May 9, 2016

The shady vegetable garden

I still remember the first time I planned a vegetable garden. I had a terrace on the roof of my apartment building. I hauled some tomato plants and some herbs up there with the intention of using a few woebegone pots someone had left up there to make my own little patch of heaven. I lovingly turned the soil, nestled my seedlings in, gave them a drink and said good night. And then I promptly forgot about them until two weeks later when I awoke in a panic, only to discover the next morning the charred remains of my vegetable gardening attempt.

I didn’t try again for a long time. I was convinced I had a black thumb. Of course, I didn’t consider for one moment that it just might have been because I didn’t water them for half a month. When I finally got the courage to try again, my husband and I were living in a house in Toronto. It had a tiny backyard that no one had ever loved. It was weedy, and mostly bald, with the occasional patch of feathery desperate grass, and that’s about it. I was hopeful in my gardening attempts. I was more mature. I wouldn’t forget about the plants this time. I went to the library (I know…the library!), got a book by Mark Cullen and started planning. I planned and planned and planned. I drew maps, and dug and turned and added manure, and even made a little knee height fence with chicken wire, to discourage our dog from claiming territory on our edibles. I had my list to go the nursery, and I was ready.

Ready, that is, until my husband showed up one day after work, as proud as can be, with two flats of vegetable seedlings that he had picked up for me. Well, doesn’t that just figure?! But how could I begrudge him? I mean, he looked so happy and he was gabbing on about the amazing pad thai we were going to eat with those vegetables. The only problem was, of course, that I had this list. And this list wasn’t just a list of things I liked, no: it was things that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt would grow well in shade, because, our garden was east facing and got very little sun in the afternoon. My husband, however, didn’t know this. He just saw the tags with cheery round tomatoes and vibrant broccoli crowns and thought they looked delicious.

So, we planted them. And I stood there and shook my head, and thought for sure that Mark Cullen would be so disappointed in me for not using my list. But if he knew that my husband was only trying to help, he’d have to understand. We cared for that garden all summer, watering it, weeding it, and looking longingly at it. Secretly I highly doubted that anything good would come of it. There wasn’t enough light. There just wasn’t.

The thing was, most of the vegetables did remarkably well. It was the year I had the best cayenne pepper harvest, ever. I’ve never been successful with them again, not even with lots of sun and sheltered spaces and much love. There in my shady backyard was the year of the cayenne. And the celery, the celery was amazing! It was lush and flavourful and adorned caesars and were vessels for peanut butter (old school…).

You see, in my very long, very, VERY long story, I’d stumbled upon a secret: vegetables WANT to grow. I know, not much of a secret, but it’s true. You can pretty much grow anything anywhere. Just keep in mind they might not fruit as prolifically as they would in the sun.  But veggies that grow in the ground, like beets and carrots? Sure throw them in the shade. Or veggies who have tasty leaves like kale and spinach? They actually love some shade, especially afternoon shade!

The Shady Vegetable Garden

leaf lettuce growing in the shade. The shady vegetable garden.

This leaf lettuce grew really well considering it got only 2 or 3 hours of sun in the morning. The heads grew larger than expected, and because they were in containers, I didn’t have to worry about snails!

The thing about a shady vegetable garden is that it will take some trial an error. But if you keep a few of these pointers in mind, you will be sure to reap some lovely veggies that you grew all by yourself!

Vegetables like some sun

Most seed packets for vegetables will say you need 4-6 hours of sun per day for successful growth and harvest. This is one of those ideal circumstance things. But the truth is, most veggies do well with some shade, especially in the height of afternoon heat. Greens like mesclun mix, arugula, and even spinach, do great with only 1-2 hours of sun a day. They can grow in less, but the leaves will stay fairly small and will not grow as densely. Also, keep in mind that if you plant your veggies up against a wall, that wall is reflecting any sun and heat that it is exposed to on your plants. So even if that wall garden only gets one or two hours of sun, the wall will retain that heat and reflect that sunlight so technically you are getting more heat/sun than you would without the wall there.

Vegetables don’t like competing with other roots

pots of herbs sitting on a ladder in the shade. the shady vegetable garden.

I grew some herbs in these pots (you may notice the bottom pot is tomato. It gave me exactly 2 tiny tomatoes (sorry, tomatoes, you don’ t make my shade list!)

So you have this idea: under that big ole’ tree in your backyard you’re going to plant some lettuce because it’s shady and protected. Growing anything under a tree is tricky work. Growing vegetables is especially so. Vegetables need lots of water because they’re working hard at producing food for you! If you put them in a situation where they are competing with large tree roots for the soil’s nutrients and water, you will end up with anemic plants that may not produce at all. I’m not saying it’s impossible to plant veg under a tree, but it is difficult and can take more time and energy than it’s worth. If you really want to plant under your trees, try using pots or raised beds. You’ll still fill up an otherwise blank slate with colour, and you’ll give those veg a great chance at success!

Damp dark corners=damp dark loving insects

a snail from my lettuce garden. The shady vegetable garden.

One of the biggest problems a shady garden faces, in my opinion, are insects. Lettuces especially are prone to damp loving bugs like slugs and snails. The best way to combat this is to be aware. Know what your plants look like and act at first evidence of chewed leaves, or funny spots. Make friends with Google and whenever something doesn’t look right on your plants, do a quick Google. Most pests can be handpicked off the plant so don’t be too deterred if you find a slug or two.

My favourite shade lovers

swiss chard ready for harvest and grown in the shade!

This chard was grown in less than 4 hours of sunlight a day. Looks pretty darn good to me!

Now, as I mentioned, when it comes to the shady vegetable garden, I’ve had good luck with peppers and celery. I’ve also done well with broccoli rabe and chard. But there are definitely those veggies that naturally lend themselves to a shady garden (those gardens that get less than four hours of sunlight a day). This list isn’t by any means conclusive: they are ones that I have personally had good luck with and have been happy with the results of. And for the beginner vegetable gardener, these are most likely those that you’ll find success with too! (there is nothing worse than a garden fail!) Just remember, your shade garden will always produce less and the fruits will be smaller than in full sun. But: who doesn’t love petit potatoes and tender baby spinach, right?!?


  • Arugula
  • Mesclun mix
  • Swiss Chard
  • Spinach
  • Head lettuces (keep in mind, they will stay small and compact)

Root vegetables

  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Potatoes


  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Mint
  • Parsley

Happy shady days!

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