By John Curtis and Ziggy Woodward
If you want to grow fruit and veg in deep shade, you might be out of luck (or try mushrooms?) In partial shade – perhaps there’s a few hours of sunshine on the spot for most days in the Summer – your options are improving.
Sometimes experienced gardeners who have huge gardens, and this includes TV gardeners, aren’t always able to give good advice because they have plenty of sunny spots in their gardens. They choose these plentiful spots for their fruit and veg, so have little experience of growing in less than ideal conditions.
When you look in a gardening book for a particular plant, it often advises ‘choose an open spot with full sun’. That’s true if you want the best yield, but what we lowly readers want to know is, will the yield and flavour be acceptable when growing in more shady spots? Here are some tips, some of which we’ve tried in our garden in Southampton in the UK.
Fruit and veg that are known to work in shady spots
A blackcurrant reaches for the sun. Photo: John Curtis
Don’t expect perfect results and the best possible yields or flavour, but remember that some is better than none.
Raspberry we recommend an autumn-fruiting variety such as Autumn Bliss because, compared to summer-fruiting varieties, less support is needed, and birds are less likely to eat them.
Alpine strawberry conventional strawberry plants need a reasonable amount of sun, so avoid these. Alpines need far less. You only get small fruits from them, but they are very tasty.
Gage, plum we were advised to try Early Transparent Gage next to our north-facing fence. It soon grew above fence height so the upper parts now receive good sun. For a plum, a culinary rather than a dessert variety is a better choice – try czar.
Cooking apples although we haven’t tried them, it’s said that cooking apples can cope with some shade. Dessert apples need more sun.
Cherry culinary varieties such as morello cherry are a good choice for shady spots and north-facing fences or walls. Don’t try dessert varieties since these need plenty of sun to get sweet. If you don’t use protection, the chances of you getting cherries are slim though, since they are a bird must-eat-first-before-people-eat fruit.
Redcurrant, whitecurrant, gooseberries we’ve been growing all three against our 1.3m high north-facing fence, and they like it there. We’ve also grown blackcurrants there with some success, although it’s said that these are less tolerant of shade than the red and white varieties. Birds like them, especially redcurrants, so beware.
Blackberry, tayberry, loganberry, Japanese wineberry we’ve tried all of these, with very good results. The Japanese wineberry is a climber and it didn’t do too well until it grew above fence level, after which it received full sun became extremely vigorous and fruited well.
Rhubarb add plenty of compost before planting to give it a boost. They don’t produce as much rhubarb in a semi-shady position, but we find that a single plant still produces enough for our needs – we chop it into chunks, freeze it and use it in crumbles with apple throughout the year.
Potato we’ve grown them next to a north-facing 1.3m high fence, and achieved pretty good yields.
Herbs most need good sun but a few can grow reasonably well in partial shade. Mints, meadowsweet, fennel, three-cornered leek (very invasive) and welsh onion grow well next to our north-facing fence. Parsley and coriander are said to prefer partial shade to full sun.
Leafy greens lettuce, chard, perpetual spinach, rocket and sorrel (i.e. French or buckler-leafed) can cope well.
Brassicas such as cabbages, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli and kohlrabi are said to cope well in partial shade, although we haven’t put this to the test.
Beetroot is said to tolerate shade so long as the seeds are set in modules in bright conditions and transplanted when they are growing strongly.
Peas tolerate some shade, although it’s said that it slows down their growth.
Runner bean someone we know used to rent a house with almost no sun in the garden due to nearby buildings and trees. He tried lots of different veg, and told us that runner beans did the best! We suspect that they climbed high until they found some sun.
Edible perennial climbers and bushes such as Schisandra chinensis (a climber, you need two plants, a male and a female) and edible honeysuckle (a bush, needs a pollinating partner) see the Agroforesty Research Trust’s website for a full catalogue.
Your garden is for non-edibles too
It’s important to attract wildlife into your garden to help compensate for habitat loss elsewhere, and to attract pollinating and predatory insects. Non-edibles can play an important role here. They can also be pleasing to look at, and some are even scented!
Annual/biennial flowers that do well next to our north-facing fence are evening primrose and tobacco plant.
Perennial choices are bluebells, lily of the valley, periwinkle, ajuga (bugle), mullein, honesty, ferns, sweet violets, hellebores, primroses, lungwort and forget-me-nots.
We grow green manures over winter, and have found that field beans grow well here next to our north-facing fence.
Plant trailing plants in a shady spot, and persuade them to trail into a less shady spot
The fence on the right is actually north facing but even here there is some sunshine early on a summer’s day. Photo: John Curtis
For instance, you might have a patch of good soil that is in shade, but not far away there’s a sunny spot that doesn’t have soil – a patio perhaps. You could try planting a winter squash or pumpkin which trails all over the place, persuading it to grow into the sunny spot. Some winter squashes that have smaller fruits will happily grow up a fence or shed into a sunny area without the weight of the fruits breaking the stems. They might need a trellis or something like that to grip onto. These plants have tendrils which grip extremely well, stopping them from blowing around or from falling down.
If there’s a north-facing fence or wall that isn’t too tall, try growing something that is tall and will quickly grow above the level of the structure, so that before long it gets a good soaking of sunshine. Examples: runner beans, climbing French beans, trees (but not espaliered ones since normally these are kept lower than the fence – fan-trained trees might be OK). If the sunny bits have no soil – a patio for instance – try growing sun-lovers in containers.
Make the most of sunny vertical areas
A south, east or west-facing tall fence or wall that has soil at its base and has sun shining on its surface is wasted if you only grow something with low height next to it. Consider something tall – espalier fruit trees, grape vines, runner beans, climbing French beans spring to mind. Growing these elsewhere shades out the area to the north of them, so don’t – plant then where they shade out your fence or wall instead!
Don’t use up valuable sunny spots in the garden with things that don’t need sun
Compost bins if you put them in a sunny spot, the contents will get warmer which speeds up composting, but unless you really need your compost ready quicker, put them in a shady spot and use that prime sunny spot for sun-loving plants instead. It’s possible to insulate a compost bin to increase the temperature of its contents. We’ve never tried this, but wrapping it with unwanted bubble wrap sounds like a good idea. You can also buy a ready insulated compost bin although they aren’t cheap.
Water butts, sheds, waste bins think before you locate them. Is there somewhere shady that you can move them to, and free up your valuable sunny areas?
Paint it white?
You can increase the amount of indirect light reaching your plants if you paint nearby fences, walls, sheds, etc white. We’re thinking of painting one side of our shed and a couple of fence panels white. We’re not sure how well paint sticks to rough-sawn timber, but we intend to try it. Our inclination is not to use paints that flake over time, but to use microporous paints which instead wear down over time.
Book Plants for a Future by Ken Fern. ISBN: 1856230112.
This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 29 (Summer 2012), p34, but compared to the original article has been updated and expanded.