How to grow healthy and delicious produce without 8 hours of sunlight

By Julie Thompson-Adolf

Dreaming of delicious heirloom tomatoes? Pining for perfect peppers? Living with a shady garden presents challenges, particularly if your gardening niche focuses on edibles. As a gardener who prefers peas and pac choi to petunias, I’ve learned to search out vegetables that tolerate shade. 

If you’re struggling to find a sunny space to grow vegetables, consider growing cool-weather crops. Often, a shady summer garden is actually quite sunny in early spring or late fall, when the deciduous trees are bare. Photo courtesy of Cindy Shapton.

First, realign your expectations. If your garden space offers only three hours of full sun, forgo the ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes and think foliage. Most fruiting edibles, such as tomatoes, peppers, and watermelon, require eight hours of sun to produce delicious, healthy harvests. 

However, don’t despair: leafy greens and roots to the rescue! While growing a field of tomatoes might not be realistic, many vegetables thrive in partial sun or even minimal sun. 

Peas tolerate partial shade, and their blooms add a bit of beauty to the vegetable garden. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Schutter.

Observe your garden. You may believe that your garden resides in deep shade, but take a good look, especially during different seasons and at various times throughout the day. You may find more sun than expected due to bare deciduous trees, particularly for cool-weather crops. 

Brussels sprouts produce well in a garden with three to four hours of sun. Photo courtesy of Bob Westerfield.

Check your plants’ sun needs. Plants requiring full sun need eight hours of light. Partial shade equals two to six hours of sun, which includes dappled sun filtered through leaves or reflected light from a white building or fence. Full shade gardens receive no direct sun or reflected light. 

While you might need to position a container in your sunniest garden spot to grow tomatoes for your BLT, you’ll grow plenty of other delicious ingredients for dinner in your shady garden.

Create new space. Find the brightest position in your shady garden for your vegetables. Perhaps you’ll need to create a new space that benefits from reflected light. Some sunlight is necessary to grow healthy, productive crops.

Appreciate shade. In our Southern climate, partial shade offers benefits, particularly for cool-season crops that bolt as days lengthen and temperatures rise. Shade extends the growing season, allowing you to enjoy the harvest longer. 

Afternoon shade also benefits warm-season crops. Intense Southern sunlight may scald peppers or tomatoes. While these crops do need sun to fruit, afternoon shade protects crops, too. As with all vegetable gardens, make sure to provide consistent water and rich, well-draining soil. 

Lots of herbs, such as chives, grow well in partial shade conditions. Photo courtesy of Phillip Oliver.

Select your crops. If your garden receives between two and six hours of light, consider adding the following vegetables, based on what you love to eat:

Many herbs also perform well in partial shade conditions. Consider growing angelica, catnip, chervil, chives, cilantro, lemon balm, lovage, mint, parsley, perilla, tarragon, and thyme. Rosemary grows in part shade, but expect slow growth and little flowering. 

Full Shade Crops: Is it Possible? While most edible crops require at least minimal sunlight, it’s possible to grow some crops in full shade. Crops harvested for young, tender, leaves work well in shade, particularly if harvested in the immature stage. Baby arugula, beet greens, and baby kale work in shade. Ginseng also grows in my full-shade garden, deep in the forest. 

So, take heart, food lovers! While you might need to position a container in your sunniest garden spot to grow tomatoes for your BLT, you’ll grow plenty of other delicious ingredients for dinner in your shady garden.




Can You Grow Tomatoes in Shady Gardens?

I live in a forest. As you can imagine, growing tomatoes in a forest isn’t easy. However, after many trials over the years, I’ve found several varieties that perform well with less sun. A few important notes:

Productivity will be lower than in gardens with full sun. You may want to grow a few extra plants.

Disease may be more prevalent without morning sun to dry dewy leaves.

Trellising or staking is a must. Maximize your space and minimize plant diseases by staking.

Pruning increases air circulation and decreases disease. With limited sun, pruning suckers also helps the sun reach fruits to speed ripening, plus the plant uses the sun’s energy toward fruit production rather than growing more foliage.

Size matters. Smaller varieties of tomatoes perform better than large varieties in shady gardens. 

Color matters. White, orange, and yellow tomatoes thrive in my shady garden. Fortunately, those are also my favorites.

Rich soil, good organic fertilizers, and consistent water – tomatoes need these to produce fruit, no matter if your garden is sunny or shady.

Remember: You do need at least a few hours of sun. Tomatoes require the sun’s energy to produce fruit. Find the sunniest spot in your shady garden to plant your tomatoes.

‘Black Krim’ tomato



Best Heirloom Tomatoes for Semi-Shade

‘Amana Orange’ 
‘Golden Sunray’
‘Jaune Flammé’ 

‘Arkansas Traveler’
‘Belize Pink Heart’
‘Thai Pink Egg’

‘A Grappoli d’Inverno’
‘Principe Borghese’ 

‘Black Cherry’ 
‘Black Krim’
‘Evan’s Purple Pear’  

‘Gold Medal’
‘Green Zebra’
‘Isis Candy Cherry’
‘Red Zebra’
‘Vernissage Yellow’
‘Violet Jasper’ 

‘White Queen’
‘Ivory Egg’ 

‘Yellow Pear’

‘Green Zebra’ tomato
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