By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 June 2016)
Not everyone has access to a full-sun garden, but there are plenty of shade-tolerant vegetables and herbs that can be grown with less-than-ideal sun exposure. Shade-tolerant vegetables prefer cooler temperatures, which means they can be planted for spring and late fall harvests when there is little else to pick from the garden.
What Grows Well in the Shade?
Many produce items that are called vegetables are actually fruits. If the part you eat grows from a flower (i.e., tomato), it’s a fruit. If you eat the stem (celery), leaves (spinach), buds (broccoli), or roots (carrots), it’s a vegetable.
Plants that produce fruits (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, etc.) usually require full sun (6 hours or more per day), whereas leafy green vegetables do well in shadier gardens. Root vegetables fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, requiring more hours of sunshine than leafy greens for good yields, but fewer than fruit plants.
A partial shade garden receives 3-6 hours of direct sunlight per day (or has light blocked for 4-5 hours between 10 am and 6 pm), so it’s typically exposed to direct sun either in the morning or afternoon, but not both. Leafy vegetables and root crops will grow in partial shade, and if the hours of sun are at the upper end of the spectrum (4-6), you may be able to grow some fruiting crops as well, though yields will probably not be as good. Partial shade is also known as half shade.
Light shade is defined a little differently from one source to the next. Some definitions I’ve encountered include:
- Around 1-2 hours of sun per day, with additional reflected light at some points (for example, sunlight bouncing off a lightly-coloured fence)
- Dappled shade, where there are alternating sunny and shady patches, typically occurring when sunlight filters through tree branches or latticeworks
- Full shade for 2-3 hours per day when the sun is most intense
You can grow leafy vegetables and root crops in light or dappled shade, though root crops may grow more slowly and tend to do better in partial shade.
Full shade, also known as deep shade, is defined as a complete lack of direct sunlight due to buildings or dense tree cover casting solid shadows. In a deeply shaded space, results are likely to be poor, even with shade-tolerant vegetables.
Which Vegetables Grow Best in Light Shade?
The most shade-tolerant vegetables are those that can manage with just 1-2 hours of direct sun per day or dappled sunlight throughout the day. They include a variety of leafy greens:
- Corn salad
- Mustard greens
- Swiss chard
Leafy greens grown in the shade actually tend to have better flavour, as hot temperatures and dry soil can turn them bitter.
Which Vegetables Grow Well in Partial Shade?
In addition to all of the leafy crops listed above, in partial shade (3-6 hours of sun per day), you can grow:
- Brussels sprouts
- Green onions
Shade-grown vegetables tend to do better in warmer climates and in south-facing gardens (north-facing gardens tend to be colder). In cooler temperatures, growth may be slower and yields smaller.
Tips for Vegetable Gardening in the Shade
To get the best produce yields from your shade garden:
- Grow vegetable varieties that are adapted to shade or cooler temperatures.
- Start your plants indoors to give them a head start (vegetables grow more slowly in the shade).
- Use good quality soil with plenty of added organic matter (compost), as good growing conditions will help to mitigate the disadvantages of reduced sunlight.
- Increase reflected light by painting nearby structures (such as a fence) in light colours or using a reflective mulch.
- Grow shade crops in containers so that you can move them around to less densely shaded spots as the sun’s position changes over the seasons, and to avoid forcing your vegetables to compete for nutrients (shade gardens often have lots of trees, and their roots can take up most of the soil nutrients, causing your vegetable plants to become malnourished).
- Be vigilant about pests. Slugs and snails, which can quickly munch through a lettuce crop, prefer shady spaces. See How to Get Rid of Slugs and Snails: Natural, Non-Toxic Solutions for safe ways to deal with these pests.
For more gardening articles, see the main Gardening page.
- Albert, S. (2016). Vegetables and Herbs for Growing in Shade. HarvesttoTable.com.
- Durham, J., Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. (2010). Vegetables for a Shady Garden. Colostate.edu.
- Steber, L. (2006). You Say It’s Partial Shade, Your Plant Says It’s Partial Sun. Galveston County Master Gardener Association.
- Vanderlinden, C. (2011). Best Shade-Tolerant Vegetables and Best Vegetables to Grow in the Shade. MotherEarthNews.com.