It's OK to be Shady - in the Garden

If you’ve been reading up on starting a garden, you’ve probably noticed that most experts recommend finding a location where your plants can get plenty of sunshine.

And while that is good advice, we know that not everyone has the luxury of growing their veggies and plants in a sunny spot. If you fit into that category — maybe you were hoping to start a container garden on a shadowy urban balcony or your yard is home to lots of trees — don’t let that stop you from experiencing gardening. Plenty of plants not only survive, but thrive, in less than full sun.

The scoop on shade

If you’d like to start looking into shade-loving flowers and veggies, you’ll need a general idea of how much light the plants will get in your future garden. Some prefer lots of shade while others will tolerate lightly shady conditions. 

Here are some of the most common sun and shade descriptions you’re likely to find when you’re researching plants.

  • Full sun: Refers to areas that receive direct sunlight for at least six to eight hours a day. Full sun areas are usually free from significant obstructions like trees, buildings, or structures that would cast shade during the day.
  • Full shade: Refers to an area that gets less than four hours of direct sunlight a day. It's usually found under dense tree canopies, on the north side of buildings, or under covered structures like decks. 
  • Partial shade: Also described as semi-shade, is an area that gets direct sunlight for part of the day, usually four to six hours. This sun exposure is often in the morning or late afternoon when the sun's rays are less intense. 

Figuring out your shade situation

You may be fairly confident that your backyard or patio isn’t going to provide your plants full sun but less clear on what kind of shade a garden would get there.

Here’s how to figure it out.

Start by observing the sun. Spend a day at home and watch how sunlight falls in your garden area. Track the number of hours each part of your garden stays in the sun. You can use a simple notebook or a sun-tracking app (Sun Seeker, Sun position and path, Sun Tracker AR) to record observations at different times — morning, midday, and late afternoon. (Keep in mind that morning sun is less intense than afternoon sun. So, even if an area gets a few hours of direct sun in the morning, it might still be considered partial shade.)

In addition to following the sun, spend time watching where and how shadows are cast by trees, walls, or structures. The type of shadow (dense versus dappled) can provide more insight into the shade density in your garden area.

After you complete your observations, make a rough sketch of your garden and mark areas of full sun, partial shade, and full shade based on your observations. That will be your guide as you look for plants.

Shade-loving plants

And what are your options for a shady garden? You have plenty of them. Keep in mind that as you consider plants, you’ll need to know more than their light preferences. Stick with plants that do well in your geographical area. Ask a local garden club, extension service, or nursery for suggestions, or look up your region’s plant hardiness zone online.

Here are some shade-loving plants to consider as you do your research.


  • Impatiens: Prefers partial to full shade, comes in a variety of vibrant colors, blooms continuously throughout the summer until the first frost
  • Bleeding Heart: Thrives in partial shade but can tolerate full shade, known for its heart-shaped flowers and arching stems; a spring bloomer that goes dormant in late summer
  • Foxglove: Prefers partial shade, known for its tall spikes of tubular flowers, attracts bees and hummingbirds
  • Hosta: Grows best in partial to full shade, comes in various greens, blues, and variegated forms
  • Astilbe: Best in partial shade but can handle full shade, features feathery, plume-like flowers in shades of white, pink, and red
  • Hellebore: Prefers partial shade but tolerates full shade, often blooms in late winter to early spring
  • Hydrangea: Does well in partial shade, features large, showy flower heads that can change color based on the soil's pH (acid versus alkaline) level
  • Primrose: Prefers partial to full shade, offers vibrant colors in early spring and has a variety of species to choose from
  • Lungwort: Thrives in partial to full shade, has speckled foliage and blooms early in the spring with blue, pink, or white flowers
  • Columbine: Grows well in partial shade, known for its distinctive bell-shaped flowers and ability to attract hummingbirds


  • Lettuce: Will grow in partial shade
  • Spinach: Tolerates partial shade
  • Swiss chard: Does well in partial shade
  • Kale: Can grow in partial shade
  • Arugula: Prefers partial shade in warmer climates
  • Peas: Partial shade is acceptable (supports needed for climbing varieties can also provide some natural shade for other plants)
  • Beets: Can handle partial shade though the roots may develop more slowly
  • Carrots: Tolerate light shade, may take longer to mature in shade but can be more tender and sweeter
  • Potatoes: Can grow in partial shade, though may not be as large as those grown in full sun
  • Radishes: Can tolerate partial shade. (This is a quick-growing crop that can be harvested before trees fully leaf out in spring)

We’d also like to include members of the Brassica family, including broccoli, cauliflower, and kohlrabi, on our list. While they prefer full sun, they can tolerate partial shade. 

If you grow them in shade, aim to maximize the light they do get, possibly by situating them to catch the morning sun, which is less intense than the afternoon sun. 


  • Mint: Can grow in partial to full shade. (Mint is very invasive, so it’s best grown in containers)
  • Parsley: Prefers partial shade, especially in hot climates
  • Cilantro: Does well in partial shade
  • Chives: Tolerate partial shade
  • Thyme: Grows in partial shade but prefers full sun
  • Lemon balm: Can handle partial shade

Remember, even shade-tolerant plants will need some sun, typically a few hours of direct light, to produce a good yield. 

And don't forget to consider rolling garden beds or planters, which makes it much easier to move your plants around as needed.


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