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Choose Wisely

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There are easy-to-grow edibles for just about every setting; just be sure to choose plants suited to your growing conditions if you hope to reap the fruits of your labor. A lot of fruits and vegetables do need a full day of sun, but there are a surprising number of edibles that will do OK with only a half day of sun, or even bright indirect light. Full sun may be optimal for many plants, but there’s no harm in trying to push the (seed) envelope, at least a little.

If you’ve got space constraints, there are dwarf varieties of nearly every edible you can think of, including dwarf fruit trees that are compact enough to thrive even in a container. And some varieties of vegetables are just naturally more compact; read the seed catalog descriptions or consult your friendly neighborhood nursery grower, like Silver Heights Farm’s Trina Pilonero, who’s at the Union Square Greenmarket twice a week during the growing season with a wonderful selection of rare, heirloom seedlings suited to small spaces.
Here are some general guidelines to help you choose wisely:


~ Fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplants prefer full sun, as do beans and peas.

~ Root vegetables such as carrots, radishes, turnips, and beets can tolerate more shade.

~ Salad greens and brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, bok choi, collards, kale, mustard, etc.) can get away with even less light. So, even if you’ve only got a not-so-sunny windowsill, you can grow a patch of lettuce, spinach, arugula, cress, chard, or any number of exotic Asian greens.


~Basil and cilantro do best in full sun, but there are plenty of other herbs that will do OK in part shade—mint, especially, but you can also try parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, chamomile, lemon balm, and borage, which has gorgeous blue edible flowers. Sweet woodruff is one herb that thrives in shade and makes a great groundcover.

~ Nasturtiums are the ultimate ornamental edible; not only are the flowers gorgeous and tasty, but you can use the leaves just as you would watercress--because nasturtiums are, in fact, a member of the cress family. They prefer full sun but can take part shade, and there’s a nasturtium for every garden: low mounding varieties that are perfect for containers; sprawling climbers for fences and trellises, and everything in-between. If you only have room to grow one plant, this is the one to grow.


~ Most fruit trees and vines will have better yields in full sun, but apples, pears, and some cherries and plums can bear fruit in partial shade. Hardy kiwi vines prefer full sun but can tolerate afternoon shade in hot climates.

~ Many kinds of berries can handle a half day or so of shade, especially if they get good morning sun: raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, strawberries, jostaberries, and gooseberries. Currants do well with a fair amount of shade, too.

~ Alpine strawberries tolerate more shade than their larger cousins—after all, they’re a woodland plant. They make a great groundcover or edging plant and produce small, intensely sweet berries. They also do well in containers. Plant one of the white or yellow varieties if you want to baffle the birds—they think the berries aren’t ripe yet, and so don’t bother to steal them.

~ The paw paw is that rare fruit tree that grows well in light shade. It’s native to North America, but most folks have never tasted a paw paw because the fruit is too delicate to ship. It reportedly tastes like banana custard.


~ Most nut trees require a fair amount of space, but dwarf hazelnut trees are a small, graceful shrub you can even grow in a container.


Lastly, some of the best edibles in your garden will surely be the weeds you didn’t plant. Purslane, lamb’s quarters, dandelions, stinging nettles, and burdock are some of the most nutritious and delicious plants around, whether you grow them on purpose or by accident. That’s why city folks shell out $3 at the Greenmarket for the same vegetation that's routinely banished from suburban lawns for being an invasive nuisance. Memo to Westchester weed-whackers: don't get mad, get Steven! Get up to speed on your weeds with NYC’s famous forager, Wildman Steve Brill.