The vast majority of vegetables need at least six hours sunlight a day in order to thrive. But several veggies either do well in partial shade during very warm weather, or actually prefer deeply shaded growing conditions. As a bonus, ramps, nettles, fuki and fiddleheads represent the little-known family of perennial vegetables. Just one planting session of these shade-tolerant vegetables can yield years of harvesting.
Vegetables classified as “cool season”—those typically sown for spring or fall crops--also do well in the height of summer when given shade. These include many of the leafy greens: spinach, arugula, kale, chard, mustard greens and sorrel. Grow them under taller crops or in shady window boxes.
Fast-growing, low-lying lettuce is the perfect veggie to tuck into shady spots in garden beds or patio planters. The greens will thrive under corn and staked plants like tomatoes and cucumbers. Feed lettuce with plenty of nitrogen-rich fertilizer to encourage lush leaf growth.
A cross between onions and garlic in taste, ramps (also known as wild leeks) grow happily in deciduous woods. According to author Eric Toensmeier, “Ramps are one of the few shade-loving perennials really worth growing.” Both the broad leaves and small onion-like bulbs are edible. The plants prefer moist soil and emerge in early spring. Ramps multiply rapidly. If you avoid harvesting every plant, you’ll soon have large colonies growing throughout your shaded area.
Grow ostrich ferns if you’d like to sample the asparagus-like delicacy of fiddleheads. These spiral-shaped vegetables grow at the tips of ostrich ferns. They share many characteristics with ramps, including their love of moist woodlands and their tendency to form vast colonies. While most ferns form fiddleheads in early spring, only ostrich ferns grow edible ones. Make sure you can identify them before harvesting from the wild, or order ostrich ferns from a reputable nursery to grow your own gourmet crop.
Neither wood nettles nor stinging nettles enjoy a starring role in springtime feasts, and that’s a shame. The leaves and flowering tips contain significant amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, protein and magnesium. Most often used to make a cream soup, nettles make great substitutes for spinach in casseroles and quiches. Wood nettles tolerate deep shade better than stinging nettles. Grow either in moist but not water-logged soil. Harvest both wearing gloves and long-sleeved shirts. The leaves lose their stinging hairs when cooked. As a bonus, nettles can be used for anything from paper-making to old-fashioned soda pop.
While Americans remain unfamiliar with fuki, Japanese farmers grow vast amounts of the vegetable (also known as sweet coltsfoot or giant butterbur) for their rhubarb-like stalks. Another colony-former, fuki grows where few other vegetables will---in wet, dark places. The leaves grow quite large, and the entire plant takes up a good deal of room, growing 3 to 6 feet high and wide. After harvesting the stalks, cut them into 6-inch pieces, blanch to loosen the outer skin, then peel. Add the stalks to soups in place of celery, or saute them in sesame oil.