Vegetable Gardening in Less Than Full Sun

The word on vegetable gardens – almost an article of faith – is that they must have full sun to grow. Full sun being defined as 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. For those of us with limited space, that’s hard requirement to achieve. For years, I assumed that I just couldn’t grow them because of the limited amount of sunlight

In my case, I live in a condo. The building I’m in – of which my unit is the northernmost – is two stories high and runs north-south. The front of the unit faces due East, the back faces west. This means that the sun rises and shines on the front of my unit from about 8:00 am until around 1:00 pm and then the building blocks sunlight from the front beds for the rest of the day. Similarly, the back gets no sun at all until the shade cast by my unit recedes around after 11:00 am. Because of some trees and tall shrubs – not to mention another row of units running parallel to mine – it begins being shaded about two or three hours later. Therefore, I’m trying to grow vegetables in, at most, five hours of sunlight, and in as little as two or three. According to most gardening advice, I’m wasting my time.

And yet, I’m getting cucumbers and tomatoes from my garden.

Walter Reeves, who has written several books on gardening in Georgia, has commented that our sun here in the south is pretty intense – especially mid-day – and some shade can be welcomed. Of course, he was speaking mostly of open or dappled shade, the kind cast by the tall pines found throughout the South. No such luck here. My shade is solid, cast by buildings or thick overgrown shrubbery.

In the last year or two, I’ve planted a few tomatoes – at first just in a large pot on the back patio, and then last year, I also planted two in the flower bed in front of my unit. The yield was not impressive, but still, I did get tomatoes, they were small but tasty. This year, I decided to attempt a modified square-foot garden in the front beds – the ones that got the most sun. My wife insisted that I also plant some in the back where they would only get around three hours of sun.

Thin Tomato Plants

To my surprise, I now have tomatoes that probably get less than four hours of sun that are already giving me fruit. The picture at the right is of a tomato planted in a large pot on my back patio. As you can see, the plant is kind of spindly and the leaves are sparse. Having less sunlight causes the plants to ‘stretch,’ that is, the length of stem between any two sets of leaves gets longer. Generally, the more sunlight, the more compact the plants. And yet, this lack of sunlight hasn’t prevented the plant from setting fruit or ripening. In fact, I’m getting more tomatoes off of this plant than I am from the three plants in the front bed that get at least five hours of sun. I’ve also got two cucumber vines in back that have been producing cukes for weeks now.

In the front bed, which gets about five hours of sun in the morning, I am getting bell peppers, tomatoes, peas, and cucumbers. (I was getting bush beans until a little varmit ate them all.)

What this means for other condogardeners out there is that we can grow more vegetables in more places than we thought.

Has anyone else had experience with growing vegetables in a limited amount of sunlight?

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