Shade Garden

A shade garden certainly be a productive one. You can make the most of micro-climates and the fact that many edible plants love the shade.

8/1/20237 min read

Shade Garden


This Shade Garden article contains some affiliate links. The small commission we receive if you choose to purchase goes towards making this gardening education available for free! We do not affiliate for anything we do not personally use. Thanks so much for your support!

Bountiful backyard garden with a trellis, fruit trees, and mroe.
Bountiful backyard garden with a trellis, fruit trees, and mroe.

Our last home was a townhouse with a backyard shaded by the home itself. We learned to grow in the shade there.

Shade Garden

Shade-Tolerant Plants for Permaculture Gardens

Shade gardens are often the topic of frustration among gardeners. They are especially so for those of us who want to make the most out of our land but think we might not be able to grow food due to the lack of sun.

Below is a photo of shade plants posted on the wall of a seed shop in California.

Now, it is all well and good to know what these shade plants are. But I invite you to take this knowledge a step further.

Instead of merely plopping these plants willy-nilly into your backyard, why not incorporate some permaculture design into your garden plan?

Think of maximizing the physical space which these plants occupy and bringing them a little closer to the light.

Where do you start? With the concept of the "7 Layers of a Food Forest." These layers are what we use as a starting point to create what in permaculture we call "guilds," "polyculture" or "plant groupings." Think about this as companion planting in 3D.

1. The Root Layer

Most root crops are shade tolerant. The exceptions to this rule are those that like to send out "runners" such as June-bearing strawberries. But for the most part, bulbs do just fine as long as they get some four hours of indirect sunlight.

Alliums, and bulbs both the edible (garlic, onions) and the ornamental kind tolerate the shade very well. And while a bulb, corm, or tuber, will always be more vibrant and larger in the sun, they will not wither and die due to the lack of it.

Don't expect big things to grow, but lots of little things instead. For instance, scallions, bunching onions, and Welsh onions will do better in the shade than regular onions or "walking onions" will.

Below, are (2) two edibles and (1) native pollinator plant for your consideration.

Garlic and garlic chives are pretty tolerant to shade and as long as your soil is fertile, will yield bulbs for each clove that your plant.

Upper Left: Claytonia virginica, known for its edible corms and spring flowers

Upper Right: Homegrown ginger (Zingiber officinale) is so pink, smooth, and soft compared to its store-bought counterpart

Left: Homegrown onions (Allium cepa) are also a great addition to an edible shade garden, as long as you're fine with smaller bulbs.

2. The Ground Layer

Ground cover options are so varied that the three that I mention below do not even begin to scratch the surface of possibilities in the shade. In a way, this layer sort of overlaps with the next one (herb layer) as many herbs such as oregano and thyme can be used as ground cover shade plants.

What's important to note in these "layers" is not whether or not the plant is an herb and therefore, it must occupy the herb layer. But rather, that it is growing in a "ground cover" kind of way. Always keep the physical space that they occupy in mind. Think of some perennial low-growing plants in this space, such as Miner's lettuce, corn salad, sedum, and mint.

Claytonia perfoliata or "Miner's Lettuce" is an edible groundcover option for shade gardens. It is known for growing right through the snow. Image courtesy of Sierra Foothills Gardener

Upper Left: Corn salad mache (Valerianella locusta), a cold-hardy edible

Upper Right: Sedum is drought-tolerant and low-maintenance

Left: Mint, a great ground-cover herb

3. The Herb Layer

Shade garden herbs are often those that also love the cold weather. Cilantro, parsley, mints, lemon balms (another kind of mint), chives (another kind of onion), Turkish rocket, comfrey, marjoram, tarragon, and sorrel are among many that one can choose from. Some examples that follow are yarrow, mint, and cilantro.

It's important to incorporate as many shade-loving flowers as possible in your food forest. This is especially true, even if a flower is not necessarily recognized as a pollinator plant. Historically, the rise of flowers parallels the development of insects. So you'll never know what advantageous bug your shade garden flowers will attract.

Chives seen flowering here are wonderful additions to shade gardens because they do multiple things: ward off pests, garnish our meals and are beautiful in the garden or in vases.

Upper Left: Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), an aromatic, pollinator-friendly and reliable plant

Upper Right: Yarrow is a medicinal, pollinator-attractant that makes pretty cut flowers as can tolerate poor soils

Left: Cilantro is a double herbal boon as leaves give way to coriander seeds later in the season.

4. The Shrub Layer

Once again it is difficult to make a distinction as to whether something is a shrub or an herb. Because sometimes. you can have shrub herbs, such as comfrey or lemon balm, or bushy rosemaries. The important thing is that we are trying to find a plant with many uses.

A principle of permaculture is to choose elements in your design that fulfill as many functions as possible, even if those functions are redundant with other plants already in your design.

Comfrey, for instance, can occupy the shrub layer, act as a "dynamic accumulator" (a plant that pulls up nutrients from deeper layers of the soil), a pollinator plant, and can even be used as a poultice for bone or muscle injuries.

One element, many functions!

Rosemary is shade-tolerant so long as it is warm,

Upper Left: Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum), whose stalks are baked into a springtime sweet

Upper Right: Comrey is a medicinal, pollinator-attractant that makes soils around it richer

Left: The bush flowers that eventually become elderberries love the shade.

5. The Vine Layer

The vine layer in a shade garden begins to push the boundaries of shadow in your backyard. And this is where your role transitions from designer to plant guide because, with advanced planning, you can assist your edible shade vines up and through trellises where they can capture more sunlight than their lower-level counterparts.

Akebia quinata (also known as chocolate vine or five-fingered vine) will not only produce flowers but provide medicinal leaves, flowers, and stems used as remedies for urinary tract infections and insufficient lactation in mothers.

Make sure when choosing to incorporate hardy kiwi in a garden to have study supports to carry it's future heavy branches.

The Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans), loved by hummingbirds is native to many parts of the Southern United States

Upper Left: Hardy Kiwi (Actinidia arguta) are a shade-tolerant

Upper Right: Clematis is a Chinese medicinal and a favorite of ornamental gardeners

Left: Chocolate vine or Akebia is native to Eastern China, Japan, and Korea where it typically grows on the mountainside and forest edges.

6. The Understory

Understory trees in a shade garden are normally any multi-function tree that will grow below 50 feet. The following are examples of trees that will produce fruit despite the shade that their overstory counterparts provide.

The Pawpaw is the largest native American fruit that is like nature's version of ice cream-like during the summer. And if you want to know more about the serviceberry, nothing does it justice more than this short read.

Bananas are useful understory elements whether or not they bear fruit. To reduce our waste, we've been using our banana leaves as muffin liners and food liners in general. This is how they are used in the Philippines.

Mulberries (Morus alba), are fruitful, fun understory trees

Upper Left: Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is the largest native American fruit and yet is not well known due to it's lack of commercial viability

Upper Right: Amelenchier goes by many names including Shadbush, Juneberry, or Serviceberry. Its edible berries are eaten raw or in pies and jams.

Left: While bananas only fruit in the tropics, they can be grown for their leaves in temperate climates.

7. The Overstory (over 50 feet)

The reason you are reading this is probably because your garden is in the shade thanks to the canopy trees on your property. It could also mean that your shade garden is due to your own home (or other buildings) casting a shadow on your yard. Whatever the case may be, it is helpful to know what kind of canopy trees you have.

Grab a field guide for trees in your region or observe your trees and pick up a sample of its leaf, fruit, and seed. You can also use the LeafSnap App to identify the trees around you. Here are three examples of overstory trees that serve as canopies across America.

Oak trees (Quercus)are majestic, long-living trees that may be shading your backyard

Upper Left: Date Palms (Phoenix dactylifera) yields bountiful fruits in hotter climates

Upper Right: Persimmons (Diospyros) different cultivars have varying degrees of astringency.

Left: The ubiquitous pine tree. Pine pitch or tar is a well-known antiseptic.

Dig Deeper

Hopefully, this article has helped you realize that all is not lost if your backyard happens to be in the shade. The few options above are only the beginnings of possibilities for your shade garden.

Book Recommendation: Martin Crawford's book Creating a Forest Garden is a good companion to any permaculture shade garden.

Introduction to Plant Guilds Video

This short video is an overview of the "7 Layers of a Food Forest" that make up permaculture plant guilds.

Learn how to grow a garden !