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
Catnip – Nepeta cataria 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. Native to southern Europe and southwestern Asia, it has become naturalized throughout Europe and North America. It’s a perennial that is hardy to zone 3 and grows to a height of 3 feet. It is a member of the mint family but is not as invasive although it will reseed itself freely throughout your garden.
Chamomile – Matricaria recutita ,known as German chamomile. When I have trouble falling asleep at night, I make myself a nice cup of chamomile tea. An annual, German chamomile will grow to 2’ to 3’. When harvesting chamomile for tea, remember that it is the flowers that you want to use and not the foliage. The leaves are bitter.
Cilantro (Coriander) – Coriandrum sativum a member of the carrot family and native to the regions surrounding the Mediterranean including southern Europe, north Africa and southwestern Asia. It is used in cuisines worldwide. Cilantro, an annual, is a cool season plant. It will bolt, or flower, when the soil temperature rises above 75°F. You can delay flowering a few weeks by heavily mulching the plants to keep the soil cool.
Costmary – Tanacetum balsamita Native to the Mediterrannean area, costmary is well suited to dry conditions. Hardy to zone 4, it grows to 3′ to 4′ in height so it should be planted in the back of your border. It needs full sun to flower, but the flowers are insignificant. Costmary is grown for its fragrant leaves which smell of balsam. Grown in partial shade, it will produce more and larger leaves.
Dill – Anethum graveolens Dill is an annual and a member of the carrot family. It is native to southern Russia and a staple in Russian and eastern European cuisines. Mature plants vary height from 2’ to 4’ depending on the variety. Dill will bloom about 8 weeks after it has sprouted so plant seeds every two weeks through your growing season to ensure a steady supply. Do not plant them near fennel. They will cross-pollinate and the resulting plants will lack the distinctive flavors of their parents.
Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare A native of the shores of the Mediterranean, fennel is a short-lived perennial and hardy through zone 5. Depending on the variety, fennel will reach a height of 4’ to 6’. Like dill, it is a member of the carrot family. It comes in two varieties: those that develop bulbs and those that don’t. It is often used in butterfly gardens because it is the nectar plant of the swallowtail butterfly. This means that butterflies lay their eggs on the plants which then hatch into caterpillars which eat the plants. Do not plant your fennel near dill. They will cross-pollinate and the resulting plants will lack the distinctive flavors of their parents.
Lemon Balm – Melissa officinalis 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. It’s relatively short, 12” to 18” tall, and hardy to zone 4.
Mints – Mentha spp 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.
Parsley – Petroselinum crispum, a member of the carrot family, parsley comes in three varieties: flat leaf, curly leaf and root parsley. The flat leaf parsleys are used in both bouquet garni and fines herbes. Parsley is a biennial in its native Mediterranean habitat. North of zone 7, it is grown as an annual because it doesn’t survive the harsh winters. The milder winters of the south are actually good for parsley. It is a cool weather plant that struggles in the summer heat. It is also the nectar plant for small butterflies which lay their eggs on the backs of the leaves. Be sure to wash them well before eating!
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. In northern areas, rosemary should be grown in containers and brought inside once the outdoor temperatures are less than 30°F. Mature plants grown outside can reach a height of 5 feet, depending on the variety. Rosemary is a member of the mint family but is not invasive. It is often used as an ornamental shrub because it can be pruned into hedges and topiary. 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.
Tarragon – Tarragon is one of the fines herbes used in French cooking. 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. Tarragon is perennial in zones 4 through 8. Mature plants will reach a height of 3’. Prune them regularly to keep the entire plant at a height of 2 feet or it may be prone to falling over. During the winter, tarragon becomes dormant.
Thyme – Thymus vulgaris 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. French and English thyme are 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. Thyme is hardy to zone 5.
Full Shade Herbs
Cardamom – Elettaria cardamomum 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. A tropical, grown in containers and brought in during the winter in colder climes, mature plants reach a height of 6’ to 13’.
Chervil – Anthriscus cerefolium Another one of the fines herbes used in French cooking. It tastes a lot like tarragon. Use it fresh, rather than dried. Chervil is an annual cool season plant growing best in the spring and fall when temperatures are cooler. In the heat of summer, it bolts (goes to seed). Mature plants attain a height of 12 to 24 inches.
Ginger – Zingiber officinale A tropical perennial that is native to south China, in the US, it can be grown as a perennial in zones 9 through 12. The rest of us either have to grow it in containers and bring our plants indoors during the winter or we have to start our plants indoors and then plant them in our gardens after all danger of frost has passed. Plants grow to 2 to 3 feet in height. Ginger can be harvested within a year of planting.
Ginseng – Panax spp Native to both North American and Eastern Asia, ginseng is a perennial that is hardy in zones 3 through 8. The roots take 3 to 5 years to reach maturity.
Sweet Woodruff – Galium odoratum A perennial hardy in zones 4 through 8, sweet woodruff grows 6” to 12” high. A great groundcover for a shady area but also used dried in sachets and potpourris.
Violets – Viola odorata Native to Europe and Asia, then introduced into North America and Australasia. They are perennials that are only hardy as far north as zone 6. At maturity, violets reach a height of 4 to 6 inches depending on the variety. 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.