Herb Gardening in the Shade

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There are many varieties of herbs that thrive in shadier conditions. While it is true that many herbs prefer to have full sunlight, some herbs may need full sunlight in northern regions, but prefer shadier areas in hotter regions of the country.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein adds, "If you are plagued by an entirely shady garden but you long for sun-loving herbs, such as oregano and basil, set up reflectors around your bed to reflect sunlight to them. Old mirrors work well, as long as you do not mind them being exposed to the elements.

Shade Types

Before choosing herbs for a shade garden, get a good understanding of just what is meant by shade, partial shade, and filtered sunlight. These terms are used frequently in the world of gardening, but it can sometimes be difficult to get a good definition of these common terms.

Partial Shade - An area of the garden is considered to be in partial shade if it receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day, but with at least 4 of those hours taking place in the morning, when sunlight is less intense.

Filtered Sunlight - In filtered sunlight, some of the sunlight is blocked by natural objects like trees, or by artificial structures like buildings or lattices.

Full Shade - In full shade, there is no direct sunlight at all. Few plants, other than some wildflowers, are able to thrive in total shade.

Managing Shade

If you must plant herbs in the shade of trees, it is a good idea to prune some of the lower branches to allow more sunlight to get through. Pruning these lower branches also improves air circulation for the herbs.

In addition, the roots of the trees may compete with the herbs for much needed nutrients and water. In particular, trees such as beech, red maple, sugar maple and birches compete with all other plants, and other plants may fail to grow in their company. These trees all have extensive root systems, and the trees quickly soak up any available water.

Advantages of Shade

Planting an herb garden in the shade provides you with an opportunity to blend your favorite herbs with other kinds of shade-loving plants, such as hostas, ferns, and numerous types of bulbs. This combination can create a beautiful landscape, as well as providing fresh herbs for cooking and good health. Remember that most shade loving herbs are native to woodland settings. This means they prefer a humus rich soil that is kept consistently moist without being soggy. It is important to amend poor quality soils with a quality compost or other organic matter prior to planting.

Planting in Shade

The herbs should be planted either before or after their active growth period. At this time, the plants can devote their full energy to getting established in their new environment. To conserve the moisture of the soil and keep the herb garden moist, use a good quality mulch, combined with a couple of inches of leaf mold, compost, or well rotted manure.

TIP: Rachel advises, "Herbs in a shade garden will require much less watering than those in a full sun garden. Remember to only water once the soil looks dry."

You may find that herbs planted in the shade flower less frequently than those in the sun. However, they will still retain their beautiful foliage, fragrance, and flavor.

Some herbs that do well in the partial shade as well as the sun include:

  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
  • Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  • Shiso (Perilla frutesens)
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
  • Dill (Anthenum graveolens)
  • Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
  • Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
  • Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Some of the best herbs for the herb garden in full shade include:
  • Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)
  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
  • Holy grass (Hierochloe odorata)
  • Mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga)
  • Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
  • American pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides)
  • Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
  • Japanese wild parsley (Cryptotaenia japonica Mitsuba)
  • Stone mint (Cunila origanoides)
  • Musk geranium (Geranium macrorhizum)
  • Corsican mint (Mentha requienii)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

TIP: Rachel cautions you, "Comfrey and mint are both invasive herbs and will gladly choke out the rest of your garden if you are not keeping a watchful eye on them. Cut back these herbs whenever necessary to maintain their size.

Herbs provide a wonderful aroma, both when they are growing in the garden and after they are harvested. In addition, fresh herbs make virtually any dish more delicious, and are a great way to encourage good health as well. Choosing shade tolerant varieties of herbs is a perfect way for the gardener with limited sunlight to enjoy a wide variety of healthy and delicious herbs.

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