Dig This: Gardening in the Shade – Challenges and Opportunities

Photo by Melita Bena

Here’s some good news about your shady backyard: You can grow some summertime crops, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes, despite the lack of direct sunshine. Shade doesn’t have to prohibit you from growing lots of your own food. But notice I said some crops. This will be decided by the varieties you choose.

Also, a summertime shady garden area gives you an advantage over a full sun garden in growing greens and lettuces.

I’ll present a few tips on how you can turn a shady garden into a more productive vegetable garden.

Types of shade: If you have a choice of where to plant, spots with morning sun and afternoon shade are better than morning shade and late afternoon sun.

Intermittent or dappled shade from nearby trees may still allow enough sun if the branches are high enough and not too dense. Trimming low-hanging branches will let in brighter light.

Deep shade from buildings and dense trees is more difficult because it can cast total shade for hours at a time. You can grow some vegetables with a few hours of sun and many hours of deep shade, but the yields will be lower than those grown in dappled shade. Also, the location of deep shade will change seasonally.

Open shade or blue-sky shade directly above plants will provide enough light for many plants, but you will have to experiment with different varieties and reflective mulches.

    Dealing with too much shade:

  1. Remove low-hanging branches and, in some cases, thin out thick branches.
  2. Use raised beds and liners to discourage tree roots from wicking water away from crops underneath trees.
  3. Amend your soil with lots of manure and compost. And, you may have to fertilize and water more frequently because the nearby trees will use the water and nutrients meant for the garden.
  4. Use reflective mulches to give plants more light (available from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Grass Valley: 888-784-1722, groworganic.com)

Reflective mulches: Reflective mulches, including metallic mulches, are a great aid for gardeners growing in shady conditions, as the benefits can be huge. Reflective mulches—such as the red plastic mulch some tomato growers have become fond of — reflect light up onto the leaves of the plants. Under partial shading, reflective mulches have been shown to provide the following advantages: increased amount of light in the plant canopy, increased air temperature in the plant canopy, increased photosynthesis, reduced incidence of certain insects (particularly aphids), and increased produce yield and quality. Metalicized reflective mulches (which look like aluminum foil) will have the greatest impact on increasing photosynthesis and, therefore, growth, because they reflect the entire light spectrum. You can buy these reflective mulches but you can make them cheaply out of aluminum foil and cardboard painted white. Try arranging crumpled aluminum foil under one shaded tomato plant and compare the growth.

Reflective surfaces: Creating other bright, reflective surfaces near your garden will also benefit plants. A bright-painted wall or fence that faces the sun for any period of the day, particularly south-facing, will reflect a great amount of light and heat, speeding up growth rates and compensating for some of the shade. My past life as a photographer taught me the impact of reflectors, such as a flat board painted white or covered in tin foil and positioned to reflect the sunlight at the plants under leaves or trees. Try it. You can see the differences immediately.

Choosing what to grow: Less sunlight means it will take longer for plants to grow and produce. Therefore, you should consider choosing plants that mature early for short seasons. Shady gardens have the advantage for growing great greens and lettuces longer than full sun gardens, but they may have trouble growing heirloom tomatoes and hot peppers. Take tomatoes, for example: Select tomatoes that mature early in 50 to 65 days from date of transplanting (Early Girl, 52 days; Oregon Spring, 58 days; Stupice, 52 days; Cherry, 65 days) instead of ones that take about 80 days or more (Beefsteak, 96 days; Brandywine , 82 days.) Seed catalogues include maturing/harvest dates. Remember, a 60-day estimate is based upon full sun for about 12 hours a day. If your tomato gets only 3 hours of direct sun per day, it may turn a 60-day tomato into a 105-day tomato. Of course, sunlight is only one part of what it takes. Day heat and night heat, watering, soil quality, and insect damage are other factors that govern plant growth.

Here’s a suggestion for shady gardeners who can’t live without big tomatoes, hot peppers and corn: Work out a shared garden with nearby friends or neighbors who have lots of sun in their garden. You grow greens, lettuces, early tomatoes and they raise heirloom tomatoes, peppers and corn.

For beginning gardeners: Search out a nearby, experienced gardener and ask lots of questions about what grows best under shady conditions. In addition, search the Internet for reflective mulches and shady gardens.

Don’t let a shady yard prevent you from growing lots of your own food. No excuses — try it. Experiment with different plants and methods. Record what does best, then brag to your shady neighbors.

Wayne Kessler is a local organic farmer, nurseryman and activist for local food security. He is the owner of Shamanic Organics nursery in Manton with his wife Laurie. Wayne is a technical advisor to the Community Teaching Garden.
Dig This! is a regular biweekly column offering ecological wisdom and garden advice. If you have questions or would like Jim and Wayne to address a particular issue you may contact them at the Teaching Garden by e-mail at teachinggarden@shastacollege.edu. Please stay tuned for our upcoming Teaching Garden Workshops resuming in August, covering topics such as Growing Great Garlic, Canning and Cooking from the Garden, Seasonal Gardening and many more.

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Following his grandfather's advice, "Grow food. People always need food," has led Wayne to a lifetime of cultivating and processing food. He spends much of his time encouraging people to become more food independent by growing their own.
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2 Responses

  1. Avatar Anonymous Heckler says:

    Crumpled up foil as mulch — crazy but it just might work!

  2. Avatar Franc says:

    good post!
    go