A question that I am frequently asked is “Can I grow herbs in the shade?” The answer is yes, provided you choose the right herbs. While most herbs are sun lovers, there are some that tolerate partial shade and a few that actually prefer shade.
First let’s, define “partial shade” and “full shade”. Partial shade is 3 to 6 hours of sunlight daily, preferably in the morning and afternoon. Full shade is less than 3 hours of direct sun each day.
Partial Shade Herbs
Thyme – Thyme is a staple in any cook’s kitchen. It is one of the fines herbes used in French cooking and is also used in bouquet garni. It prefers full sun, but will grow in partial shade. There are many kinds to choose from. Common thyme is the variety most often used in cooking. French thyme has a milder flavor. If you are looking for something different, there is also lemon thyme and orange thyme, which have distinctive citrus flavors. All of these thymes are upright thymes, growing like small bushes. There are also creeping thymes which form low mats. They are used on walls and between stones in paths. When walked on, they give off the scent of thyme. The most popular is Mother of Thyme. My personal favorite is Woolley thyme. It has no scent, but has soft, fuzzy leaves.
Tarragon – Tarragon is another of the fines herbes. Be very careful when purchasing tarragon. Make sure that you are getting French Taragon (Artemisia dracunculus ‘sativa’) and not Russian Taragon (Artemisia dracunuculus dracunculoides) which has no scent or flavor.
Rosemary – Also a staple in any cook’s kitchen, it is not reliably hardy in growing zones colder than 7. Where I live in New Jersey (zone 6) two varieties, Arp and Hill Hardy, often survive the winter with protection. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where rosemary is hardy, it will do well for you in a partial shade location.
Dill and Fennel both can take a little shade, but don’t grow them together! They will cross pollinate and taste like neither one.
Parsley and Cilantro (the seeds are coriander) don’t mind a little shade. Just make sure that you label them or plant them far apart. They look similar, but taste very different.
Mints – Mints come in a seemingly endless variety. For cooking, use spearmint. Peppermint is used as a tea for indigestion. As a chocolate lover, I always have chocolate mint in my garden. It smells like peppermint patties! Other kinds of mint include orange mint, pineapple mint, apple mint and banana mint. Be cautious when adding mints to your garden. They spread aggressively, crowding out other plants. They are better planted by themselves in a garden or, preferably, in containers.
Catnip – catnip is one of my favorite herbs for a partial shade garden and not just because I have cats. Catnip may drive my cats crazy, but brewed as a tea it is very soothing for us humans.
Lemon Balm – lemon balm is another great herb for tea but it is also a member of the mint family and just as aggressive. Plant it like you would your mints, either alone or in a container so that it doesn’t take over.
Chamomile – When I have trouble falling asleep at night, I make myself a nice cup of chamomile tea. When harvesting chamomile for tea, remember that it is the flowers that you want to use and not the foliage.
Full Shade Herbs
Cardamom – If you cook Indian food, you will want to reserve a corner of your shade garden for cardamom. Let it go to seed and then collect the seeds to use for your recipes.
Chervil – Another one of the fines herbes used in French cooking. It tastes a lot like tarragon. Use it fresh, rather than dried.
Ginger and Ginseng – In both cases, the roots are used in cooking. Ginger can be harvested within a year of planting. Ginseng roots take 3 to 5 years to reach maturity.
Sweet Woodruff – A great groundcover for a shady area but also used dried in sachets and potpourris.
Violets – Like nasturtiums, the flowers are edible. They are usually candied and used as garnish on cakes and pastries. Steep them in water and use the water as a flavoring.
Even if you don’t have a sunny yard, you can still have an herb garden and fresh herbs for your kitchen.