Many food crops thrive only when they are bathed in sunlight most of the day. Most of the “summer crops,” such as tomatoes, corn, beans, squash or cucumbers, need a minimum of six hours of sun a day.
Other crops, those we grow for leaves or roots, such as lettuce, kale, cabbage or carrots, can be grown where sunlight will strike them as few as four hours a day. A number of our favorite herbs and edible flowers also want half- to full-day sun.
Shade often limits the part of the garden where an urban gardener can grow food crops. There are buildings, fences, trees all around. What’s a food gardener to do? Because my backyard is half shady in fall and spring and completely shady in winter, I can offer some advice.
Is part of your garden under a dense tree? That’s heavy shade. Most food plants will not thrive there, but it’s a great place for a compost bin — not too close to the tree, though. A “hot” pile will heat from the compost bacteria so it does not need the sun. Worm bins are fine in the shade as well. Any kind of bin will be easier to keep moist if it’s out of bright sunlight.
A thin, open tree or an overhead arbor will make dappled or light shade. A third kind of shade, common in cities, is “open shade” made by a house or fence on one side, but with open sky above.
A “full sun” plant wants the least-shaded place you have, whatever your microclimate; but don’t worry, the term “full sun” always assumes there will be some foggy or cloudy days. However, temperature matters. The common suggestion “part-shade inland, full sun at the coast” recognizes that coastal sunlight is generally cooler, and plants that could not take full sun in a hot place can do so in a cooler microclimate. Inland, dappled or lightly shady areas offer an environment a bit cooler than in full sun. This is some help in growing leafy crops, such as lettuce or kale, longer into spring, or starting them a bit earlier in the fall.
Food in shady areas
Throughout our region, some crops grow well in open shade, even in winter. What they have in common is that they’re cool-preferring leafy plants and include parsley (flat or curled), arugula (rustic or regular) and chervil. Other leafy greens, such as lettuce, kale, collards, mustard or chard, may be a bit smaller in open shade but are worth a try.
Chervil, by the way, is a cool-season annual herb. Sow its seed in fall for a winter crop. In flavor, chervil is a cross between parsley and anise. French cooks enjoy its lacy leaves chopped into an omelet, added at the end of cooking.
The edible flower calendula grows well in open shade. Also, if violas are already in bloom when lengthening fall shadows overtake them, they will continue to bloom in shade.
In addition to the above, here are three herbs that do double-duty as edibles and ornamentals in various amounts of shade:
As with any food crop, to conserve water limit the area in which you grow these plants and amend the soil with organic matter.
Is my garden shady?
July talk: Pam Peirce will discuss year-round food gardening 12:30-2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 20, at the Sunset branch of the San Francisco public library, 1305 18th Ave. The talk is free.
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