Best Vegetables to Grow in the Shade

Even in shaded conditions, you can bask in great garden harvests if you choose the right crops and make a few easy adjustments.

| February/March 2011

For many gardeners, the optimum conditions most vegetables prefer — eight to 10 hours of full sun — just aren’t possible. Whether it’s from trees or shadows from nearby buildings, shade is commonly a fact of gardening life. Luckily, shade doesn’t have to prohibit gardeners from growing their own food. If you start with the most shade-tolerant crops, take extra care to provide fertile soil and ample water, and consider using a reflective plastic mulch, you can establish a productive shade garden and harvest a respectable variety of veggies.

How Much Shade Is Too Much?

All shade is not equal. Some shady conditions will yield much more produce than others will, while some areas are better left for hostas and moss. Gardeners should be familiar with the different types of shade, but should also keep in mind that measuring how much shade your garden gets isn’t always easy.

For instance, nearby trees may cast dappled shade on your garden for some or all of the day. If the tree canopy is high enough and the branches aren’t too dense, the conditions nearby can be shady but still fairly bright. Trimming any low-hanging branches can help let in more sunlight.

More challenging than dappled shade is partial shade, which can be quite variable, ranging from only a couple of sunny hours and many hours of shade to the opposite. Shade from buildings is more difficult to deal with than shade from trees, as it often plunges the garden into total shade for large parts of the day. As a general rule, if you have a few hours of full sun but dark shade for the rest of the day, you can grow some crops, but the yields won’t be as high as if you had bright or dappled shade during the rest of the day. Maybe your garden has a little of everything: some areas that get a couple of hours of sun, some that get dappled shade and some areas that are in complete shade. In addition, the amounts of shade will change seasonally! It can be difficult to add up the exact amount of sun your crops get in such a scenario. Keep an open mind about what you may be able to grow in your conditions, and use our chart of the best shade-tolerant vegetables as a guide for where to start.

Reflective Mulches and Surfaces

Reflective mulches, including metallic mulches, are a great tool for gardeners growing in shady conditions, and for some crops in some regions, the benefits can be huge. University studies have shown increased yields in crops such as peppers, tomatoes and strawberries.

Reflective mulches — such as the red plastic mulch some tomato growers have become fond of — reflect light up onto the leaves of plants. Mathieu Ngouajio, Associate Professor of Vegetable Crops in Michigan State University’s Department of Horticulture, says that 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 thrips), and increased produce yield and quality. Ngouajio recommends metallized reflective mulches (which look like aluminum foil) because they reflect the entire light spectrum and will have the greatest impact on increasing photosynthesis and, therefore, growth.
5/15/2018 12:35:29 AM

I used the plans at WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG for building my own projects – I highly recommend you visit that website and check their plans out too. They are detailed and super easy to read and understand unlike several others I found online. The amount of plans there is mind-boggling… there’s like 16,000 plans or something like that for tons of different projects. Definitely enough to keep me busy with projects for many more years to come haha Go to WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG if you want some additional plans :)

9/15/2017 8:43:20 PM

HAHAHAHA!! I was going to say I couldn't remember when I originally read this article, but then I read the comments.....So probably in 2011.....Anyway....I remember that the first year I tried this it was with some industrial foil glued to some luan wood and held in place behind my seedlings in my non-heated "sun room" that is actually just a porch with plexiglass sheets in the winter. Between Mr. Sunshine and the foil almost all of the seedling made it that year. I also put foil around my tree that year and got a decent crop in dappled shade. Now I use sheet metal stands and if it gets really cold I will use a heater on a timer. I now have 7 reflective gazing balls and all my elf houses have mirrors for windows under the tree in that bed. I love Mother Earth and Grit. You have given me so much wisdom since I started this journey back in 1989. I can't thank you enough.

9/15/2017 8:41:22 PM

I can't remember when I first read this article, but I have been using sheet metal for reflecting heat in my non heated sun room for about 5 years now. I started out with some foil glued to wood and it worked great. I start all my seeds indoors or in cold frames and use sheet metal or foil to get that extra heat. I have reflective gazing balls in my shaded areas and lots of mirrors for windows in my elf houses.

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