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.
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 dappled-shade-tolerant veggies annually in the backyard.
Shade tolerant vegetables are typically root vegetables and leafy greens, but fruits do surprisingly well in the protection of dappled shade.
In this way, we are effectively using the yard as if it were the edge of a forest: Some sun from the nearby open yards casts an indirect brightness into my yard, at the edge of the deep shade. In fact, this edge of the forest is the native habitat for most perennials fruits.
Fruit trees and shrubs may not be quite as productive there as they would be in full sun, but because it is closer to their natural habitat, they are less prone to pests and disease.
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!
In the middle of my backyard was a 6-foot diameter “food island” circle. It made up the bulk of our tiny, shady yard, but grew a lot of stuff. A plum tree was underplanted with daisies and other flowers, herbs like thyme and oregano, strawberries, and always a handful of annuals like broccoli or leafy greens.
Growing annual veggies in this unlikely “island” at the edge of the “forest” seemed to fool the pests.
Be grateful for the land that you have, observe it, work with nature and edges, and in turn enjoy a boatload of healthy abundance!
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- Create a Food Forest for Low-Maintenance, Edible Rewards
- How to Kill Poison Ivy in 5 Steps
- Urban Food Forests: Demonstrating Permaculture in the City
Would you like to learn more about improving the biodiversity of your garden, reducing maintenance, and increasing yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
- Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate-Climate Permaculture
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
- The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People
How have you learned to work with non-ideal growing spaces?