Growing Vegetables in Shady Spots
The weed infested plot near the compost heap, the bit behind the shed you left to pasture, that odd corner where you slung the third water butt. Shady spots! Our gardens are full of them. But what can we do?
It is tempting to want to put every crop where it will get the most sunlight. But this can sometimes lead us to putting plants in our garden randomly. We fill up the sunniest spots with whatever we decide to plant first and end up neglecting shadier beds.
But keeping a garden is about balance. It is much better to plan ahead and zone your plants according to their solar needs. So you should reserve sunny spots for those plants that definitely need them and put crops that do fine in the shade in darker areas. That way you can maximize your growing space in order to create a more complete garden.
Actually, only around a third of the crops we usually grow in vegetable gardens clamour for blazing sunlight. Another third will do just fine under partial sun and a final third will still perform in the shadows. So you don’t need to ignore that bed by the fence that never gets enough light, you just need to plant the right things in it.
We might categorize these three solar groups as: fruits, roots and leaves. We don’t need to be strictly scientific here; so let’s simply say that fruits grow on branches, roots grow beneath the earth, and leaves are…well…leaves.
As a general rule of thumb, plants we grow for fruit are sun worshippers, plants we grow for roots are tolerant of a range of light conditions, and plants we grow for leaves are fine in deep shade. You can remember all this with the little maxim: Fruit = Full, Root = Range, Leaf = Less. Once you know this you can organize where to plant your crops according to their light requirements.
Start by visiting your garden on a fine morning. Take some sandwiches and a flask of tea with the aim of relaxing out there for the full day. As the day unfolds keep an eye on the sun as it hits the land. Make a note of which spots are getting direct sunlight and for how long. You might wish to draw a little plan of your garden to help you. At the end of the day compare your plan with the amount of sunlight hours each crop requires and make notes so that in future you can plant accordingly.
Let’s take a detailed look at some crop types and their solar needs:
Vegetables you should never grow in Shady Spots
The following are plants we would put in the fruit category. They all need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day:
Sweetcorn needs maximum light levels for both the leaves and cobs to grow properly, so the plant is definitely not a candidate for the shady spot. Sweetcorn will not even grow at all with less than 5-6 hours of direct sunlight each day.
Tree and Vine Fruits
If possible, you should never grow fruiting trees, vines or shrubs like apples, grapes, or blackcurrants in shady areas. The reason is not because the plants won’t survive – many of them will still grow relatively well – it is because they need sunlight and/or heat in order to produce and ripen fruit sufficiently.
Fruit is full of starch when it appears on the branch and sunlight is used by the plant to turn that starch into sugar. This process changes the fruit’s colour and makes it sweet. Sunlight does not need to fall upon the fruits themselves but on the leaves of the fruiting branches, so make sure they are getting plenty.
Cucumbers and Squashes
Gourds are gluttons that feast extravagantly on both sunlight and water. They need the sunlight to produce the flowers that turn into those bumper fruits. You can observe gourds stretching their big flat leaves out to absorb every inch of sunlight and they should get at least 6 hours of it every day.
Tomatoes are a bit of an anomaly. They are a South American plant and plenty of people grow them in greenhouses. But although they do need a lot of sunlight, they don’t need as much direct light as you might imagine. Overly excessive amounts can quickly dry out the plants – a fact you may have discovered after forgetting to water them.
The reason they produce excellent yields in greenhouses is because heat (not light) is essential for them to fruit. If you don’t have a greenhouse, you might take advantage by putting your tomatoes in a lightly shaded area that still gets very hot. For example, near a sun-soaked shed or some corrugated sheeting.
Vegetables you can grow in Partial Shade
Root vegetables tend to be the most easy-going plants. They will do fine with lots of sunlight, but many can still thrive on as little as 4 hours per day. Let’s look at some examples now:
Like tomatoes, potatoes are members of the nightshade family but require less heat and light. Too much heat can make a potato under-produce, while too much light will turn its tubers green (unless you are a master at heaping up earth). They will do fine with only 4-5 hours of sunlight per day and break up compacted soil, so take advantage and use them to break up neglected partially-shaded beds.
Beetroot plants will crop with as little as 4 hours of sunlight per day. Plants getting more sun will grow bigger roots, while plants getting less sun will grow bigger leaves. So if you are fond of eating beetroot leaves on salads then you should grow them in shadier areas.
Carrots will also get along alright with 4 hours of sunlight per day but will not mature as quickly under lower light levels. However, if you love baby carrots then this can be to your advantage.
Radishes require different amounts of sunlight depending on variety. The varieties are known as ‘spring’, ‘summer’ and ‘winter’. Summer radishes do like a lot of direct sunlight, but spring and winter varieties need much less and will actually bolt if they get too much – at least 4 hours per day for all of them though.
Alliums like garlic, onions and shallots enjoy sunlight but don’t need it. They will do fine with only 4 hours per day. However, they don’t like soil that remains damp for long periods because it can cause them to rot. For this reason any bulbous allium patch should get enough sunlight to keep the soil dry.
Peas and Beans
You’d be forgiven for thinking peas and beans are sun-loving plants. But they don’t need to be drenched in sunlight to survive and produce. You can get away with as little as 4 hours sun a day for many varieties – although you will wait longer for your crops. Exceptions to this are the runner beans and other pole varieties which need much more light to grow up strong and proud.
Many people like to grow Rhubarb in full sunlight but this is really unnecessary. It does fine in the shade and will produce plenty of stalks. Rhubarb will even do ok if the area is relatively damp, so long as waterlogged soil is not allowed to mount up on the crown. At least 4 hours per day.
Vegetables you can grow in Very Shady Spots
The following shady characters are leaf vegetables that thrive on only a few hours of sunlight per day:
Lettuce tends to do better in the shade than under blazing sun. The lack of sunlight slows growth and prevents plants from bolting. Growing in shady spots also stops lettuce leaves from drying out and leads to a better taste on the salad plate. It should get a minimum of 3 hours per day.
Like lettuce, kale can survive on only 3 hours of sunlight per day but will grow very slowly under such conditions.
Spinach grown in the shade will not bolt and will continue to produce new leaves for longer. Ensure a minimum of 3 hours of sunlight per day.
If you only want baby mustard greens – which taste great – then you’ll be pleased to know that they will fare much better than if grown in full sunlight. A minimum of 3 hours per day.
Wild garlic dislikes direct sunlight and will thank you for placing it in shady and moist areas of the garden. However, it does only grow up from the ground for around a month each year, so your wild garlic spot will remain bare when it retreats into its bulbs. Less than 3 hours per day, and also tolerates damp.
Another allium that is well equipped to survive a lack of sunlight. Chives will do fine in complete shade, but take longer to grow and never get as high. 3 hours or less per day.
Lots of our culinary herbs do extremely well in the shade despite coming from hot countries. So if you have a large shady area on your land then perhaps you have the perfect site for that herb garden you keep meaning to build.
A lack of direct light will prevent parsley, coriander and chervil from going to seed and force them produce leaves for longer. So they will serve you better when given less than 3 hours per day.
Marjoram, coriander, thyme and some strains of oregano can also thrive on a minimum amount of sun, so long as the soil itself does not get too cold or damp.
Mint does not fare badly in the shade but it will not spread or grow as quickly. This can be to your advantage because mint can easily get out of hand.
Now you know how to organize your garden by sunlight requirements you need never look down on those shady spots again, so go ahead and make your plan!