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Growing Food Where the Sun Don't Shine

Q. Mike: I have a vegetable garden, but not much sun. I get tomatoes and eggplants but the yield is low and late, although herbs do well. Can you recommend vegetable or fruit plants that require less light? I get maybe five hours a day in the best spots.
    ---Deborah in Newtown, PA
What is the minimum amount of sunlight you need to grow vegetables? Which vegetables grow best with less light? We live on the edge of the woods, get maybe 4 or 5 hours max mid-summer, and only have luck with Swiss chard and peas.
    ---Leslie; Traverse City, Michigan
A. In addition to being pretty shady personally, I am also solar-challenged in the garden. That's what happens when you buy Snow White's old house in the woods: Its great if you want birds and chipmunks to come by and do your dishes; not so great if you want to grow sweet corn. I'm too much of a coward to check exactly how much (or how little) sun my raised beds get, but I can assure you I don't have to worry about wearing sunscreen out there much before 11am.

Yet I still get a surprising amount of tasty treats. Over the years I've come to realize that some crops, like tomatoes, tend to be fairly forgiving about shade, while others, like peppers, are pretty pissy about it.

Gardens that don't enjoy that ever-elusive 'full sun' need more room between plants (to help the sun reach everybody while it is shining and keep disease at bay). They should also get less food and water than full-sun gardens because the plants simply can't grow as fast, and shady soil uses a lot less water. Raised beds are an absolute must, as are 100% organic fertilizers; the chemical salts in nasty things like Miracle-Gro, Osmocote and Peter's are especially harmful to plants that are already stressed by lack of sun.

Back to 1995, ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, of which I was Editor at the time, interviewed a number of growers and University researchers for a big feature on growing food in the shade. The best chance of success, we heard over and over, was with most of the 'roots and shoots': Carrots, turnips, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes and radishes, lettuces, spinach, cabbage, mustard greens, kale, and collards.

Peas and beans can also do well, although they won't produce as big a crop as the same plants in full sun. Cauliflower and broccoli make the list; in fact, some professional growers deliberately plant cauliflower in afternoon shade to protect the light-sensitive curds. Pretty much all of the herbs do well with limited sun, as do the perennial vegetables asparagus and rhubarb.

Lettuce and spinach are said to get by with the least sun, a measly four to six hours a day. The others mentioned above do better with six hours, which most of my garden probably does receive; maybe even a little more with the longer days at the height of summer.

Plants that fruit (that is, that form a flower, the flower drops off and is replaced by something wonderfully edible) need the most sun. 'The book' says a minimum of eight hours of sun a day for tomatoes, peppers, squash, cukes, melons and the like. Luckily my plants are illiterate; I grow most of those crops and the only way they're going to see eight hours is if they pull their roots up and go sit in the middle of the road till 11 or so.

That's vegetable type fruits. Many 'true' fruits are natural understory plants that have evolved to produce well in partial shade. Some of the shadiest characters include Muscatine grapes, alpine strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries, hardy kiwi and some pear varieties.

Ready to give it a shady shot? First, do some solar triage. Map the amount of sun different areas of your garden get and reserve the sunniest sites for fruiting veggies, keeping in mind that disease-prone plants like tomatoes prefer morning sun to dry off their leaves and keep disease at bay. Keep the soil naturally rich with lots of compost, water only at the base of plants, don't overwater, and do anything you can to get more light and air in there. I go on regular pruning sprees to thin out overgrown ornamentals nearby. And I just plain whale into the woods behind the beds to keep things open.

I also grow more in containers every year. The very front of our house gets fabulous sun much of the day, and has a big patio. My peppers in pots always do better out there than peppers in the garden. This year, I planted some heirloom potatoes that had been sent to me by Wood Prairie Farm in a big container out front, and their green growth is lusher than the same spuds growing in the main garden. But not tomatoes; mine are just too darn big to be perky in pots; and like I said, they seem pretty reasonable about going on The Dark Ride out in the main garden.

Finally, remember that shade from deciduous trees is seasonal, so Spring and Fall crops, like salad greens, Brussels sprouts, pansies, broccoli and peas can potentially go gangbusters for you. As can garlic, which gets planted when the leaves are starting to fall and harvested shortly after the leafiest time of the following year arrives.

Q. I have a big (50 foot tall) pine tree in the middle of my garden. I built raised beds and rake up all the needles. Is there anything else I can do to get more beans, peas, spinach, tomatoes, and squash?
    ---Katy in Spokane, Washington
Ooof! A tree in the middle of the garden is a double whammy, as its tenacious roots are always going to compete for moisture and food with any crops you try to grow there.

My first suggestion is to bite the bullet and cut it down (use the top as this year's Christmas tree!). Otherwise, remove the limbs from the bottom eight feet or so to improve sun and airflow and then grow in containers on top of the soil to eliminate competition from the roots.

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