One characteristic most vegetables have in common is their preference for full sun, which is generally defined as six hours of more of direct sunlight. At the same time, many gardeners grow good yields in sites that receive only four to five hours of sun by choosing vegetables that grow in shade and using techniques that maximize available light.
Many of the best vegetables to grow in shade have broad leaves, which they can unfurl like large solar collectors. Arugula, lettuce, chard, kale and most other leafy greens are top candidates for partial shade at any time of day, and a longer list often thrives in sites that get full morning sun followed by afternoon shade. Celery, carrots, bush beans, and small-fruited tomatoes often are successful in spots where they can load up on sun early in the day.
Where the opposite light pattern prevails – morning shade followed by afternoon sun – trellised vines including beans, peas, or cucumbers may excel. As flower gardeners know, growing vines so they have their "feet in the shade, head in the sun" tends to work out well for clematis and other ornamental vines, and the same is true for food-bearing vines.
Growing Shade Tolerant Vegetables
In addition to choosing vegetables known to grow in shade, there are several techniques that will improve the quality of your crops.
- Whenever possible, work with seedlings grown in bright light. The worst time for a veggie to be deprived of light is during its juvenile period. If you have only a little full sun, use it for a cold frame or nursery bed where you can grow leafy greens to transplant size.
- Shade tolerant vegetables cannot be crowded. Wide spacing promotes good air circulation and light penetration, which in turn reduces problems with diseases.
- Anticipate that slugs and snails will be a problem, because they are naturally attracted to moist shade. Plan to trap them often (even when plants are not present) using beer-baited traps. To reduce mollusk habitat, limit mulching until the weather becomes warm and dry in summer.
You can also use human ingenuity to maximize available light. Paint the sides of nearby buildings white, or erect white panels in summer to reflect light back onto plants. Metallic surfaces also can be used, for example small boards wrapped in aluminum foil, placed between plants or on nearby walls. Inexpensive mirror tiles mounted on boards can have similar light-boosting effects.
Even shade tolerant vegetables grow more slowly in shade than they would in sun due to their reduced supply of solar energy. But because leafy greens are short-lived plants, beds comprised of vegetables that grow in shade need frequent updating. For example, spring salad greens may give way to summer chard, and then be followed by mustard in the fall. Gardens planted with shade tolerant vegetables progress slowly, but still undergo constant change.
Finally, you can lighten the mood in dim spaces by using movable containers planted with variegated herbs like pineapple mint or tricolor sage, or light pastel impatiens or other shade-tolerant annuals. An intermitted edge comprised of mounds of white sweet alyssum will create natural footlights that also attract hoverflies and other beneficial insects. When vegetables that grow in shade share company with flowers, you get a garden that is productive, beautiful and balanced.
If you use our Garden Planner, then clicking the Filter button at the top left of the Plant Selection bar gives you the option to show just shade-tolerant plants. Using this shade-tolerant option makes it easy to fill a shady space with herbs, or vegetables that mature at a particular time and the Garden Planner will help you to prevent overcrowding by showing the space they require.
By Barbara Pleasant