Most of us think of gardens as sunny places, and that’s likely because the crops we are accustomed to growing and eating require full sun to thrive. And, it’s true: those summer veggie gardens wild with squash, green beans, and tomatoes need plenty of sunshine. However, there are many edible plants that can grow in the shade.
For those of us seeking to grow more of what we eat, it’s important to learn the ins and outs of what we can grow in less than sun-drenched conditions. It turns out that a multitude of fruits and vegetables prefer shade, or at least dappled shade, in order to do their thing. Many of these are expensive specialty items or foods that never make it to market shelves. That means that we not only get some food but get something a little of the eaten track.
If experimental and adventurous, along with a sprinkling of self-sufficient, sounds like a good time, the following list of shade-tolerant produce might be just what you are looking for.
Every spring the forest floor is littered with the fresh sprouts of plants that have been waiting for some warmth. For those fortunate enough to be in the know, ostrich ferns put out an abundance of edible fiddleheads (unfurled fronds) that are reminiscent of asparagus. They prefer partially shady spots and grow into beautiful, ornamental plants for the rest of the year.
Sometimes referred to as wild garlic, ramps grow naturally in deciduous forests, where the soil is rich and ripe with organic matter. They are spring ephemerals and like to get the sun before the leaves have returned to the trees. Ramps take a while to get going (think a few years prior to harvest), but they are perennials that can produce tasty greens for years to come.
For a great edible in shady spots, such as the understory of food forests, creeping raspberry (thimbleberry) will stay low and grow prolifically. It produces delicate fruits that are too soft for transport to market. Nevertheless, they resemble raspberries in flavor and make delicious jams. They like full shade. And, another bonus is that they are thornless.
Wintergreen is a low-growing evergreen that makes a beautiful groundcover with the benefit of edible berries and leaves for tea. The flavor of wintergreen is as its name suggests, both the berries and the leaves. This makes a fantastic groundcover in shady garden spots. They will tolerate some sunlight but much prefer shade.
More often than not, hostas are grown for their ornamental qualities. They have broad leaves and provide stunning flowers in the late summer. However, they are also edible plants. Again, treated like asparagus, after a couple of years, hosta shoots (unfurled leaves) can be harvested in early spring and cooked as a simple side dish with garlic and (plant-based) butter.
A self-seeding member of the carrot family, sweet Cecily will spread readily wherever it is planted. It does best in partial shade and produces a delicious range of snacks, as well as attracts lots of pollinators. Like many wildflowers, sweet Cecily likes to be planted in the fall, and it will pop up the following spring.
Good King Henry
Used for its delicious edible greens, good king henry is something found in supermarkets. It’s a perennial plant that will provide food year after year. The sprouts can be treated like asparagus, the leaves like spinach, and the seeds like quinoa.
Arctic Beauty Kiwi
Anytime we can grow something vertically, even in shady spots, it means we are saving valuable growing space. Arctic Beauty Kiwi enjoys growing in partial shade. It reaches about 10-12 feet tall and produces divine fruit more akin to hardy kiwi (smooth and green on the outside) than the fuzzy kiwis in the supermarket.
An understory tree native to the eastern United States, American pawpaw is not related to the tropical papaya (sometimes called pawpaw) but rather of other tropical fruit trees: custard apple and soursop. American pawpaws produce delicious fruits that have a soft, pudding texture when ready to eat.
Elderberry trees are voracious, fast growers that thrive in sodden soil and partial shade. The berries and flowers are both medicinal and edible. The berries are general used for making jam, syrup, and wine. The flowers can be used for teas. The easy-growing trees can be chopped back if they get too large, and they recover to continue producing.
What amazing thing to do! Grow lots of food in places most gardeners assume are a no-plant land. Not the case at all. Lots of good eats will grow where the sun rarely shows.
- A Quick Guide to Growing and Utilizing Elderberries
- PawPaw: All About North America’s Largest Edible Fruit
- How to Grow Kiwis in the US
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