Urban Shade Gardens: Tips On Urban Gardening In Low Light

Urban Shade Gardens: Tips On Urban Gardening In Low Light

By: Liz Baessler

If you garden in an urban area, space isn’t the only thing getting in your way. Limited windows and shadows cast by tall buildings can seriously cut down on the kind of light that is essential for so many things to grow. While you may not be able to grow everything you dream of, there are plenty of plants that will grow with only a couple of hours of light a day. Keep reading to learn more about plants for low light gardens.

Urban Shade Garden

Urban gardening in low light isn’t difficult with the right plants. Herbs are perfect for city gardens in shade, particularly indoors. They are one of the easiest things to grow in low light, and they also grow very well in containers. As a bonus, they’re just the kind of plant you want to keep close by: cooking is a joy when you can snip fresh herbs right in your kitchen.

Hard-leafed herbs, like lavender and rosemary, really need a lot of light to grow. Soft-leafed herbs, however, thrive with just a few hours of light per day. These include:

  • Chives
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Tarragon
  • Cilantro
  • Lemon balm
  • Mint

Mint, in particular, will grow very well even in low light and should be kept in a separate pot from your other herbs, so it doesn’t muscle them out.

More Plants for Low Light Gardens

If you have very little light, you’re going to have a hard time growing flowers. A few exceptions, though, include:

  • Impatiens
  • Begonias
  • Astilbe

As far as vegetables go, basically any leafy green can be grown in low light. Stick to varieties with many branched leaves, however, opting for loose-leaf lettuce over head lettuce. Radishes work well too, though it’s there that low light root vegetables stop. Other varieties will yield strange, leggy, sickly-looking roots.

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Cottage style in a city garden

Aren’t cottage gardens romantic? With lovely, billowy flowers wild, pollinator-attracting plants and a wholly untamed and untouched feel to the design, You could say that cottage gardens are the eptiome of what nature intended for our backyards.

However, what with this garden style being so associated with rural living, it might seem like it’s unachievable in an urban garden – especially since two million British homes do not have a garden at all, with balconies, window boxes or houseplants serving as their only link with nature. In this blog post, I’ll show you how you can bring the cottage garden style to any size garden, in any location!

A quick way to achieve the cottage garden style



The Dry Garden

During most of the twentieth century, garden style in the Pacific Northwest was heavily dependent upon supplemental summer water. Lush lawns as well as thirsty perennial borders demanded irrigation. More recently, there has been a movement toward more water-wise methods. Irrigation is expensive, and more and more people are discovering they can save money and still have a beautiful garden by choosing plants that survive on just the water that falls from the sky.


How do you layout a small garden?

If your want to change your small garden layout, start by looking at the existing space. ‘Look at what plants are thriving and think about where the sun falls,’ advises Katrina Wells of Earth Designs.

‘If you like having the gang round for dinner, for example, you’ll probably want to position your dining table and chairs where it’s sunny. If it’s a lunchtime gathering, you’ll need some shade too. Also is there any dead space? Or a shed keeping your garden in the shade for half the day?’

Next, consider its upkeep. ‘Think really carefully about how much time you are willing to dedicate to maintaining the space,’ says London-based garden designer Charlotte Rowe. ‘If you’re time poor, more hard landscaping and sturdier plants will require much less attention than a lawn and beds with complex planting.’

Paving and gravel courtyards are still popular, while concrete is right on trend.


On the ground floor of a Brooklyn townhouse is a rental apartment. To provide privacy for both tenants and landlords, garden designer and Gardenista contributor Lindsey Taylor created soft screening with lightweight fiberglass boxes planted with Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’.

“Located on a quiet block in Brooklyn, the brownstone was designed so the entire back wall, on both the parlor and ground floors, opens to the yard,” writes Lindsey Taylor. For more, see Garden Visit: At Home in Brooklyn Heights with Artists Maria Robledo and Holton Rower.


Little City Gardens: Growing an Urban Micro-Farm

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A year ago, my business partner, Caitlyn Galloway, and I started Little City Gardens. We grow salad greens, braising greens, and culinary herbs in the heart of San Francisco, which we sell to a restaurant, caterers, and individual subscribers. Little City Gardens is a lot of things: a market-garden, a small business struggling to succeed, and an experiment in the viability of urban micro-farming. We started the business with a desire to apply ourselves to the redesign of our local foodshed. We wanted to grow produce in the city and sell it. And, crucially, we wanted to be paid for our work.

When we started in the spring of 2009, the economy had crashed and was declining and our employment opportunities seemed scarce. Very few urban farming jobs existed in San Francisco and the slim pickings were between garden educator and edible landscaper positions. We wanted to manage a farm, build soil, test crop rotations, and develop relationships with customers. We determined that our most exciting option was to see if we could create exactly the urban farming jobs that we wanted for ourselves. Generating one’s own employment seemed challenging but timely.

From the very beginning, we conceptualized Little City Gardens as an experiment, designed around a simple question: Can two people earn a living wage from the cultivation and sales of vegetables within the city of San Francisco? We both had solid backgrounds in the field. We’d been employed on farms and done apprenticeship programs. As far as business skills, marketing and management, we knew we would be climbing a steep learning curve.

We asked ourselves why San Francisco—an urban center enchanted with farmers’ markets, CSAs, and food foraging–did not already have existing, successful, urban micro-farm businesses that we could model. Although quite hopeful, we were not entirely naïve we saw clearly the challenges and obstacles that stood before us and other prospective urban farmers.

In light of the monopoly that corporate agribusiness, in tandem with the U.S. government, has over the economic framework of our food supply, it could seem that we would not even stand a chance. Food is cheap and for the many folks living below the poverty line, it must remain cheap. The labor employed by agribusiness, the soil fertility, and the mechanisms of distribution all come at an artificially low price. The economic dominance of agribusiness is built largely on the backs of an immigrant labor force, which is politically disempowered, paid miserably, and mistreated. Agribusiness is also dependent on the use of petrochemical fertilizers and other ecologically devastating industrial technology. We ask ourselves regularly: How can our farm, microscopic even in comparison to small organic farms, flourish under such an entrenched and heavy weight?

We are hedging our bets upon a community that is already starting to step forward and meet us, willing to pay a higher price while we establish ourselves and begin to demonstrate the benefit of our farm’s existence. We are banking on creativity. There must be hundreds of iterations of the popular CSA model that have yet to be employed. The city has assets that a farm can leverage: People and resources are densely congregated, the farm is permeable and proximate to its market, and transportation costs are greatly reduced. Many aspects of city living and materials going into the waste stream that currently make the city undesirable could be utilized towards the success of an urban farm.

Small business is our activist medium. Our approach to growing the urban agriculture movement is based upon the premise that urban food production will not reach its full potential unless there are avenues in the local market economy for growers to make a living through the sales of their produce. Currently, San Francisco’s urban agriculture is largely anchored in the realms of education and non-profit work. While a substantial amount of food can be grown—and is being grown by skilled and passionate home gardeners, school gardeners, and employees of education-based, food-justice non-profit organizations—the quantity pales in comparison to what could be grown if farmers could earn a living wage through the cultivation and sales of food in the city. We believe that the city will not see a radical burgeoning of productive urban farms, from the ground up, unless potential farmers see a realistic opportunity to employ themselves through the pursuit.

Collectively, I am sure we have the skills to build an abundant movement. I know from experience and association that I am part of a growing rank of young entrants into agriculture. We are passionate about working towards equitable food systems. Many of us would love to apply ourselves to urban food production, if employment opportunities were more abundant. I also suspect that some of the many immigrants to our city, displaced from their countries by the harsh economic realities caused by global trade policies, identify as farmers. At the very least, I suspect that many have agricultural backgrounds and knowledge. At present, the agricultural sector offers few opportunities other than the role of seasonal farm laborers. What if some of the immigrant members of our community saw a means to self-employment through utilizing and sharing their distinctive agricultural skills?

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If there were more visible, functional, self-sufficient urban micro-farming business models that could serve as examples or dispensaries of advice, and if the economic/political will was slightly more hospitable, I believe countless people from diverse backgrounds would follow suit. I believe we would see collectivized backyard farms and food growing in public parks. No vacant lot, schoolyard, field, or median strip would be left under-utilized. There isn’t as much open space here as in a shrinking city like Detroit, but the population of San Francisco is crafty, competent and willful.

Little City Gardens has a business plan and we are doing our research. But we know we have a lot to learn through trial and error. Only through attempting will we discover if we can carve a rewarding space in the local market economy for ourselves. Only through modeling will we be able to encourage others to become urban farmers. If we succeed, we will know what have been the factors that contribute to success. We will have concrete ideas about what other cultural shifts or new legislation could help more people be successful urban farmers. If it becomes prohibitively challenging, we will know the obstacles which restrict urban agriculture from flourishing in San Francisco.

Our ideas will remain impractical and marginal, unless we test them and push them beyond the boundaries of skepticism. Little City Gardens is our gesture at moving the dialogue forward with determination and hope.

*As an experimental business, Little City Gardens does not have access to bank loans so we are raising money to cover the start-up and infrastructural costs of a new market-garden.

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  1. Use recommended varieties for your area of the state.
  2. Sample soil and have it tested every 2 to 3 years.
  3. Apply preplant fertilizer to the garden in the recommended amount.
  4. Examine your garden often to keep ahead of potential problems.
  5. Keep the garden free of insects, diseases and weeds.
  6. Use mulches to conserve moisture, control weeds and reduce ground rots.
  7. Water as needed, wetting soil to a depth of 6 inches.
  8. Thin when plants are small.
  9. Avoid excessive walking and working in the garden when the foliage and soil are wet. 1
  10. Wash your garden tools and sprayer well after each use. 11. Keep records on garden activities.

  1. Depend on varieties not recommended for your area, but do try limited amounts of new releases.
  2. Plant so closely that you cannot walk or work in the garden.
  3. Cultivate so deeply that plant roots are injured.
  4. Shade small plants with taller growing crops.
  5. Water excessively or in late afternoon.
  6. Place fertilizer directly in contact with plant roots or seeds.
  7. Allow weeds to grow large before cultivating.
  8. Apply chemicals or pesticides in a haphazard manner or without reading the label directions.
  9. Use chemicals not specifically recommended for garden crops.
  10. Store leftover diluted spray

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