Garden Spotlight: Sun and Shade

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Our back yard is one shady customer.

I should stop being surprised when someone asks me whether vegetables can grow in shade, a question I have received many times.

Perhaps, folks look at the many flowers, ground covers, and bushes and shrubs, which do well in shade, and transfer this to vegetables.  I get that reasoning.  With veggies, though, it doesn’t apply.

Generally, your vegetable garden should receive sun from morning till evening.  Specifically, it can get by with six hours of midday sun.  Some cooler-weather-loving types—think greens and root crops—do okay with fewer than six hours.

The reason I put my garden in the front yard is because our back yard is far too shaded.  Our first year here, I put in a small garden on the west end of the back yard, as a test.  The spot doesn’t get full sun until after mid-afternoon.  It was not good enough.  Everything grew very spindly.

In the spring of 2016, I rototilled a strip in front of our house.  In both 2017 and 2018, I extended it a few more feet into the yard.

The 2016 garden extended too far to the east.  I planted corn on that end, and the first row received too much shade.  The stalks in that row were short and never grew decent ears.  I cut the garden back from the east by three feet.

I took the photos, below, at 10:00 a.m., on August 8.  The west end, where the tomatoes are, had been in the sun for under an hour.  Our neighbor’s tree keeps the east end shaded until 10:30 or so.

The east end remains in the sun until late afternoon, thus giving it at least six hours of midday sun.  This year and last, everything I planted on that end grew very well.

The west end faces a situation that I did not encounter until this year, with the garden a few feet more toward the street.  The next photo was taken at 3:00 p.m.  Note the shade has landed upon the tomatoes and the entire west end.  This is not good!

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Here’s the weird part, which has been a lesson for me, never to forget as long as that oak is there.  The arc of the shade only glances over the back half of the garden.  My watermelons are nearest the house.  Next to them was my corn, then a row of peppers, then the tomatoes.  The shade remains over the back side of the garden for way less time than it does over the front.  The watermelons have grown great.

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The photo, above, was taken around 3:00 p.m, on July 22.  Looking at the four corn rows, from left to right, see how the corn grew according to the sun/shade mix.  The row closest to the house grew tallest, and that corn was ready first.  Each row, moving toward the tomatoes, was a little shorter, and the corn was ready a few days later in each successive row.  The row closest to the corn produced fewer good ears of corn.

In all of these photos, note the size of the tomato plants.  With how well my garden grew this year, they should be to the top of the cages, with their branches completely filling the cages.

It took me until mid-July to figure out the reason they are so small.  I stuck those tomatoes in a bad spot.  They get too much shade, not enough midday sun.  Last year, that chunk of ground was grass, I wasn’t growing there, and too much shade didn’t dawn on me.

The sun returns in the very late afternoon, and the tomatoes get enough total sunshine to be growing and bearing fruit, but I stunted their potential.  So far, I’ve gathered perhaps six quarts of tomatoes.  Easily, I would be at twenty quarts by now.

Lesson learned.  Next year, I will likely place spinach or kale there.  I rotate my crops, never putting the same thing in a spot until at least the third year, so I’ll have to be mindful.

Anyone putting in the time and effort to grow vegetables wants to harvest a good crop.  Placing your garden where it gets plenty of midday sunshine is one of a handful of keys to success.

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Here’s my best proof that the back of the garden gets plenty of sun.  This is our first watermelon of the year.  My granddaughter was impressed with its size and potential sweetness, but not with the seeds.  She set out to remove them by hand.
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