Tips for Growing Vegetables in the Shade

I’m envious of those who garden in lots of sun. Well maybe not so much on a hot July day but mostly I wish I could grow more edibles in the opening of my tall redwood forest. My neighbor gives me volunteer Sun Gold cherry tomatoes each spring and some years all the stars align and I enjoy these sweet morsels, picking them mostly as I putter in the garden. They rarely get inside on a salad, but boy, are they delicious.

Indigo Rose cherry tomatoes, peas, radish

I’m often asked for suggestions for gardening in the shade. By taking advantage of a few sunny spots and carefully choosing the vegetables and herbs you plant you can harvest food from your own garden. Without much sun, plants photosynthesize less and produce less sugar. On the other hand, shade does offer some benefits. Gardens in the shade don’t have to be watered as often and weeds don’t grow as quickly.

There are three types of shade. A partially shady location is one that receives 2-6 hours of sun, either in the morning or in the afternoon. It can also refer to a full day of dappled sunlight. Most edibles that prefer full sun will grow in partial shade, especially if they receiver their hours of fullest sunlight in the morning. A lightly shaded garden receives an intermediate level of shade. While it may receive only an hour or two of direct sun during the day it is bright enough the rest of the time to allow a variety of edibles-especially leafy greens to grow. Full shade is found under mature trees that have dense, spreading foliage. Unpruned oaks and maples cast this kind of shade in summer. Heavy shade under mature evergreens is often dry. A fully shaded location like this is fine for woodland plants but in not a great place for edibles.

Whatever level of shade you have in your yard, make the most of the situation. First, if you have the choice, opt for afternoon shade. Shade in the afternoon is more hospitable in the summer when the sun is fierce. The severe temperature swings created by a combination of shade in the morning and blazing sun all afternoon are difficult for most plants to withstand. Gardens facing east will enjoy bright sun all morning and shade in the early afternoon.

If you garden under deciduous trees you can give plants a head start by starting the seeds indoors or direct seeding early before the trees leaf out. All trees, however, bring roots as well as shade to the garden and tree roots will compete with garden plants for water and nutrients. Any plant grown where there are tree roots will need extra water and fertilizer to make up for the competition. If you can’t get the garden out of the dense shade of trees, at least get it past the tree dripline where most of the roots are located. If that’s not possible, it might be better to plant in containers beneath the trees to prevent tree roots from invading the root zone of your vegetables.

Blue Lake pole beans

Shade tolerant vegetables for your brightest spots-the partial shade areas- include beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, summer squash and early maturing tomatoes like Early Girl, Stupice, San Francisco Fog, Isis Candy as well as other cherry tomatoes. Corn and peppers will be lankier and bear later and only modesty in partial shade.

Root crops and leafy plants can tolerate more shade than fruiting crops. Beets, carrots, celery and turnip will grow quite happily in partial shade. So will shallots and bunching onions, cilantro, garlic, chives, kale, leeks, parsley and thyme. Leafy plants can tolerate partial to light shade because their leaves grow larger to absorb the sunlight the plants need. In very light shade areas concentrate on leafy green like Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, radishes and tarragon.

Shade can be decidedly helpful to some crops. Leafy greens will be more tender and succulent, without the bitterness they tend to acquire when conditions are too hot. A combination of a bit of afternoon shade and an abundance of moisture will help cut-and-come-again crops like broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and celery stay in good condition longer in hot weather.

Whatever plants you grow in your shady garden, be sure not to crowd them. Plants tend to sprawl there and if placed too close together they will compete for available light. Place your vegetables plants wherever they will get the most light even if it means putting different crops in separate places. A small harvest is still better than no harvest at all.

Those of us who live under the trees know a shady garden is a pleasant place to spend time working on a hot summer day. Be thankful for what you do have.

Celebrate Earth Day

Earth Day celebrates the natural beauty of our planet and reminds us of what we can do to keep it healthy.  Always on April 22nd, Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues and is now a global celebration. In anticipation of this day I recently spent the morning in nature at the UCSC Arboretum where the birds and the bees were enjoying the nectar flowers. Whether you plant a tree, clean up litter, garden, hike in the woods or marvel at emerging wildflower, be in contact with the soil and breathe fresh air outside on this day.

Fremontodendron aka Flannel Bush

My day at the Arboretum started in the California native plant garden. Plants thrive when they’re natural to your area and the flannel bush, one of the most spectacular of our native shrubs, is a good example. Huge abundant deep yellow blooms cover the plant for a long time starting in the spring.

Iris douglasiana aka Pacific Coast Iris

Impressive swaths of rich blue Pacific Coast iris bordered the path. Nearby a bush poppy, covered with 2 inch yellow flowers put on it’s spring display. It will bloom sporadically for most of the year.

The South African and Australian gardens at the Arboretum is where all the action takes place for hummingbird watchers. The courtship display of the dozens of Anna’s hummingbirds, taking place inches over your head, sure puts one in contact with nature. You can bring nature into your garden with plants that attract these jewels of the avian world as well as butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Planting wildflowers on Earth Day is a good place to start.

Wildflowers like poppies, tidy tips, yarrow and baby blue eyes provide nectar and pollen for the pollinators, including honey bees, bumble bees and carpenter bees. Attract other beneficial insects such as ladybugs, parasitoid wasps and army worms to be the unpaid pest control agents in your garden. Beside wildflowers, plants such as aster, goldenrod and California fuchsia attract beneficial insects and are grown to attract, feed and shelter the insect parasites and predators to enhance your biological pest control. Everything is connected on the planet.

Protea or Pinchushion plant

The pincushion protea from South Africa is one the the brilliantly colored shrubs in this garden in the Arboretum. The flowers are striking, not only for their appearance, but also for their unusual structure and pollination sequence. They make a good long lasting cut flower.

Pink Rice Flower or pimelea ferrugine

In the New Zealand garden a beautiful small shrub with small dark green glossy leaves and masses of showy, fragrant magenta pink tubular flowers was attracting butterflies. The Pink Rice Flower was in full bloom and would sure look great in my garden in my well drained soil.

Remember that plants drink their food. If your soil dries out completely, your plants will starve. Take steps on Earth Day and the rest of the year to water wisely and retain the valuable moisture. Steps include improving your soil with organic matter, planning a smaller garden, choosing bush varieties of vegetables, placing plants closer together to shade the soil which helps conserve moisture and reduces weed growth. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Keep those moisture grabbing weeds at bay. Use a drip irrigation system to conserve water.

Celebrate Earth Day this April 22nd and throughout the whole year.

The Art of Bonsai aka Tree Art

Robert Stoll joined Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai in 1989 two months after it started. He and I have something in common. We both have won a bonsai specimen that remains one of our favorites. His will be featured at the club’s upcoming bonsai exhibit while mine lives a quietly on my patio.

Robert Stoll at his work bench explaining bonsai techniques.

Recently I spent some time in the garden of this knowledgeable man while he shared stories of the history of bonsai and what the art means to him. Robert will be displaying three specimens at the show this year- the juniper chinensis procumbens ’Nana’ he has been training since he won it 20 years ago, another ‘Nana’ specimen and a pfitzer juniper that can be traced back to 1901. He dug it up 15 years ago and has been training it ever since.

An example of Penjing style bonsai

Robert has dozens of bonsai but one that caught my eye was a lovely example of Penjeng which is a style that displays an artistic or social statement. This one had a boat “floating” on sand near rocks and a miniature tree. Robert said he wanted to depict the statemen ”At the end of the day everyone needs a safe harbor.”

The word bonsai comes from two Japanese words that provide the most basic definition of this living art form. “Bon” means tray or pot, while “sai” means to plant. One of the reasons we all admire bonsai is how old they look -appearing to be veterans of years of struggle against natural forces. Some are actually hundreds of years old and handed down in families while others look very old utilizing techniques help further this illusion.

There is a technique called jin which causes weathered-looking dieback on a branch and is created by stripping a branch of bark. In nature, deadwood is created when a tree is hit by lightning, exposed to sustained periods of drought or when branches snap due to ice stress, wind or weight of snow. The wood dies off and is bleached by intense sunlight. Robert has many examples of this technique.

“Root over rock” Trident maple

As living things, bonsai are always growing, leaves and stems being pinched, branches wired into natural looking shapes, the trunks thickening and sometimes developing nebari, that most sought-after look when the surface roots of the tree or root flare are visible above the growing medium.

Be inspired and have all your questions answered about growing bonsai from the experts. Don’t miss the upcoming 30h Annual Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai exhibit Saturday and Sunday, April 14 & 15 at the Museum of Art and History at 705 Front Street in Santa Cruz from 10:00am – 5:00pm each day. Entry fee is $5 per person which includes the museum. Kids 12 and under get in free so it’s a great way to spend the day.

Saturday activities include a performance by the Watsonville Taiko, Japanese flower arranging, origami demonstrations and Sumi-e ink painting. On Sunday the Santa Cruz Todo Kai will be performing. There will be a shamisen musical instrument performance and the origami and Semi-e ink demonstrations will be ongoing throughout the day.

Every plant sold or raffled at the show comes with an invitation to the monthly Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club meetings where new enthusiasts are welcomed and nurtured.
Besides taking in the beautiful bonsai on display you can purchase finished bonsai and starter plants as well as get experienced help with trees purchased. There will be door prizes and refreshments. You might even win the raffle for the demonstration specimen created each day at 2:00 pm by Bonsai Artist Jonas Dupuich on Saturday or if you come to the show on Sunday the one created by Sensei Katsumi Kinoshita.

April in the Garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Spring might have officially started mid-March but judging from the wonky weather it’s hard to tell. We did experience a “Miracle March”  with a pretty good dose of needed rainfall along with some very cold weather. You never know what to expect in March around here.

Sherman, my Welsh springer spanial, enjoying a spring day in Scotts Valley

But now we’ve turned the corner on spring with flowers bursting open within hours on these nice days. The Black-headed grosbeaks have returned to my yard for the breeding season. Like clockwork they show up on almost the exact day each year. It’s my version of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.

Looking forward to the rest of spring, here’s what I’ll be doing around here in April.

Hopefully we’ll have plenty of April showers. This latest rainfall is surely  welcomed. One of the perks of a cool, rainy spring is that shrubs and perennials have longer to establish a good root system before hot weather arrives, ground covers have time to spread and shade the soil, conserving moisture come summer. What strategies can you follow that will make your garden low maintenance this summer and give you extra time to enjoy it?

Plant in masses. When designing or reworking your garden, make it

ajuga reptans, a groundcover for shady spots

easy on yourself by planting fewer varieties but in greater numbers. Planting this way will reduce the number of different maintenance tasks for that area. For example, if you have a large hillside that you want to cover, plant it with a groundcover like ceanothus gloriosus which fans out 6-15 feet. Some manzanitas like arctotaphylos uva-ursi eventually spread to15 feet each. Sage leaf rockrose and germander are also good for sunny areas. A shady spot could be planted with ajuga, creeping mahonia or Walkabout Sunset lysimachia.

Another time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no brainer but if you have just one prima donna in a bed of more drought tolerant plants, you’ll be dragging the hose over to that bed for just one plant or having to run your irrigation system more for it. If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low water as you’d like, move those to their own spot. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster while drought tolerant plants typically have one of more of the following characteristics: deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.

ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’ – A low maintenance, low water groundcover for sunny spots

Avoid putting thirsty plants in hard-to-reach places. If the irrigation system doesn’t reach that far, keep it simple by planting drought tolerant woody shrubs or perennials there.

Pluck weeds when the soil is moist and before they have gone to seed. Even if you don’t get the entire root of more persistent weeds, just keep pulling at the new growth. Eventually, the plant will give up having used up all of the food stored in its roots. I’m still battling hedge parsley with it’s sticky seed balls that will cling to my shoelaces and the dog’s fur if I don’t get it before it sets seed.

Plant edibles among your other plants near the kitchen. Tricolor sage looks great alongside other plants with pink and violet leaves. Purple basil planted below the silver foliage of an artichoke is another great combination. Lemon thyme growing next to a burgundy colored dwarf New Zealand flax would look spectacular, too. And don’t forget to plant decorative and delicious Bright Lights swiss chard with its stalks of yellow, orange, pink, purple, red, green and white throughout your beds. It’s one of the easiest vegetables to grow.

So get the lemonade ready to enjoy all your free time later this season.