The seed catalogs beckon…it’s time to plan the garden.
As the days stretch a little longer and the light lingers a bit later, we feel the promise of spring. Soon, soon it will be time to plant the garden. Right now, though, it’s chilly and snowy (or cold and rainy, depending on your zone.) It’s the perfect time to huddle under a blanket with a notebook, sticky notes, and seed catalogs in hand, making lists, sketching designs, charting companion plants and plotting succession planting. It’s time to decide what we’ll grow, making lists of new seeds to trial, while designing the most beautiful edible gardens possible.
Right now, in our dreams, the garden is perfect.
It’s productive and lovely. It thrives. The garden buzzes with beneficial insects, and the sweet, rich smell of the soil tells us our plants are well nourished. The garden behaves, growing lush and healthy, producing basketfuls of deliciousness.
The fantasy garden keeps us content throughout the winter.
Unfortunately, the fantasy isn’t reality for most of us. Pests, diseases, lack of space, nutrient deficiencies, drought…we face many challenges in the garden. Part of the appeal in gardening, though, is to find solutions to our garden challenges.
Last year, I grew 184 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, selling plants at Hub City Farmers’ Market. (You can read about my crazy seed starting adventures here.) To say I’m slightly obsessed with heirloom tomatoes is an understatement. Because we live in a subdivision on less than an acre, I only plant about 40 tomato plants in our garden. With so many beautiful colors, shapes, flavors, and textures, I want to grow them all. Each year, I try a few new-to-me varieties, but I also plant my tried-and-true favorites.
Tomatoes prove the most popular plant in kitchen gardens. However, according to text books and gardening experts, I shouldn’t grow ANY tomatoes.
We live in a forest. With hundreds of trees.
Our large kitchen garden grows in shade.
I’m not talking about an hour or two of lovely afternoon shade to protect plants from the scalding southern sun. No. Our garden receives very little sun. Forget the “8-10 hours of full sun” that every gardener with a blog recommends for tomato growing. Forget the “morning sun with afternoon shade.” Pretty dappled shade would be lovely—but that’s not our garden.
We’re talking deep shade. Our kitchen garden receives approximately two to three hours of full sun during summer days, with a bit of partial sun thrown in for another hour or so. While some growers advise that morning sun is imperative to dry the overnight dew on the tomato plants, helping to keep them healthy, our garden balks at that advice. Instead, our plants bathe in dew all morning, only to be followed by scorching sun at noon.
Sadly, we treat our green babies very poorly, I’m afraid.
I dream of a field rich in full sun, where I grow three pound Brandywines and Mortgage Lifters, where roses flourish and pumpkins thrive. Instead, I battle our lack of sun, refusing to give up my quest for homegrown tomatoes.
It isn’t easy, but it is possible to grow tomatoes in shade.
Obviously, it works. All of these heirloom tomatoes you see in this post grew in our shady garden.
Now, before I cause an uprising among gardeners who will want to tar and feather me for my heretical tomato-growing statements, let’s be very clear:
Sun is ALWAYS best for tomatoes. If you have a sunny garden, I envy you. For those of us dreaming of bruschetta that must battle shade, though, it’s good to know that you can have shade and eat bruschetta, too.
For the past 10 years, I’ve kept lists of which heirloom tomatoes worked in my shady, zone 7b garden, as well as the ones that flopped. Before we talk about the specific varieties, though, we should chat about the realities of growing tomatoes in shade. A few important notes:
Productivity will be lower than in gardens with full sun. You will still harvest tomatoes, but depending on your needs, you may want to grow a few extra plants.
Disease can be more prevalent without morning sun to dry dewy leaves. Likewise, irrigation should soak the roots of the plant to avoid water and soil splashing on leaves.
Trellising or staking is a must, especially in shady gardens. I saw some brilliant examples of tomato supports during my trip last fall to the California Veggie Trials with the National Garden Bureau’s Plant Nerds team. I’ll be sharing those examples with you soon in another post.
Pruning increases air circulation and decreases disease. With limited sun, pruning suckers also can help the sun reach fruits to speed ripening, plus the plant will use the sun’s energy toward fruit production, rather than growing more foliage.
Size matters. Smaller varieties of tomatoes perform better than large varieties in shady gardens. While I have grown 1-2 pound tomatoes in our garden, I find that cherry and grape varieties produce prolifically, while the large slicers need more babying—and produce fewer fruits.
Color matters—at least, in my non-scientific testing. White, orange, and yellow tomatoes always thrive in my shady garden. Fortunately, those are also my favorites.
Rich soil, good organic fertilizers, and consistent water—tomatoes need these to thrive, no matter if your garden is sunny or shady.
Remember: you do need at least a few hours of sun. Tomatoes need the sun’s energy to produce fruit. Find the sunniest spot in your shady garden to plant your tomatoes.
If you’re ready to join me in the challenge of growing tomatoes in shade, here are my top picks for heirloom tomato varieties that consistently perform well in our shady, zone 7b garden, sorted by color. An asterisk * indicates my favorites. (Full descriptions of the varieties can be found at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.)
*Amana Orange (1 lb.)
Golden Sunray (8-10 oz.)
*Jaune Flammé (8-10 oz.)
*Sungold Select II (cherry)
Arkansas Traveler (8-10 oz.)
Belize Pink Heart (10 oz.)
*Thai Pink Egg (grape)
*A Grappoli d’Inverno (grape)
*Bonny Best (8-10 oz.)
Floradade (5-7 oz.)
Marglobe (8-10 oz.)
Principe Borghese (grape)
Roma (8 oz.)
*Black Cherry (cherry)
*Black Krim (10 oz.)
*Cherokee Purple (12-14 oz.)
*Evan’s Purple Pear (2 oz.)
*Paul Robeson (7-10 oz.)
*Gold Medal (1-2 lb.)
Green Zebra (3 oz.)
*Hillbilly (1 lb.)
Isis Candy Cherry (cherry)
*Nature’s Riddle (1-2 lb.)
Red Zebra (3 oz.)
*Striped Roman (6-8 oz.)
Tigerella (4-6 oz.)
Vernissage Yellow (cherry)
*Violet Jasper (1-3 oz.)
*White Queen (10 oz.)
Ivory Egg (2 oz.)
*Yellow Pear (2 oz.)
Topaz (1-3 oz.)
So, are you ready to join me in growing tomatoes in shade? I know it goes against all commonsense gardening advice, but I promise—it can be done, as long as your garden receives at least a few hours of sun. While it can be frustrating, there’s also no better summer treat than homegrown heirloom tomatoes. We can form a support group and cheer each other through the shady days: #ShadyTomatoGrowers. What do you think?!
It’s worth the effort. I promise.
P.S. You can grow tomatoes in shade--and check out the other fabulous plants you can grow on the You Can Grow That! website.