Whether you have a garden with shady spots, a balcony that is in the shade for most of the day, or a small growing space with partial shade, you’ll want to know: what plants can grow happily in the shade?
Shady areas in the garden may seem problematic, as all plants need some sun to survive, but it is indeed possible to grow edible plants even in areas with around 2-4 hours of sun exposure a day.
You can use those shady spots to grow several shade-tolerant vegetables, such as lettuce, cabbage, swiss chard, mustard greens, root vegetables, and more.
Find out how to make the most of a shady garden and grow shade-loving vegetables with these helpful gardening tips.
All plants need some light to live
As you probably already know, plants need at least some light to photosynthesize, grow well, and stay alive. A fully shaded area that receives no hours of direct sunlight a day cannot support healthy plant growth in the long term.
Luckily, most shady areas can also have dappled sunlight, reflected light, or partial sunlight, which enables some plant growth. As long as there is a bit of light, you can grow a plant in shade!
Find out how many hours of sunlight you get per day
It’s important to find out what kind of shady area you’re working with before you get down to the practicalities of vegetable gardening.
Your choice of shade vegetables to grow will differ according to the kind of sun exposure you get each day during the growing season.
Here are some tips for working out what kind of sun exposure your garden area gets each day.
What direction does your garden or growing area face?
A south-facing balcony or garden will have the most hours of direct sunshine, compared to the west, east, or north-facing areas. The south-facing garden will likely be in full sun for up to 8 hours a day.
If your garden or balcony faces north, east, or west, don’t fret – you can still get enough light to grow in shade.
If you can, take note of how many hours of sunlight your intended growing area gets. You can use a light meter, or simply observe the area hourly and keep note of the hours of direct sun.
Once you know your approximate sun exposure, you can choose vegetables that grow well in that environment.
Light level definitions for gardeners
Have you ever noticed a label on a plant at a nursery with the words “partial shade”, or “full sun”? These are terms used to describe the light exposure needs of different types of plants.
Each species of plant is well adapted to its unique environment – for example, cacti need dry and sunny environments, whereas ferns need a shaded, humid environment to grow successfully.
Finding out the sun exposure needs of your vegetables is important, as is understanding the sun exposure terms.
Full sun refers to 6 hours or more of direct sun per day. This is ideal for growing the vast majority of popular fruiting plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, and corn.
Fruit blossoms need sunshine to grow and attract pollinators, and therefore these full sun-loving plants will be unhappy in the shade.
Most fruiting plants also have a long growing season that requires a great deal of sunlight (usually full sun) and warmth for the formation of fruits and a successful harvest.
Partial shade/part sun
Partial shade (also referred to as partial sun) refers to 4-6 hours of direct sunlight a day, mostly before midday.
This includes dappled shade, which is usually cast by trees that obstruct the path of direct sunlight.
Partial shade isn’t a big problem for your vegetable garden, because many kinds of vegetables and varieties of some vegetables can live in partial shade.
There are a great many vegetables that grow in both shade and full sun.
The term full shade refers to less than 4 hours of direct sunlight per day. This kind of shade is the most difficult to grow vegetables in, but it’s not impossible!
Crops will grow more slowly, and yields will be smaller, but you’ll still be able to grow in shade areas which is an achievement in itself!
No hours of direct sunlight per day. This environment cannot support plant life (unless artificial lighting is used).
Hours of sunshine will naturally differ according to geographic location and climate, but these are the generally accepted definitions for types of sun exposure.
What grows well in full shade?
The term “full shade” in gardening usually refers to areas that receive 4 hours or less of sunlight a day. They may also receive some reflected light, but no direct sunlight, during the day.
Many vegetables grow well in full shade, including leafy greens like lettuce, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, radishes, and more.
If you are growing greens from seeds, rather germinate them on a sunny windowsill before transplanting the bigger plant outdoors, as the shade can be difficult for seeds to germinate in.
What vegetable grows best in shade?
One group of vegetables that thrive in full shade are the brassicas, or mustard family (also known as cruciferous vegetables). This includes greens like kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and mustard greens.
Vegetables that don’t need full sun to thrive
Growing vegetables in the shade can be easy if you know exactly what kinds of shade-tolerant vegetables to grow. Take a look at this list of shade vegetables, take note of some of the gardening tips, and start planning your shady garden!
Spinach is a cool-season crop that is best grown in spring and fall. It prefers cool weather and it will be perfectly happy in a shady spot.
Spinach is also high-yielding and a fast-producing crop, which means that you can make the most of a small shaded garden spot by increasing harvests.
Spinach needs regular, deep watering to grow vigorously, and a shady spot means less evaporation so you’ll need to water your spinach less frequently.
Chard is a wonderful vegetable garden addition as it is hardy and cold resistant, and it can keep producing new leaves for around 9 months!
These shade-tolerant vegetables usually give you a reliable yield, and the leaves can be harvested small as salad leaves or left to grow large for cooking.
One of the best vegetables that grow in the shade is lettuces! These leafy greens will grow with anywhere between 3 – 5 hours of direct sun per day.
There are so many varieties of lettuce to choose from, with different tastes, colors, and textures to discover.
- Lollo Rossa – beautiful deep red, frilly leaves and a slightly bitter flavor.
- Marvel of the Four Seasons butterhead lettuce, with soft, pale, waxy leaves.
- Little Gem cos lettuce, a Greek variety enjoys summer warmth.
It is best to sow lettuce seeds indoors and then transplant young plants into your shade garden or planters in spring to ensure the best start.
Seeds need sunlight to germinate & start growing, whereas established plants will be better suited to growing in the shade. Sowing seeds directly into the soil can be risky if there is lots of shade, as the seeds might not germinate.
Harvest your lettuce leaves when they are small for salad greens, or let them grow bigger and form hearts.
Endives and escaroles
These two exotic-sounding vegetables are leafy greens that are easy to grow in shade.
Endives come from the chicory plant family, and they are grown for their edible leaves. They are also called “leaf chicory”.
Escarole is broad-leaved endive that looks like lettuce. Both can be cooked and used in soups, sauteed, or eaten in salads.
These cool-season legumes are vegetables that grow in partial shade/partial sun or full sun, although they will crop longer in shaded areas because of the cooler environment and less water evaporation in the shade.
You can grow pea shoots in early spring and harvest the young, tender shoots when they reach a few inches in height and the leaves are soft and full of flavor. Pea shoots are lovely in salads or stir-fries.
Grow mangetout peas for sweet, edible pods, and even more pea plants for a late-season crop of peas!
Often forgotten or underrated, the humble radish is a lovely little root vegetable that has a very short growing time of approximately 6 weeks from seed to harvest.
Radishes are very happy in partial shade, as too much heat and direct sunshine can cause them to bolt (flower and run to seed) prematurely.
Add these little root vegetables to your shade garden and sow seeds in a cool season like spring or autumn.
Try these radish varieties for growing in partial shade:
- Rudolph – bright red, crunchy, and spicy little radishes that grow quickly.
- French Breakfast – pretty pink and white-tipped root vegetables that have a mild flavor.
- White Icicle – long, white radishes with a mild flavor.
- Daikon (mooli) – Asian radish that can grow very large and is often pickled.
Although they are usually grown in full sun, potatoes can also grow in partial shade.
Early, or new potatoes are the best choice to grow in partial shade, as you will harvest them when they are still small and tender.
In general, a potato plant needs at least 6 hours of sun a day to form large tubers (potatoes), so plan on growing smaller new potatoes in the shade.
This may come as a surprise, but it is actually possible to grow tomatoes in partial shade!
Choose tomato varieties that have been bred for cooler climates, such as the fast-growing and heavy cropping variety Glacier. Most tomatoes have a long growing season, but you can choose a variety like this that grows faster.
You can also try cool weather tolerant Siberian Red tomatoes in your shaded vegetable garden.
Bush beans are beans that don’t climb – the opposite of their relatives the pole beans (climbing beans). They can live in partial shade, with as little as 4 hours of full sun a day.
Beans have a long growing season and a high yield, and even a few bushes in the partial shade can yield a decent crop.
There are many varieties of bush beans to choose from, and many of them are suited to cool weather and have resistance to disease.
Whilst basil generally thrives in full sun, it can also grow in shade with less sun exposure. Basil is a great addition to the vegetable garden, and it is a quintessential summer herb.
Basil will grow well in partial shade/partial sun provided that it isn’t overwatered.
There are over 50 kinds of basil – Thai basil, lemon basil, etc – and many of them grow happily in shaded areas.
Read more: Learn how to prune basil leaves.
Cilantro & Parsley
Another few herbs that are easy to grow in the shade are cilantro and parsley. Their soft, herbaceous leaves can be damaged by harsh full sun and so it can be beneficial to grow them in the shade.
Cilantro and parsley also grow quickly and are a fantastic addition to any herb garden.
Mint is a perennial herb that is extremely versatile in the kitchen. It will be happy in a shaded spot in the garden or in a pot on a shaded balcony.
Mint can be an invasive plant, as the roots can take over the surrounding soil, so you may want to grow it in a pot instead of in the garden.
Having your own fresh mint available for tea or a flavorful sauce is one of the great joys of gardening!
Green onions are grown for their leaves and small bulbs. If they are grown in partial shade it doesn’t matter because the bulb (onion) doesn’t need to develop to its full size, which would require full sun.
Green onions are also good for deterring pests with their strong smell, and this benefits your garden in general.
Jerusalem artichokes are root vegetables, and the plant produces tubers similar to potatoes that grow underground. They can grow in shade or full sun, and they are low maintenance to grow.
The tubers are especially good for using in soups.
Rhubarb is a cold-hardy, perennial vegetable that is grown for its tart-tasting pink and green stalks. As rhubarb is perennial, you’ll get crops every year, and they are vegetables that are quite easy to care for.
You can make rhubarb jam, tarts, and other delicious recipes with this interesting vegetable.
Cabbages are shade-loving vegetables that are happy in the cooler weather of spring and fall.
They grow very happily in the shade, as too much harsh, direct sun can actually scorch and damage their leaves. They also are very thirsty, and so they prefer the shade as the soil stays more moist and cool.
Try a variety of Chinese cabbage such as bok choy (also known as Pak Choi). These Asian varieties are extremely versatile and feature in a wide variety of dishes.
Cabbage can suffer from attacks by caterpillars, so you might need to cover them with insect-proof netting and inspect them regularly for pests.
Brussels sprouts are part of the brassica family and they are well-known cool-climate vegetables. Brussels sprouts can grow in shade very happily, and although they have a very long season, growing from spring to harvest in fall, there’s nothing quite like being able to harvest your own in time for Christmas.
Similar to green onions, leeks are alliums grown for their intense flavor. Leeks have a long growing season and will be a bit smaller when grown in the shade, but still very tasty.
These tender, peppery greens are shade tolerant and thrive in partial shade. Arugula grows fast, and you can use the cut-and-come-again method of harvesting if you want to pick baby leaves every week. Simply cut the outer leaves away and leave some behind to grow more!
Garden tips for vegetables that grow in shade
- Water your vegetables less often, because water doesn’t evaporate as easily in the shade. Take care not to overwater, as mold can thrive in a dark, wet garden. Inspect each plant for mold every now and again. Only water when the top inch of the soil feels dry.
- Growing vegetables in the shade will slow their growth, so expect smaller yields from your crops and longer growing times. Realistic expectations are important in gardening – and even a small yield is still a success!
- Some reflected light can enhance the light levels of a shady area, so you can try using mirrors to reflect light into your garden. You could also try repainting a dark wall or fence with lighter colors to reflect more light.
- Start vegetables from seed in a sunny place to ensure germination, and then plant them out in the garden when they are big enough.
- Make sure that you space your vegetables correctly, as a shady garden is often more humid than a full sun garden and needs adequate airflow to prevent mold.
- Slugs and snails like to hide in the shade, so keep an eye out for raiding slugs and remove them whenever you find them.
- Take care when using mulch, as pests can hide in it and damage your plants. If the soil is moist enough in the shade, you won’t need mulch.
What vegetables grow in 4 hours of sun?
Growing vegetables in full shade (4 hours of sun or less) can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Many leafy vegetables grow in few sunlight hours a day. Try different varieties of lettuce, cabbage, and kale to start with, and see what works best in your area.
What vegetables require the least amount of sun?
What vegetables can grow in shade? You can start with leafy greens (salad greens) and brassicas such as lettuce, kale, cabbage, and endives. Leafy greens like a cool spot and moist soil, and they can produce large harvests in small areas.
Gardening and growing your own vegetables is extremely rewarding, especially when it comes time to harvest your very own produce.
Hopefully, these tips will help you to create a productive and rewarding shade garden that gives you a wonderful harvest!