Best Herbs for Shade
Give those impatiens a rest. Herbs are just the thing for partially shaded spots in the landscape. It’s true that most herbs are sun-loving plants. Yet over fifty per cent of the ten most popular culinary herbs do well in the shade.
Let herbs bring interesting textures and colors to those shady spots. Even when they aren’t in bloom they’ll provide wonderful foliage.
Feel free to mingle shade-loving herbs with annual and perennial flowers in shady garden beds. Herbs make excellent companion plants for other shade-loving favorites like hostas, ferns, and astilbes.
Choose herbs for those awkward places in the landscape. I grow them under and around the numerous black walnut trees in the back and side yards.
When planting herbs in the shade group them according to their water requirements. Ones preferring dry shade will require less water, so group them together. Otherwise you’ll be dragging a hose around to water just a few plants.
Of the shade-tolerant herbs some are perennials. These include mints, bee balm, chives, and garlic chives. Mints are known to be invasive. If this concerns you, don’t plant them. An alternative is to use appropriate means to confine their spreading roots. In my poor, dry soil this isn’t a problem.
Chives and garlic chives are related. The blades of chives tend to be round and blue-tinged, while those of garlic chives are flatter and pure green. The blossoms are also different in color. Those of garlic chives are white. Garlic chives can bloom so late here in the Northeast that they don’t always have time to produce seeds. For the best chives ever start with seeds from Renee’s Garden. She has introduced Fine Leaf chives. These remain tender and succulent throughout the season. Renee’s seeds are available at garden centers and from some mail order or online sources.
I’ve also had great luck growing thyme and sage in partial shade. I grow both the ordinary garden sage and ornamental variegated ones.
Oregano grows more vigorously in full sun. Yet it seems adapted to somewhat shady conditions.
Sweet woodruff, a popular perennial herb, is often used as a ground cover in shady areas. During the spring its dainty white fragrant blooms are a delight.
Anise hyssop thrives in part shade. Originally I was growing it in full sun. Later some self sown plants popped up in partial shade where they continue to thrive.
Best Herbs for the Shade
Parsley (Petroselinum neapolitanum / crispum)
Parsley is a Mediterranean herb that has become popular as a culinary herb in almost every part of the world. It is a biennial plant that grows a rosette of leaves in the first year and sends up a flower stalk the following year. However, it is often grown as an annual, with the leaves or the entire plant harvested for the table in the first year itself. The root can be used as a vegetable in stews and soups. The leaves act as a breath freshener when chewed. A poultice of the leaves can be applied to insect bites and bruises for pain relief.
Parsley comes in two varieties, the flat-leaved Italian parsley (Petroselinum neapolitanum) and its curly-leaved cousin (Petroselinum crispum). The more flavorful Italian parsley is commonly used in cooking while the crispy, beautifully ruffled leaves of the other are used for garnishing dishes.
Parsley needs moist soil rich in organic matter to do its best. Although it can grow in full sun, light shade is better for the lush growth of the leaves. The herb is grown from seeds, but it has a long germination period, thanks to the furanocoumarins present in the seed. Parsley thrives in USDA zones 5-9, preferring a temperature range of 70 to 85. However, it is very cold hardy, remaining green even in freezing temperatures.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
Commonly called Chinese parsley, this herb with intense flavor is loved by some, but hated by others, who reportedly feel a soapy taste. Cilantro is nothing but the annual plant that gives the spice coriander once it flowers and sets seeds. However, there is a world of difference between the fresh, slightly citrusy flavor of the leaves and the spicy-sweet seeds.
Coriander belongs to the same Apiaceae family as the Italian parsley, and has similar growth habits and cultural requirements. It is easily grown from seeds, and thrives in rich, moist soil containing plenty of humus. The older leaves can be harvested regularly as the plant develops more tender leaves from center of the rosette, or the entire plant can be pulled up and used finely chopped.
Cilantro can be grown in USDA zones 4-10. Although it can grow in full sun where ample soil moisture is present, there is the risk of the plant bolting––or developing flower stalk that marks the end of its vegetative growth. It also results in bitter leaves. Partial shade helps maintain the taste and flavor of the herb and ensures a steady crop of larger leaves.
This perennial, clump-forming herb is a member of the onion family, but its leaves, rather than the underground bulbs, are used in cooking. The leaves are thin and grass-like, and impart a mild, onion-like flavor to soups, potato and egg dishes. The pretty little flowers that come in purplish pink can be used as an edible garnish. Chives may aid digestion and relieve gas. Its presence may act as a deterrent to many garden pests
Chives can be successfully grown in USDA zones 3-10. Start it from seeds or by divisions of the clumps. Once established, they faithfully come back year after year, enlarging their clumps in the process. Rich, well-drained soil is ideal, although they can survive in less than ideal conditions too. They prefer some moisture in the soil, but waterlogging should be avoided.
Chives can thrive in full sun, but light shade, especially during the afternoon, is preferred. Shade-grown chives may not develop as many flowerheads, but that is a good thing since self-seeding is a big problem with this herb. Snip off the lower leaves and any flowers that come up.
Mint (Mentha spp.)
Common mint with its bright green, quilted leaves and fresh aroma and flavor is a delight to have in the garden. It should be ideally planted close to the house and along walkways where its fresh fragrance can be enjoyed every time someone brushes against it. However, many gardeners prefer to grow this perennial herb in containers since its spreading habit can be a nuisance.
Mint is easily propagated from seeds and cuttings, and thrives well in well-drained, moist soil. You can find mints that grow in any USDA zone. For instance, Peppermint ( Mentha x piperita) is ideal for USDA zones 3 to 8, while Spearmint (M. spicata) is perfect for zone 5 to 9 and above. Mint likes light shade, especially when grown in warmer areas. It tends to grow leggy, but frequent pruning helps the herb remain bushy. It will give you plenty of leaves to make digestive teas and pretty garnishes for years to come.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
There are several types of thyme, but the commonly cultivated variety is the English thyme. It has a highly branching and spreading hab, and bears tiny leaves and pink or purple flowers. The spicy flavor of thyme is welcome in many meat dishes. It is especially good with vegetables like cabbage that have a strong taste and flavor. Sprigs of fresh thyme form part of bouquet garni, but you can use just the leaves and discard the woody stems.
Thyme grows well almost anywhere, and can be cultivated as a perennial up to USDA zone 9. It can survive drought and light freezes, but requires some protection in winter. It does well in sunny locations, but prefers some shade, especially in warmer areas. It forms a neat groundcover around the bases of trees in the garden, enjoying the shade.
If you start with a sprig planted in spring, it will soon spread to form an aromatic carpet, providing you with more herb than you can use up. But the leaves can be frozen or dried for winter use. Frequent pruning keeps the plants healthy and green.
Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
It is another shade-loving herb preferring cultural conditions similar to Angelica. However, it is a ground hugging perennial plant that can be enjoyed closer home. They are usually grown for the air-freshening smell of the pretty leaves and the pure white, starry flowers that can brighten up the darkest corners of the garden.
Sweet Woodruff can be grown from seeds or divisions in USDA zones 4-8 and overwintered with some amount of protection. Give it a shady location with rich, well-draining soil and it will soon send out runners to cover the entire area with sweet-smelling ground cover.
Use Sweet woodruff in small quantities to flavor soups, syrups and wine, or for making a relaxing tea. A poultice of the leaves can be applied on sprains, hemorrhoids, and swollen joints to get pain relief.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
This herb gives the ginger root used as a spice in cooking and as a medicinal herb to treat nausea and digestive problems. The ginger root is actually a branching rhizomatous underground stem which send out top growth every now and then.
Ginger is a woodland plant of the tropics, and it can be grown successfully as a perennial in USDA zones 9-12. Elsewhere, treat it as an annual, providing a warm, sheltered location. It is propagated by division of the rhizomes.
When planted in early spring, with at least one or two growing buds or ‘eyes’ to every section, they sprout new leaves in a few week’s time. Mulch it well to keep in moisture and provide warmth. The plants complete their growth by the end of fall, the leaves dying out naturally. The rhizomes can be dug up and stored in a cool place to be used as fresh herb, or dried to make ginger root powder.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
This European native has become naturalized in many parts of the United States and has come to be known as Queen of the Prairie. The large, feathery clusters of flowers that appear from June to August are quite charming, but the herb is mainly grown for its sweet-smelling leaves and shoots.
The leaves and stem can be used to flavor jams and jellies, wines and vinegars. The plant has medicinal properties too, thanks to its high salicylic acid content. In fact, this plant extract was the original basis for the preparation of acetyl salicylic acid which came to be known as aspirin. A tea of the leaves or flowers can be used to relieve headaches, but shouldn’t be given to children, asthmatics and those who are allergic to aspirin.
Grow Meadowsweet in moist and shady locations in USDA zones 2-8. It prefers rich soil with good amounts of compost added to it.
Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
Anise is a European herb that has become a favorite all over the world. It is a delightful plant with lacy, aromatic leaves and large umbels of white flowers, ideal for growing in the shade garden. The leaves can be used as a flavoring herb and the fennel-like seeds as a spice in many sweet and savory dishes.
You can grow it in USDA zones 4-9, but the seeds have to be sown in situ because the seedlings do not like to be transplanted once they start developing the taproot. Start them as early as possible in well-drained soil in a shady spot because they need at least 4 months of warmth to complete flowering and produce anise seeds.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
This aromatic herb with a lemony scent has both medicinal and culinary uses. The leaves can be used to flavor fish and chicken, but since it loses most of the flavor in cooking, you should add them towards the end of the cooking process. Leaves can be used as a garnish for cold drinks and salads. Medicinal uses include a digestive tea made by steeping leaves in warm water. It can control bloating and vomiting. The calming tea relieves a headache and restlessness too.
Grow lemon balm in rich, moist soil. It loves sun and warmth, but it can thrive in partial shade as well. It can be grown as a perennial in USDA zone 9-10, but may not survive cold winters elsewhere unless overwintered indoors or under heavy mulch. Frequent pruning keeps the plant bushy and prevents early flowering.