The Light Factor in Fall


This is city living

Let's get this straight: In a vegetable garden, the glass is almost always half full.  Even though vegetables are not flooding into the kitchen quite in the way I'd expected from my new garden, there is still plenty of beautiful food out there for dinner every night.

This garden, however, is shoehorned into a city yard. Painful experience has taught me that the single most important factor in siting a vegetable garden is full sun. Maybe I'd feel differently if I were gardening in Phoenix.  But in the Northeast at least, vegetables tend not to grow properly without a full day's sun, and now I am gardening in spot where there are barriers that cast shade.

At the south boundary of this garden is a viburnum shrub, viburnum juddii, maybe six and a half feet tall and absolutely too beautiful to be gotten rid of. Also an arch with sweet autumn clematis climbing it, and ditto.  I made a vegetable bed at the skirt of the viburnum, and have been pleasantly surprised at how well my cutting celery and chard both did there with very little light.

The northern boundary is more of a problem.  There is a line of six ridiculously tall Norway spruces, and two of them have branches that overhang the garden.  I'm assuming that these trees were planted at the same moment the house was built, 1885, and they are a real feature of the neighborhood.  When I see them from my neighbors' yards, they take my breath away–they are by far the tallest things in view. Sixty feet tall?  A hundred?  I'm guessing.  But two of them at least gotta go if I'm going to do vegetables here.  They not only steal light, but also moisture and all the nice fertilizer the worms are manufacturing for me out of my compost and mulch.  Brussels spouts planted beneath them, usually such a reliable crop for me, are just not forming sprouts.  The collards I planted there, which should be hip-high by now, are barely grazing my shins.  Of course, getting rid of obstacles like this costs thousands of dollars, so I'm unsure when they will go.  Maybe I'll go first.

On the western side is a five foot tall solid fence.  I tied my tomato plants to this fence on the theory that they'd grow tall enough to catch the afternoon light over the top.  They have.  The problem is that pruned and staked tomatoes form fruit at the bottom first, top later.  So the lower crop, which actually stands a chance of ripening before fall, is a little stingy.

And there is the insoluble problem of pole beans, which have been growing magnificently in the middle of the garden on a row of bamboo structures–and shading the cabbages behind them.  I can live without cole slaw and sauerkraut, but I can't live without pole beans.

I've moved a vegetable garden once before because of lack of light.  In that case, there were really big white pines on the south side, far enough way that the garden sat in full sun in summer.  But by fall, with the sun lower in the sky, the trees made the shortening days much shorter.  So, the spring crops that ripened at the summer solstice or just after, were great.  But the fall crops did nothing.

That's what's happening in this new garden, too.  The first set of cabbages were beautiful.  The second set of cabbage seedlings, planted just a few weeks later, are still tiny.  My chrysanthemum greens, instantly spectacular in spring, are thin and stingy now.  Fall is, however, very important to me.  It's when I get the beautiful things that usually bolt in spring: radishes, turnips, fennel, escarole, kohlrabi.

Next year, I'll experiment with the timing of my fall crops and maybe stick them in the ground earlier in July, when the light is still good.  Or else win the lottery and take out a few trees.


  1. Next year, try putting the pole beans against the western fence and the tomatoes on the bamboo trellises in the middle of the plot, running east-west. For now, see if you can find some Color-up to lay beneath your tomatoes, for a ripening boost.

    My big issue is wind; if I put up a barrier to protect my bed, it blocks some of the best sunlight.

    I’m surprised you can grow anything under those Norway spruces!

  2. Keep the trees, buy vegetables at the closest farmers market! It is impossible to replace the ecological value of large trees like that. You are fortunate to have them. Remember, they offer year round benefit and beauty unlike a veg garden!

  3. Lisa,

    I’d remove two of six, and the least spectacular.

    But I’m not sure that the ecological value of trees versus vegetable garden is so easy to calculate.

    My vegetable garden allows me to opt out of the agro-industrial complex to a very large extent and keeps me out of the car.

  4. May be you can trim down your clematis.It makes a good ornament if contained in a 2sqft area on the ground with no support.Also see if it is possible to trim the branches of the trees in the background.Try tomato climbers rather than plants.

  5. I feel your pain, though mine has come on gradually. When we bought our current home, the neighboring trees were small & I sadly misjudged their growth rate & eventual size. My once sunny, productive garden is now shaded far too much during the summer. Tomatoes stand very little chance of ripening, especially when the exceptionally cool summer is taken into account. And this is already the sunniest part of the yard.

    The “up” side ? In my climate, a winter veggie garden is actually possible, so my collards & brussels sprouts & cabbage & carrots & salsify can be grown in leaf-off conditions. Oddly, my winter garden (at least the half not shaded by the house) gets more hours of sun than my summer garden !

  6. Shame tree’s can’t just, y’know… MOVE, right? Two birds with one stone!

    Although, it’s a hard choice. An easy answer, which I also agree with, is @Lisa: “Keep the trees, buy vegetables at the closest farmers market!

  7. Maybe some more careful sorting of what can go where. Aparagus and some berries will do well in some shade. Grapes, will put out too scampering over whatever. Maybe tomatoes in pots someplace is the way to go. I’m always surprised where I can tuck in carrots and lettuce and some other greens. Trade with the gardener that can gro other things.

  8. Part two – Michele – as much as some are advising you to just buy at the farmer’s market, I understand your reluctance, too. After a long day of whatever, it’s great to go out to the garden & pick your dinner. Markets are great … but not quite the same.

  9. This is crazy, but try mulching with tinfoil.

    …I know how it sounds. But it reflects light back up onto the seedlings, and in situations that have ALMOST enough light, particularly on crops like lettuce and chard and whatnot, it can make the difference. It’s not a long-term solution, but for early spring and fall?

  10. After 4 years of trying to grow vegetables in only 4-5 hours of afternoon sun (in the DC area) I finally admit that it’s just not possible to have a robust garden under those conditions. I’m intrigued by Marla’s mirror idea though. Is that actually successful?

    And Michele, I agree with your observations on the value of saving those trees: “…I’m not sure that the ecological value of trees versus vegetable garden is so easy to calculate.” Ever since you, Elizabeth (in a Mar 5, 2008 Garden Rant post), and your husband Jeff (in his RStone articles) introduced me to the writings of scientist James Lovelock, I have an entirely new way of looking at … well, at pretty much everything having to do with the planet and what’s “good” for it. I’m currently wending my way through “The Vanishing Face of Gaia.” A great read, if you don’t mind heart-stopping predictions about the near future, and a harsh dose of reality about the limits of human abilities. (And let’s not forget the heel-dragging of governments.) Lovelock always seems so cheerful about it all though, so matter of fact, almost reassuring–well he is 93 so what does he care? I’m so ga-ga over him that I’ve managed to make a handful of friends and relatives order me to stop talking about him.

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