Roots and Shoots: Vegetables That Don’t Mind A Little Shade

By Pamela Doan

Tomatoes are not your friend if you’ve got a shady garden. These sun-lovers need at least eight hours every day to produce at their peak level. Green peppers, cucumbers, and corn also are in the full sun category. You don’t have to miss out on an entire summer harvest, though; there are some delicious and nutritious choices that will do well with less sunlight, but not complete shade.

Lettuce started from seed grows well and produces nicely in shady spots on hot summer days.

Lettuce started from seed grows well and produces nicely in shady spots on hot summer days. (Photo by P. Doan)

I finally gave in and adopted greens as my main crop after three years of dwindling sunlight on my garden as the surrounding trees grew taller. Lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, kale and chives are the heroes of my garden now that I’ve accepted my circumstances. Tomatoes and other full sun veggies have been relocated to containers that can be moved to sunnier spots in the yard.

I discovered one benefit of the shadier garden; I can get greens all summer long in spite of the heat. The extra shade on the greens keeps them cooler on hot summer days and less likely to bolt. Bolting occurs when the weather is past the optimal temperature for greens. The plant shoots up a stalk that flowers at the top and the plant has gone to seed. Forget about eating it at this stage, the leaves are too bitter.

All of the greens I mentioned above can produce well with 3 to 4 hours of sunlight per day and would suffer at this time of year in a full sun garden. While they might not be the sought-after stars of the garden like tomatoes are, freshly picked lettuce and spinach are certainly welcome additions to any meal.

Keeping the shady garden adequately watered is the next step to success in hotter weather, although watering won’t be as intense as it is for plants in full sun. Lettuces in particular tend to wilt on hotter days, even in the shade. Adding mulch to keep moisture around the plant helps, including a layer of straw. A rich soil full of organic matter in the pH range of 6.0 to 7.0 should provide all the nutrients your plants need and extra additives shouldn’t be necessary.

Root vegetables including beets, potatoes, carrots, and turnips need more sun, 4 to 5 hours per day, but here’s a trick. Plant them in the fall when the angle of the sun has shifted and the trees are starting to lose their leaves. Your shady garden might get more sun and all of these are cooler weather plants that won’t mind the drop in temperature at night, either, as long as it doesn’t frost. Lettuces will withstand some frost where other vegetables won’t and it’s a great three-season crop.

A cold frame, hoop frame or row covers will also extend the growing season. It seems strange to think about now, but most of the seasonal summer vegetables will be hitting their peak over the next four to six weeks and instead of letting the garden go fallow afterwards, start seeding in lettuces and other crops that will thrive into the cooler weather this fall as space becomes available after you’ve harvested something. Lettuce is easy to grow from seed and it’s an affordable way to include several different varieties.

Harvesting your shady and cooler weather vegetables sooner when the leaves are tenderer or the carrots are still in their “baby” size, ensures a good crop and lessens the possibility that problems will arise. Root vegetables will mature more slowly with less sun and from my perspective, the longer a vegetable stays in the garden, the greater the likelihood that a pest or disease or some other problem will get it before I do. “Pests” includes the bunnies that somehow manage to get into my garden in spite of the fence.

And speaking of pests, watch out for slugs in a shadier garden. With less water burning off in the shade, it can be a cool, moist and ripe environment for slugs during a rainy stretch of weather. Slugs will take out your plants pretty quickly.

If your plants are in a raised bed, use copper tape on the top edges to keep them out. Snails and slugs don’t like to cross it. The mulch that keeps the moisture around the plants is necessary to cut down on watering, but it can also be a great hiding place for slugs. Just keep an eye out for them. Now go find a shadier spot in the yard and prepare to enjoy great salads all summer long.


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