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Edibles for the Shade

“Shady Characters – Edibles That Will Grow in the Shade”

by Kathy Zimmerman

Transylvania Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

 I frequently run into Transylvania County residents who long to grow edibles in their gardens, but they are plagued with shade. We all know that tomatoes, corn and squash love the full sun of summer. But are there some plants we can grow to eat that will tolerate our woodland canopies?

I’ve discovered that the answer is yes — kind of. Plants grown for their leaves, stems and buds are most tolerant of shade. I know of no vegetable crops that will grow in full, dense shade, but in dappled shade, there are some possibilities

Dappled, indirect light will support salad greens like leaf lettuce, arugula, endive, cress, radicchio and spinach. Swiss chard, collard, kale and mustard greens will also tolerate dappled shade. Since most of these plants are early season crops, plant them before the tree canopy fully leafs out, so that they receive spring sunshine to help them get a good start. Your leafy greens may last well into the summer when shaded from the hot summer sun.

If you have three to six hours of sun, or fairly constant dappled shade, you can also grow broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and peas. Some root vegetables will also grow in this situation. Beets, radishes, onions, garlic and carrots are all somewhat forgiving in these conditions. They may not grow as large as they would in full sun, but just call them “baby vegetables” and enjoy the gourmet treat!

Several types of berries will tolerate a half day of shade. Blackberries, raspberries and highbush blueberries are all worth trying in this situation. The elderberry tree is tolerant of partial shade and is a great plant for naturalizing. The serviceberry tree is highly ornamental, will grow in light shade, and it produces extremely tasty berries. There is also an Alpine strawberry that is quite productive in light shade.

Some less conventional edible plants are also worth mentioning:

  • The native Pawpaw tree needs only two hours of sunlight. It makes an interesting tree for the garden and as a side benefit, the somewhat tropical, soft fruit is a reward.
  • The ‘Arctic Beauty’ kiwi and the hardy kiwi are partial shade-tolerant fruiting vines, producing small grape-size kiwis.
  • The Ostrich fern is known for its fiddleheads, which are a culinary treat eaten raw or sautéed in butter. This fern prefers a few hours of dappled sunlight in a moist woodland garden. (While other ferns produce fiddleheads, this is the only one I know of that is safely eaten.)

And while you’re in the woodland garden, don’t forget about mushrooms. Winecaps are considered one of the easiest to grow. White, Crimini, Portabella, Oyster, Shiitake, and Enoki are all varieties that can be grown at home. I recommend homegrown known varieties rather than wildcrafting, which can be dangerous since there are so many toxic varieties of mushrooms. For instructions, just Google “growing mushrooms in your garden” and always assure you know exactly what mushroom you are dealing with.

To increase success when growing edibles in shady conditions, look for ways to increase the light reaching the garden. Plant on the south side of your house or tree cover. Keep plants from shading each other by planting the shorter plants closest to the light source. Look for ways to catch reflected light for your garden, like planting in front of a light-colored wall or using light-colored mulch. Another way to increase the light reaching your edible garden is to thin out, or limb up, trees that overhang the garden.

You might consider planting in raised beds or containers so that the roots of your edibles do not have to compete with tree roots. Always use well-amended, fertile soil.

Try your luck with planting some of these edibles even though your conditions are not ideal. It is always great fun to eat the fruit of your labors, and worth a little trial and error.