The vision of a backyard vegetable garden conjures up visions of rectangular raised beds in full sun. Learning the basics of an edible forest garden helped me learn how to grow lots of produce in a sloping, shady, not-ideal-for-gardening, backyard.
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Gardening in the Shade
We were blessed with a yard that is partly shaded, although I didn’t see it that way in my first years of vegetable gardening.
By 2010, I had a few years of vegetable garden dabbling under my belt. I had just completed my permaculture design certification and was eager to try out some of the permaculture principles that I’d learned in my own garden. But I was convinced, through cultural hard-wiring, that our yard wasn’t good enough because it was too shady.
Our backyard is shaded by a mulberry tree to the east, a maple tree to the south, and an oak tree to the west. I lacked confidence in my own ability to manage the intricacies of a shaded forest garden.
I spent a lot of energy that year on a landshare project, where I created gardens in someone else’s large yard. In turn the landowner received a portion of the harvest. It’s a nice setup for anyone who doesn’t have land, but here I was driving 40 minutes daily to check on my gardens, when I had a perfectly good tenth-acre of my own at home. In another part of the country or world, this land would be cherished, yet here I was pronouncing it not good enough.
Still, I gained confidence in my gardening ability through the landshare project, and though we had already installed quite a few perennial fruits around our yard like currant bushes and black raspberries (both in shade!), it wasn’t until 2011 that we began officially designing and implementing edible forest techniques in our yard. We designed garden beds with an edible landscaping vibe.
(Take a virtual tour of our yard!)
Would you like to learn more about gardening in challenging conditions?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Edible Forest Gardening
Edible forest gardening is not gardening in a forest, but like a forest. It is mimicking natural ecosystems in form and function. Armed with knowledge, I was able to appreciate living on the edge—on the edge of the forest, that is.
Edge is the place where two ecosystems meet. In my case it is the edge between the deeper shade that occurs directly beneath the tall trees, and the sunnier areas that occur in patches around the yard as the sun moves across the sky. Edge is an abundant place where both ecosystems share resources with one another. The deeper shade forest areas share organic matter, shade, protective cover, and fungally-driven soil. The sunnier grassland areas of the yard share sun, wind, openness, and bacterially-driven soil.
This sharing of resources at the edge of the shade led to a strong and healthy system that produces high yields with fewer inputs and maintenance over time. We produced around 80 pounds of shade-tolerant veggies annually in the backyard. Shade tolerant vegetables are typically roots and leaves.
The primary benefit of our situation was the opportunity to learn about edge and observing how the sun moves across the yard. Observation in a full-sun area is fairly straightforward. Out of necessity, we searched for growing spaces around the yard that had the least amount of shade. In the process, we discovered the different microclimates that supported both full sun plantings and shade tolerant plantings.
The secondary benefit was our discovery that growing greens was easy and advantageous in these partial shade conditions. Permaculture requires that we work with nature, not against it. In our case, greens are what our system wants to produce, so that’s what we grow a lot of.
We enjoy good health largely because of the benefit of growing kale, chard, collards, and beet and turnip greens. Greens are, calorie for calorie, the most concentrated form of nutrition of any food.
To read more about growing and preparing leafy greens and root vegetables, see:
- Bacon and Turnip Scramble Recipe
- Growing and Harvesting Beets + Recipes
- Harvesting, Curing, and Storing Sweet Potatoes
- Kale Recipes
- Marinated Collard Green and Carrot Salad
- Recipe: Turnip Hash Browns
- Swiss Chard and Sweet Alyssum: Edible Landscaping Combo
- Tips for Growing Carrots
- Two-for-One Root Vegetables
Greens are easy to grow, but the work begins in the kitchen.
Our favorite recipe these days is Cream of Greens Soup. The last time I made a batch of this soup, I sextupled it. This is the G-rated term for six times! We produce this soup in mass quantity, eat it for a week, and freeze the rest, which we then get to eat throughout the winter. Adding a protein source makes it a complete meal.
Cream of Greens Soup
Adapted from The Primal Blueprint Cookbook
- 2 Tbsp high quality fat such as butter, ghee, bacon fat, avocado oil, or coconut oil
- pinch of cayenne
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 2 bunches of greens (about 4 cups) chopped (kale, collards, chard, spinach, beet greens, turnip greens, etc.)
- 1 cup cream or coconut cream
- salt to taste
- sour cream, yogurt or freshly grated parmesan (optional)
- sausage, bacon, shredded chicken or other protein source (0ptional)
- Heat the fat over medium-low heat in a 2-3 quart saucepan.
- Add cayenne and onion, and cook until the onion is clear and softened, about 5-10 minutes. Don’t let the onions brown.
- Add the garlic and cook for 3 more minutes.
- Add the broth, then turn up the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil.
- Add the chopped greens and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Heartier greens like kale and collards may need additional time.
- Turn off the heat, move the saucepan away from the heat, and cool slightly, about 5-10 minutes.
- Puree the soup with an immersion blender. (I use my blender–but carefully–because the hot liquid splashes easily.)
- Season with salt to taste.
- Add coconut milk or cream and return to a simmer over medium-low heat before serving.
- Top with sour cream, yogurt, or grated parmesan.
- Make it a meal by adding a protein source. We like sausage, bacon, or shredded chicken.
Be grateful for the land that you have, observe it, work with nature and edges, and in turn enjoy a boatload of healthy abundance.
- Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate-Climate Permaculture
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
How have you learned to work with non-ideal growing spaces?