Shade: for many of us, it’s that problem part of the garden we’re not entirely sure what to do with. But believe it or not, shady areas can be a productive part of your garden.
Types of Shade
All shade is not created equal. Like so many things in gardening, shade can be thought of as a spectrum, from direct sun (defined as six hours or more of direct sunshine per day in the summer) to dense shade (when an area gets less than two hours of direct sunshine a day).
Of course, there’s plenty in between full sun and dense shade. For instance, an area shaded by trees may create a dappled shade that flits between direct sunshine and shade as the foliage above sways in the breeze.
Then there are lightly shaded areas that enjoy bright light but are shielded from direct sun, as well as areas of moderate shade that receive a few hours of direct sunshine but remain shaded for the remainder of the day. And don’t forget that the amount of shade can change depending on the time of year, the angle of the sun and whether trees are in leaf.
So what’s to be done with those more shaded parts of the garden? It all starts with what we grow…
1. Shade-Tolerant Fruits
While most crops grow best in full sunshine there are some that will cope with a little shade. Fruits originating from woodland environments, including raspberries, currants and gooseberries grow and fruit well in light shade. Morello cherries (a type of sour cherry) grow well against shady walls, while cooking varieties of apple should do just fine in light shade.
Training fruits in an open fan shape against a wall or fence helps maximise the amount of light reaching the plant, and can encourage more and larger fruits.
2. Shade-Tolerant Vegetables
Light shade is fine for many vegetables too, including salad leaves, leafy vegetables like chard and spinach, radishes, beetroot, and brassicas like cabbage, kale and broccoli.
Carrots and leeks will cope with shade for much of the afternoon so long as they receive some morning sun, while broad beans thrive in dappled shade. Dappled shade is also invaluable in the height of summer, when the cooler conditions will be appreciated by cool-season crops like salads and radish.
In areas with hot summers, you’ll almost certainly need to provide these crops with some shade if your garden is open and sunny. This can be done by either adding shade cloth or by growing tall crops on the sunny side of the cool-season crops.
3. Grow Climbing Crops
Some parts of the garden might be shaded at ground level but receive plenty of light higher up. These areas are perfect for climbing crops like beans and climbing peas, which can be started off in a sunny place such as a warm greenhouse, then transplanted into their final positions once they’ve grown tall enough to escape the shade.
Don’t forget climbing fruits too – train grapevines and kiwifruits up and into the sunshine to help them thrive and produce lots of tasty fruits.
4. Sow Tactically
Although crops like carrots, beetroot and lettuce are shade-tolerant, they usually need good light levels to get them off to a strong start. Areas shaded for much of the growing season by deciduous trees and shrubs can be sunny and open earlier in the year, making them a promising place to grow cool-season crops.
Many trees won’t reach full leaf cover until quite late in spring, leaving plenty of time earlier on in the season to make sowings for those precious first pickings.
5. Start Seeds in a Nursery Bed or Pots
Alternatively, start seedlings off somewhere you can guarantee warmth and light, then plant them out when they’re bigger and stronger, and therefore in a better position to cope with shadier conditions. Select the strongest seedlings to transplant into their own plugs or pots. Grow them on in the warmth and light so that they develop a strong root system and sturdy growth, ready for planting out into shadier conditions a few weeks later.
6. Wait for the Warmth
Shaded areas warm up slower in spring, so bide your time. Sow too early and seeds could rot or seedlings perish in the cold, wet conditions. Instead, delay sowing or planting in shady areas by a week or two until the risk of frost has passed and your soil is no longer chilly. Crops will establish more reliably in warmer soil and should soon catch up with earlier sowings.
7. Improve Soil Structure
Improving your soil’s structure will help it to warm up sooner at the start of the season. Add plenty of organic matter (for instance well-rotted manure, garden compost or leafmould) to open it out and improve drainage. Well-structured soils dry out faster in spring than heavy ones, making them more responsive to those first warming rays of sunshine so plants establish quicker.
8. Reflect Sunlight to Minimize Shade
Reflective surfaces such as whitewashed or light-coloured painted walls can help to reflect valuable light in dull conditions or shaded gardens. Paler coloured mulches are another option, bouncing light back off the ground and up into the canopy. For instance, you could use straw-coloured wood chips around fruiting shrubs such as gooseberries, or white pebbles to top off container-grown plants.
With the right combination of crops and tactics you can create a thriving garden, even in those shadier corners.