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Growing Food in the Shade

Updated on July 11, 2017

For the avid edible gardener, deciding what to do with the shady areas of your yard is always a challenge since most of what we want to grow requires at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. However, there are many things that tolerate part to full shade, and some things that even prefer full shade. Naturally, you can’t grow tomatoes, but some laying hens would love a shady corner of the yard. Asparagus is out, but how about fiddlehead ferns? And in those marginal areas perhaps a white wall or even a mirror can help get light to where the plants need it to perform photosynthesis.

Raspberries and other bramble berries grow well in shade, though the berries may be less abundant.
Raspberries and other bramble berries grow well in shade, though the berries may be less abundant.

Other Uses

Before you decide to grow food in a shady area, think about other things that you might like to use the area for. My kids have a play area for getting dirty under our spreading oak tree. It is hard to grow things there, and it is such a pleasant place to be on a hot summer afternoon.

Furthermore, compost piles seem to thrive, in particular, under oak trees, so that is where my compost pile is slowly producing a bounty of compost. It is protected there from drying sun and wind.

Consider putting other things in the shade, rather than in prime gardening areas, such as playgrounds, patios, or sheds in order to free up more space in the sun.

Modifying the Conditions

Several things can be done to enhance the lighting in an area either by letting in more light or reflecting light onto the plants. More light can be allowed into an area by limbing up or thinning trees that block the light. Light can be reflected onto a plant using mirrors or a wall painted white or other light color.

Espalier is another technique that can allow shrubs or plants to grow in sub-optimum lighting. By spreading the branches and pruning them into two dimenions light can reach every branch. Gooseberry lends itself well to this technique.

Chickens, comfrey and lambs quarters all make great crops in the shade.
Chickens, comfrey and lambs quarters all make great crops in the shade.

Animal Crops

Animals need shelter from the sun and are right at home in the shade on a warm summer day. It therefore makes sense to use the shade for production of eggs, meat, fish, and maybe even milk (pigmy goats?) or wool. Some things can be grown in a shady chicken paddock such as clover, comfrey, or bramble berries that your birds would love to forage upon. More information on growing forage for your chickens can be found here.

Black Soldier Fly Larva will also grow well in a box in the shade and will devour your food waste and rapidly convert it to high-protein chicken feed. Red worms, similarly, need full shade and can be used as chicken feed, though they are not as efficient as BSFL.

Gooseberry thrives with very little sun.
Gooseberry thrives with very little sun.

Useful, Shade-tolerant Plants

If you decide that you want to grow food in the shade there are some plants with edible parts that grow in the shade. Probably the most shade tolerant, edible plant is ostrich fern. The fiddleheads of this variety, which come up early in the spring like asparagus, are edible and can be prepared like asparagus. Ostrich fern favors moist, slightly acidic soil and deep shade. Hostas can be used the same way, but apparently not all varieties are very tasty. Tulips grow in the shade and have sweet edible petals.

There are many fruit-bearing plants that grow well in the shade. However, almost universally, these plants will grow more, sweeter fruit in the sun. Many plants that prefer sun are more susceptible to bugs when grown in the shade. To protect these, plant aromatic plants around them, such as alliums (onion family: chives, bunching onions, onions, garlic), and mints (especially peppermint and lemon balm). One combination that I have found particularly helpful is garlic and peppermint. The garlic is planted in a ring around the plant and the peppermint is planted within the ring. This combination saved my elderberries and honeyberries last year.

Some of the plants that grow best in the shade are detailed in the table below:

 
Plant
Notes
Fruit Bearing Plants
Elderberry
Make sure to get an edible variety.
 
Filbert or Hazel
Nut. Natural understory plant.
 
Pawpaw
Native to US. Natural understory. Large, banana-like fruit. Ungrafted trees require shade for first few years. May need protection from bugs.
 
Plum
Some wild varieties tolerate considerable shade.
 
Chokecherry
Good for jams
 
Autumn Olive
Forbidden in some areas because it can be invasive. Edible berries make good jam or chicken forage. Nitrogen fixer.
 
Mulberry
Excellent chicken forage. Everbearing varieties. Stains everything. Chicken poop from birds eating mulberry stains everything. Look for self-fruiting. Most varieties bland.
 
Gooseberry
Thrives with very little sun. Needs protection. Natural understory. Pixwell not very tasty, look for improved varieties.
 
Honeyberry*
*Said to grow well in the shade, but doesn’t do well in shade here in zone 7.  Perhaps in warmer climes?
 
Bramble Berries
Fruit and leaves useful for humans and animals.  Thornless varieties recommended.
 
Blueberries
Most prefer full sun, so find a variety that is compatible with your lighting conditions, such as creeping blueberry.  They require acidic soil so if your soil is not naturally so, look for a place under an old pine tree, test the soil and treat as needed.
 
Strawberries
Great fodder for chickens. Spreads quickly.
 
Currant
Needs afternoon shade in hot summer areas.  Imperial white tastes awful.  Red beautiful.  Black has stronger flavor.
Vegetables
Lettuce, arugula, corn salad, etc
In hot summer areas most of these grow better with afternoon shade.
 
Dandelions
Salad, fodder for chickens and bees, good source of minerals. Look for improved varieties if desired.
 
Plantain
Usually eaten cooked, fodder, rich in protein
 
Lambs quarters
Yummy in smoothies. Fodder
 
Comfrey
Not edible. Perennial.  Medicinal, fodder, mineral accumulator, compost activator.  Grow from root cuttings.  May be difficult to get rid of.  Pleasant-looking leaves.
 
Little-leaf Linden
Also Tilia cordata. Shub or tree. Very shade-tolerant perennial vegetable.
 
Ostrich Fern
Likes moist, mildly acidic soil.  Fiddleheads edible in spring, eaten like asparagus.
 
MInts
Can be very difficult to get rid of.  Peppermint and lemon balm repel bugs, including mosquitos.  Can be used to protect vulnerable plants from infestations.  Sweet mint and lemon balm good in salads and tea.  Spreads quickly and easy to divide.  Ground cover. Chicken fodder.
Root Crops
Beets, radish, turnip, etc.
In shade, the leaves (some edible) grow bigger and roots grow smaller. Great fodder.
Mushrooms
 
Make sure you can identify mushrooms as edible before eating!
Don't forget the humble dandelion.  It grows beautifully in the shade and makes good salad greens and fodder.
Don't forget the humble dandelion. It grows beautifully in the shade and makes good salad greens and fodder.

Shade is such a gift in a landscape. Enjoy it! Use a shady corner to hide a shed or chicken coop. Play and eat there. And, after all, if you still want to grow food there, there are so many things that you can grow in the shade that you need not resent that lovely tree or neighboring building.

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