Got Trees? Here’s How to Grow Food in a Shade Garden

shady gardening and plants
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One of the truths of urban living is a dearth of space. Whether it’s living space or planting space, there’s seldom enough of it. This is especially true if one lives in an older area of the city, as I do. My entire lot is 59’ square, and my house sits on a large chunk of that. I’ve turned as much as possible to food production and you can too. This article will deal with the shady garden areas. What can be grown in the shade garden, and how?

What is a shade garden?

Shade is a relative term of course. Shade gardens are usually areas with little or no direct sunlight. This can be an area near a building or under a tree and is often used as an ornamental area. There are, however, many flowers, greens, and herbs that grow well in such areas. Spinach actually prefers the cooler area.

According to Swanson Nursery, other edible items include arugula, endive, lettuce, sorrel, collards, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes, rutabaga, turnips, brassicas such as broccoli and cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Herbs such as mint, chervil, chives, coriander/cilantro, oregano, and parsley will do well in a shade garden. 

In my experience, the brassicas do better in direct sunlight and also need lots of room. Potatoes ditto. these prefer cooler temperatures but lots of sunlight and again, room to spread and form tubers. But 3-4 hours of sun will still produce something, and that’s better than nothing. You might also consider alliums such as onions, leeks, and garlic. 

What can I grow?

How big is your space, and what’s the soil like? This will dictate what can be grown there and how. If the space is small, then the alliums mentioned above, along with the greens and herbs might be your best option. The smaller root vegetables mentioned above will also work in small spaces, and best of all, the greens of beets, carrots, and radishes are all edible! Your shady garden can serve as a cut-and-come-again garden. Just be sure to leave at least 1/3 of the leaves so the plant can continue to grow and produce. 

If the area you’re considering is all gravel and/or clay soil, planting in the ground may not be your best option. If the area is under a tree, the tree roots may be big enough to interfere with anything trying to grow around them. In this case, your shade garden may work best using containers. While the standard rounds may not work well here, it may be possible to build a raised bed around the tree.

One gardener I know repurposed a kiddie pool by cutting a hole in the middle, placing the pool around the tree trunk, and filling in with good soil. She also repainted the pool so it looked nice! Now she’s growing greens and herbs there, where nothing would grow before. One caveat however: trees do need water, so be sure your raised bed either allows drainage or the tree is old enough that the roots extend further than your bed. Generally, a tree’s root system will extend to the drip line, which is the area defined by the outermost circumference of a tree canopy where water drips from and onto the ground. 

Here are some other tips and ideas on shady gardening.

Check out some interesting ideas from The SpruceI would swap out artificial turf for something more natural, but note the hostas in some of these designs. Hosta is edible, and few people know this. So if your space is viewable from the street, incorporating some edibles that most don’t know as such can help with OPSEC. No one will raid plants they don’t know are edible, right? Check out this article on how to use edible landscaping strategically.

Another type of garden that can do well in the shade is a pollinator garden. Plant natives will attract various pollinators while adding beauty to the yard, and some of these plants are also edible! Wisconsin Pollinators lists some great ideas for a native shade plant garden here, along with some nice planning tips. Goat’s beard, for example, was used by Native Americans as a poultice for bee stings. Jack in the Pulpit, on the other hand, contains calcium oxalate in both foliage and corms. This can cause both mouth and gastrointestinal irritation, but many pollinators love it. Chokecherry is useful to many pollinators and the berries rock in jams and jellies. However, it’s also susceptible to a number of pests and diseases. What kinds of pollinator-friendly, shade-tolerant plants grow in your area? 

What else should we take into consideration?

Another thing to be aware of in the city is its garden regulations. My municipality requires that all plantings be set back 3’ from sidewalks and property lines. There have been attempts to regulate how tall the plants in a veggie garden can grow as well as attempts to ban veggie gardens outright. There are fencing regulations, and the pencil necks prefer that front yards be lawns.

I know one local gardener who scavenged and planted inside used tires. The city objected even though she was on welfare and just trying to feed her kids. Another gardener had her yard dug up while she was out of town, despite trying to work with the city on a mutually acceptable solution. And the city billed her for it! So know the regulations in your area and keep OPSEC always in mind when planning your shade and other garden areas. 

(You can also find more information on what you can grow in your shady garden area and the different agricultural zones in the Home Agriculture Course… PS: It’s on sale!)

Do you grow a shade garden? What do you grow there and how is it working out? Do you have any advice? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

About Amy Allen

Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.

Amy Allen

Amy Allen

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  • I find that taking advantage of the months when the leaves are not on the trees is a good way to take advantage of shady areas. Making use of cold frames and the like can help extend the season so that you can take advantage of these times of the year. I plant garlic in the fall about the time I plant daffodil bulbs and they have decent bulbs by the time the leaves grow back on the trees.

    • Indeed, garlic is usually planted in fall since it needs the subzero overwintering. Cold frames and other season extenders are great! Where do you plant your garlic? Do you use the area under your trees?

  • I have a 4 in 1 meter that I use to determine light, pH, moisture and nutrient levels. A full on sunny location produces a light reading of 2000+ lumen. I have a greenhouse in the shade which is 200 lumen. Significant difference, yet the things in my greenhouse are very vibrant and healthy. The shady parts of my yard produce around 1500 lumen or so. For me, shade isn’t quite as bad of a nemesis as I thought it was.

    • Dear Matt,
      Down here in the tropics many crops need shade, as the sun can be too strong. Tomatoes, and coffee, are usually plants that need to be protected.

  • That´s why trying to “survive” in a city is NOT going to be a good idea in any country where regulations like those are already in place. If they have people willing to NOT get themselves in line like sheep to get the gov handouts but are self-reliant they will easily lose control very quickly.
    Get some wild land far away and an off-road RV of some kind to make it there. Equip it with a solar distiller, drill a well, rig a septic, and get a copy of “The Contrary Farmer”.

  • PLEASE use caution when raising soil levels around the base of a tree! If you raise the soil you will effectively “girdle” the tree and shorten its lifespan! You must leave at least 2 feet around the base of the tree free of any raised soil. Roots find their own ideal depth, and require the oxygen and water to remain accessible! If you must plant around or under a tree, leave two feet undisturbed, and only use 1/3 of the area around the tree, by spreading out plants. If you use pots, the same rule applies, don’t put a solid layer of plants in pots, because you will smother your tree roots. Lots of people put a rock wall around an existing tree and add soil, and lots of people effectively strangle their tree. If you look it up, you will see over and over again that you need to plant outside the tree’s dripline, which is the outer edges of the branches. There are understory plants that grow very well at the base of trees, but this is a natural symbiotic relationship, because birds drop seeds while perching on branches. I am not against a survival garden or clandestine growing techniques, but intensive planting under trees should be avoided.

  • FYI … trees roots go much further than you had listed in your article , whatever the distance from the tree the drip line is add half that distance
    Ex . Dripline is 20 feet add half that (10ft) the roots extend 30ft from the tree. And there are exceptions to that , some trees go furthersuch as mangroves and Aspens.

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