Tag Archives: growing food in shade

Pushing the Boundaries

I’m investigating the potential of food-growing in shade, and am trying to push some boundaries. I’ve written about raising tomatoes in lesser amounts of sunshine, and want to explore other exciting and unusual possibilities.

My fire escape has full sun for a mere four hours a day before the sun’s trajectory takes it around the other side of the buildings when my pots are cast into solid shade. Boring brassicas are amongst the happiest here, as they like it cool and moist. But I really don’t have space for cabbage and broccoli and those things that traditionally take their time to become productive. Some in this family can be grown productively in shorter durations. Kale isn’t typically thought of as a salad plant, but it can be treated as a cut & come again (CCA). In this way. it offers repeat harvests.

In spring, I grew three types of kale, with red mizuna keeping them company. The mizuna, ‘Red Ursa’ and ‘Dwarf Green Curled’ kales tasted fairly cabbagey in contrast to the “dinosaur kale” (‘Nero di Toscana’ or ‘Cavolo Nero’) which had a sweeter and more pleasant tang. As a CCA plant,  ‘Cavolo Nero’ does not develop the deep blue-black colour and savoyed texture of the mature leaves, more’s the shame. But it is the kale of choice for a salad leaf.

I attempted a summer sowing of brassicas too: the new mustard green ‘Dragon’s Tongue’; the salad mustard green ‘Golden Frill’ (a hybrid between a mustard and a kale); and turnip greens ‘Rapa Senza Testa’. The turnip greens didn’t germinate for some reason, and the mustard greens plus a second sowing of dinosaur kale were decimated by looping caterpillars. At first, I thought it was mollusc attack. On closer inspection I realised the problem was caterpillars of such slender girth that they were well disguised, being no thicker than the seedling stems. Where are the robins when you want them for pest control?

Far more exciting than any of these was Fuchsiaberry. All fuchsias have edible fruit but Thompson & Morgan bred the Fuchsiaberry to form fruit in greater quantities and with better flavour. I had high hopes for this and was very disappointed as I was able to garner only a very few berries, despite the fact that it flowered abundantly. This was also the experience of people I know who grew it in sunnier situations, so it seems the shade wasn’t hampering the harvest. Having said this, I am generally fond of fuchsia: it is a great attractor of hoverflies and skinny bees (I mean honey bees and solitary bees. I don’t know these bees well enough to distinguish between them visually) and it flowers over a long period.

Something else unexpected that I was excited to try was the cottage garden fave, love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). In his book ‘Grow For Flavour’, James Wong points up the seeds are edible and describes the taste as “virtually identical to purple grape sweets when bitten into”. Well, yes, it does have a certain fruitiness, but I’m not convinced I liked it. It kinda reminded me of the stinky chemical cleanser used by road-sweeping vehicles in central London! Love-in-a-mist proved a good companion to rosemary; when planted in a frill around the edge of the pot, it frothed up around the rosemary and protected it from whatever sap-sucking insect had been causing small pale dots on the foliage.

Other crops attempted which I hadn’t grown before were sorrel and celery leaf, both of which I liked and would grow again. I had another go at shungiku (edible chrysanthemum) which I grew several years ago but wasn’t keen on the flavour. I wondered if this was because I’d allowed the plant to become tall before picking so I tried it as a CCA, and still wasn’t keen. To me, the flavour was a touch metallic. Shungiku outgrew the celery leaf and sorrel, so is not best grown in the same pot… as I belatedly realised.

Although I’ve been focussing on esculents, I decided to grow flowers purely for their attractiveness to pollinators too. Love-in-a-mist and fuchsia had a dual purpose, but lobelia and alyssum also featured, as I read these tolerate some shade. Alyssum was a bit of a disaster but the lobelia is still flowering. It gave good pools of colour and I noticed over the summer that bees visited frequently.

Plans for 2017? One of my main aims is to introduce more contrasting colour so my photos aren’t all “green fuzz”. And I wasn’t happy with the hanging flower bags, so I might use over-the-railing containers instead. I’m also tempted to try a minarette apple, but I want to taste-test the varieties in question before I definitely opt for that. As always at this stage, imagination runs amok. But, of course, the reality may be somewhat different..

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Tim and Tom

The end of October brought with it my last tomato harvest of the year. The experiment with food-growing-in-shade continues, and I decided to give different varieties of dwarf tomatoes a whirl to see how they fared in four hours of daily sunshine. Having had success with ‘Whippersnapper’ (an ex commercial variety from the Heritage Seed Library) I was curious about more readily available tomatoes, and chose ‘Red Tumbling Tom’, ‘Balconi Yellow’, and ‘Tiny Tim’.


Tomato ‘Balconi Yellow’ with Lobelia in self-watering hanging basket

The results were skewed by the fact that I grew ‘Tumbling Tom’ and ‘Balconi Yellow’ from seed, but I bought ‘Tiny Tim’ in the form of plug plants because I didn’t spot these available as seed. By far the most prolific of these varieties was ‘Tumbling Tom’ which I grew in the top of hanging flower bags with Lobelia and Alyssum trailing down the sides. However, I preferred the flavour of ‘Balconi Yellow’ (another tumbling type). These were grown in a self-watering hanging basket with Lobelia. Notably, this gave half the harvest of ‘Tumbling Tom’. As for ‘Tiny Tim’ – productivity was okay but comparison with the other two varieties was difficult because it was planted out about a month later. The flavour? Hm.. well, that was ordinary.

Next year, I think I will try the yellow version of ‘Tumbling Tom’. I also really want to grow black cherry tomatoes but can only find tall versions, so I fancy having a go at grafting them onto dwarf rootstocks. I admit to being a bit of a geek, so I’m ridiculously excited at the idea!

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A Shady Harvest

Shady spots are difficult to grow food in, and the problem isn’t made easier when cultivating in pots. The crops recommended for lesser amounts of sunshine are often not suitable for containers. I’ve realised those which are don’t necessarily produce enough to make growing them worthwhile e.g. rocket. I love the stuff, but still had to visit the greengrocers to get my salad’s worth. Must get into the habit of repeat sowing, which might help matters.

The biggest success turned out to be the ‘Whippersnapper’ tomatoes which were sown as an after-thought. They were very productive – I picked 242 fruit before I stopped counting. And with every 10 tomatoes weighing in at approximately 100g, that’s over 2.5kg of harvest. Not bad for a plant that prefers sun. Plenty to eat and save seed from (an important consideration as these are from the Heritage Seed Library). There was even some spare for the wildlife – one day I noticed a squirrel munching on a tomato for breakfast! (see rushed and blurry picture below.) Thankfully, I don’t think the shadow-tail developed a taste for them because no further tomatoes were snaffled.

sharp squirrel

Squirrel nibbling a tomato

I had reasonable success with golden mange-tout. The golden chard, however, proved quite sulky. A similar attitude was demonstrated by the CCA kale that I transplanted to grow on to maturity. I suspect I was a bit remiss about feeding my crops after high summer. Plants in tubs cannot access nutrients in the same way as from the earth, which is a living ecosystem. In a pot, nutrients are quickly depleted, and so feeding container crops is more imperative. In the ground, it’s more a case of “feed the soil, not the plant.” Legumes, such as my mange-tout, fix their own nitrogen using nodules on their roots, and so can feed themselves.

A major disappointment was my chives. They had been doing well until they got afflicted with blackfly. Nobody ever warns that this type of aphid has a liking for chives – it’s always broad beans that are mentioned! I tried the squishing method of control, but this wasn’t particularly effective as it’s difficult to get right into the base of the leaves, where the blackfly can then recolonise from. I decided to try companion planting with Nemophila to disguise the chives, but the companion overwhelmed its mate, and the chives became really spindly.  I have to choose camouflage  that doesn’t sprawl so much..

As for midsummer sowing.. I wasn’t organised enough to do this. It seems my enthusiasm is very much a spring motivation. And as the sun gets lower in the sky towards the end of the year, I decided yesterday I wouldn’t pursue the idea of winter crops as I reckon my shady plot would suffer even less sunlight. It’s something I will observe over the next few months. In the meantime, I’ll start dreaming and scheming for 2015.


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I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most gardeners crave more plants for their gardens than they have room to indulge.  This is even more critical for those of us who have teeny-tiny growing spaces, and choosing plants an even more agonizing task.
For me, deciding on what veg to grow and what varieties to opt for has always included a desire to protect genetic diversity.  The Heritage Seed Library helps keep veg varieties in existence that might otherwise become lost:  if they are not on the National Seed List they cannot legally be sold, and slowly these varieties disappear.  Membership schemes bypass this law, as seeds are exchanged for a signing-up fee.  I joined the HSL many years ago, and through lapses in membership I endeavour still to grow heritage seed where possible.


‘Where possible’ has become more tricky, as I’m now ‘growing-my-own’ in a patch averaging four hours of direct sunlight, and I have a mild obsession with tomatoes!  I like their taste; for me, they have been problem-free (haven’t encountered Blight yet); and saving seed from them is no different to eating them… except for the destination, of course.  Even though they are sun-lovers, I tried out tomatoes on my five feet of landing last year, as an experiment.  I’d read an article saying that small tomatoes cope with some shade, and I wondered if this meant little plants or diddy fruit, or both.  I grew a dwarf bush type (‘Whippersnapper’); and two tall cordon types: one with cherry fruit (‘Millefleur’), the other with bigger fruit (the confusingly named ‘Green Bell Pepper’).  The sort that did best was ‘Whippersnapper’.  Having realised I could just about get away with growing a certain kind in the shade, I was nonetheless determined not to bother with tomatoes this year, and focus on other things instead.Another sun-lover I thought I’d test was the french bean.  Seeing as the short tomatoes did okay, I hoped I’d have reasonable success with dwarf Phaseolus vulgaris.  Who am I kidding? I tend to have difficulties with french beans anyway, and two attempts didn’t even germinate (old seeds?) When I sowed the second batch earlier this month, I also sneaked in some ‘Whippersnapper’…  I couldn’t resist.  I assured myself that they’d be for friends, but as my french beans amounted to nada, the toms will take their place.  I usually fare better with runner beans, the related Phaseolus coccinea which are more suited to shadier spots. HSL variety ‘John’s Best Long Bean’ consistently gives longer-than-average pods, but again, I’ve had the seeds a while and it doesn’t look like they’ll sprout.Generally in a small plot, it’s best to choose crops that produce food quickly e.g. not broccoli or cauliflower which need to go into their second year before harvesting (though the Real Seed Catalogue offers a quick-heading calabrese which is productive in just a few months).  Salad leaves are a good option.  I’d not realised how good baby kale is until I had occasion to grab lunch in a sandwich chain (which shall remain nameless!) As a result, I’m using kale as a cut’n’come again crop, along with rocket and red mizuna.  Thanks to Vertical Veg, I’ve made a couple of other shady discoveries – coriander (surprisingly) and young broad bean leaves, which taste like mange-tout.  The real mange-tout is currently lashing its way up a wigwam.

Other plans include a hanging basket with golden chard and scarlet flowered nasturtiums, and if I’m organised enough, post-midsummer greens such as ‘Dragon’s Tongue’.  Basically, I’ll see what I can shoe-horn in.  Like every other gardener.


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Finding the Spaces In-Between

A slow inspiration took hold a few years ago when I fixed on the idea of growing edibles in containers – an experiment in food-growing in small spaces.
I had attended the 2005 Science and Sustainability Symposium at the Centre for Alternative Technology, and went to a talk by Annie Sugrue of EcoCity.  This South African environmental NGO strives, amongst other things, to ease poverty in an urban context. They encourage people to cultivate their own crops, as even a few home-grown veg can provide a degree of poverty alleviation.  It is not necessary to have fields or large areas in order to grow food, and Sugue spoke of “finding the spaces in-between,” those marginal pieces of land which could be utilised for food growing.

That phrase lodged in my head and two years later the inspiration became reality.  In 2007 I started my experiment by growing crops in containers on a sliver of ground in the gardener’s compound where I worked.  It was a stretch half a metre by seven metres along a fence. The following year, the situation changed and I had to conduct my experiment along two shorter fence lines, including under shade.  Now I’m growing food in pots closer to home – a new home where the growing space is even smaller than I’ve ever had!

“Finding the spaces in-between” translates very well into London living.  The reasons why people want to grow food are numerous.  Heading the list in a survey by Vertical Veg was the simple pleasure of growing.  Other reasons include taste; knowing the food is organic and chemical-free; saving money; and growing different or exotic food.

The inspirations may be varied… but the enthusiasm is the same.

An Unpromising Start:
my growing space when I moved in 2013


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