Shade Garden: Permaculture in Dark(ish) Yards

shade garden

Shade gardens are often the topic of frustration among gardeners. They are especially so for those of us who want to make the most out of our land but think we might not be able to grow food due to the lack of sun.

I recently shared a photo of shade plants that was posted on the wall of a seed shop in California.

Now, it is all well and good to know what these shade plants are.  But I invite you to take this knowledge a step further.

Instead of merely plopping these plants willy-nilly into your backyard, why not incorporate some permaculture design into your garden plan?

Think of maximizing the physical space in which these plants occupy and bringing them a little closer to the light.

Where do you start? With the concept of the "layers of a food forest."

shade plants layers of food forest
Image by Graham Burnett

In this article, I will attempt to offer (3) three edible/medicinal/useful shade plants to grow for each of the layers of your shady food forest.

shade garden root

1. The Root Layer

Most root crops are shade tolerant. The exceptions to this rule are those that like to send out "runners" such as June-bearing strawberries. But for the most part, bulbs do just fine as long as they get some 4 hours of indirect sunlight.


Alliums, and bulbs both the edible (garlic, onions) and the ornamental kind tolerate the shade very well. And while a bulb, corm or tuber, will always be more vibrant and larger in the sun, they will not wither and die due to the lack of it.

Don't expect big things to grow, but lots of little things instead. For instance, scallions, bunching onions and Welsh onions will do better in the shade than regular onions or "walking onions" will.

Below, are (2) two edibles and (1) native pollinator plant for your consideration.

shade garden onion


shade garden ginger


shade garden ginger

Claytonia virginica

shade garden ground

2. The ground cover

Ground cover options are so varied that the three that I mention below do not even begin to scratch the surface of possibilities in the shade. In a way, this layer sort of overlaps with the next one (herb layer) as many herbs such as oregano and thyme can be used as ground cover shade plants.


What's important to note in these "layers" is not whether or not the plant is an herb and therefore, it must occupy the herb layer. But rather, that it is growing in a "ground cover" kind of way.  Always keep the physical space which they occupy in mind.  Think of some perennial low-growing plants in this space. Such as...  


shade garden sedum
shade garden mache

Mache or "Corn salad"

shade garden mint

Corsican Mint

shade garden herb

3. The herb layer

Shade garden herbs are often those that also love the cold weather. Cilantro, parsley, mints, lemon balms (another kind of mint), chives (another kind of onion), Turkish rocket, comfrey, marjoram, tarragon, and sorrel are among many that one can choose from. As are the following (2) edible herbs and (1) one pollinator plant below.

It's important to incorporate as many shade-loving flowers as possible in your food forest. This is especially true, even if a flower is not necessarily recognized as a pollinator plant. Historically, the rise of flowers parallels the development of insects. So you'll never know what advantageous bug your shade garden flowers will attract.


Lemon Balm





shade garden shrub

4. The shrub layer

Once again it is difficult to make a distinction as to whether something is a shrub or an herb. Because sometimes. you can have shrub herbs, such as comfrey or lemon balm or bushy rosemaries. The important thing is that we are trying to find a plant with many uses.

A principle of permaculture is to choose elements in your design that fulfill as many functions as possible, even if those functions are redundant with other plants already in your design.

Comfrey, for instance, can occupy the shrub layer, act as a dynamic accumulator (that pulls up nutrients from deeper layers of the soil), a pollinator plant and can even be used as a poultice for bone or muscle injuries! One element, many functions.

shade garden shrub


shade garden shrub


shade garden shrub


shade garden vine

5. The vine layer

The vine layer in a shade garden begins to push the boundaries of shadow in your backyard. And this is where your role transitions from designer to plant guide because with advanced planning, you can guide your edible shade vines up and through trellises where they can capture more sunlight than their lower-level counterparts.

Akebia quinata (chocolate vine or five-fingered vine) will not only produce flowers but provide medicinal leaves, flowers, and stems used as remedies for urinary tract infection and insufficient lactation in mothers.

shade garden vine

Akebia (Chocolcate Vine)

shade garden vine

Hardy Kiwi

shade garden vine


shade garden understory

6. The understory

Understory trees in a shade garden are normally any multi-function tree that will grow below 50 feet. The following are examples of trees that will produce fruit despite the shade that their overstory counterparts provide.


The Pawpaw is the largest native American fruit that is like nature's version of ice cream-like during the summer. And if you want to know more about the serviceberry, nothing does it justice more than this short read.

And bananas are useful to us whether or not they bear fruit.  To reduce our waste, we've been using our banana leaves as muffin liners and food liners in general.  This is how they are used in the Philippines.


shade garden understory


shade garden understory

Serviceberry (Saskatoon, Shadblow, Juneberry)

shade garden understory


shade garden canopy

7. The canopY (50 ft plus)

The reason you are reading this is probably that your garden is in the shade thanks to the canopy trees on your property. It could also mean that your shade garden is due to your own home (or other buildings) casting a shadow on your yard. Whatever the case may be, it is helpful to know what kind of canopy trees you have.


Grab a field guide for trees in your region or observe your trees and pick up a sample of its leaf, fruit, and seed. You can also use the LeafSnap App to identify the trees around you. Here are (3) of the more popular trees that span the canopies across America. What is your canopy tree?  Comment below!


shade garden canopy


shade garden canopy


shade garden canopy




Hopefully, this article has helped you realize that all is not lost if your backyard happens to be in the shade. The few options above are only the beginnings of possibilities for your shade garden.

If you happen to need a garden mentor, consider joining GIY so we can help you design, implement and harvest your shade garden with less headaches, expenses and mistakes.

Below is Martin Crawford's book on Forest Gardening which is a good companion to any permaculture shade garden.


Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links. The small commission we receive if you choose to purchase goes towards making this gardening education available for free! We do not affiliate for anything we do not personally use. Thanks so much for your support!

Comments 4

  1. Wow, I never knew before that there are such things as shade-tolerant grass.
    I’ve always wondered why the grass on my lawn doesn’t grow
    evenly and now I think it’s because of the shade of my tree.
    Perhaps I should buy a different type of grass to make my lawn look more uniform.

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