow in the shade?
The harsh reality of edible gardening is that most of the crops we want to grow—think juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes, boatloads of summer squash, and crispy cucumbers—really do require a great deal of sunlight to thrive and produce a big bounty. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t grow edibles. Certainly not!
Before you begin any garden, it’s important to understand lighting definitions as they apply to the space you’ve got. The shade that is cast by a tree can be described in degrees as partial sun (4-6 hours of direct sun) or partial shade (2-4 hours of direct sun). The word “direct” is really critical here—if very little or no direct sun hits the spot, then you’re dealing with full shade.
Violets (Viola odorata) are my go-to edible in the shadiest part of my garden because they provide edible springtime flowers and leaves for salads and reproduce effortlessly. Wood garlic (Allium ursinum) and ramps (Allium tricoccum) are good woodland options that will also reproduce themselves, while herbs such as sorrel (Rumex acetosa), bloody dock (Rumex sanguineus), and lemon balm will stay small in the shade, which is not a bad thing, as they can be invasive.
Partial shade offers up a few more options, including those listed above. Egyptian walking onion are a perpetual or perennial onion that spread into the dark corners of my community garden plot, producing small scallions and fresh onion greens nearly year-round. Herbs such as chives, oregano, parsley, mint, chervil, salad burnet, and garlic chives will tolerate these conditions to some degree, as will lovage if the soil is moist. Leafy greens such as cress, leaf lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, and Swiss chard might not reach mature sizes, but work as a cut-and-come-again salad garden.
Obviously, you’ll have the most leeway and best results in partial sun. It’s not too far off from full sun (6+ hours of direct sun) and some of the more flexible sun lovers such as bush beans, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, radishes, and peas will produce there, albeit in reduced and sometimes disappointing yields. Anything that grows in partial shade will grow bigger and healthier here and have the best chance of meeting your expectations for a satisfying and delicious edible landscape.
Garden authority Gayla Trail is the creator of YouGrowGirl.com.