Perhaps you have a few hours of full sunlight during long gloomy winters (like myself, in the north of the UK). Nonetheless, you do not want to give up on making an indoor garden a reality. Well, if you are not picky, which type of herbs you want to grow, creating an indoor garden is possible. Let’s dive-in!
Hence, what herbs can live in a low light environment? The following can also thrive with a small number of light-hours or/and lower intensity light:
- Cuban Oregano
- Golden Oregano
- Lemon balm;
- Myoga Ginger;
- Queen of the Prairie;
- Sweet woodruff
- Wild ginger
These herbs can either be maintained or thrive in a shaded environment. However, it is up to you to make this happen by also providing the right amount of water and adequate environment temperature. For more information on the matter, keep reading.
Light Condition: What is It and How To Measure it
There are two different ways by which gardeners define the light requirement for an herb (or any plant):
- The precise: The first one is quite precise and considers light intensity expressed in numbers that you can measure and compare with the reference one. Let’s call this approach the “Light Level” method.
- The more adopted: the second approach uses the generic terms of “full sun”, “partial sun”, “partial shade”, and “full shade”.
The two approaches are here used. However, you need to know what they both mean to avoid getting confused.
Let’s dive into some more explanation.
First Approach: Light-Level
As detailed in this scientific publication, the light level of any indoor space can be categorized as low, medium, high, very high. The same terminology is used to indicate the light requirements of any herb. The term “shade” is often used (or misused) to indicate a low to medium light level. Hence, an herb that does not need full sunlight for 8-10 hours a day. Although this is not a strict definition, it will help you when reading all those articles on “herb that can grow in the shade”.
Any herb (in the shade or not), to successfully grow requires you to match its light requirements with the light condition of your area (for more information have a look at the importance of grow light for plant). Remember that a low-light herb can thrive in medium or high-light environments (except a few exceptions).
However, the opposite does not apply. Take a high-light requiring herb (such as basil) and it will die or not develop (in the bast case) in a medium or low light environment.
Now, what does low, medium, high, and very high mean in practice? Well, scientifically speaking, the definition (from this university report) is as follows (where ft-c, foot-candle, and lux are unit of measure to tell how bright a light is):
- Low: 75 ft-c to 200 ft-c for good growth (270-2150 lux)
- Medium: 200 ft-c to 500 ft-c (2150-5380 lux)
- High: 500 ft-c – 1,000 ft-c (5380-10763 lux)
- Very high: 1,000+ ft-c (10763 lux+)
Yeah, I know your reaction. This information is useless if you do not have any instrument (called light meter) to measure the sunlight intensity. Luckily for you, light meters can be found quite inexpensively on Amazon (like this one, ideal for beginners).
Is there a way, even if approximated, to understand what the light level in a specific environment is without buying a light meter? Indeed, you might be on a budget, or only you are just starting and you do not want to spend money on it.
The answer is the “reading test,” suggested by Marlie Graves, 30+ years experienced indoor gardener. If you can read a standard book for only 10-15 minutes before your eyes/head start complaining, then the light level is low or very low.
If you can read and work comfortably (think about your living room or an office with a few windows), then the light level is likely to be medium. If you are in front of a south-oriented window from 10-11 am, that is a high-light level (in bright sky condition).
Finally, if you are outside on a clear-sky day during summer, you are under very-high light conditions. If you cannot even read a word on a book (ever, during the whole day), then the light-level is unacceptably low for any herbs.
I am aware that this test is quite empiric, but it can give you a clear idea of what light-levels correspond in practice.
Second Approach: Sun and Shade
This approach to quantifying the light intensity uses four levels based on the number of “direct” or non-direct (shade) sunlight hours.
Direct sunlight is when the herb is in a location where it can “see” directly the sun. The light goes from the sun to the plant without bouncing to another surface on its way.
On the other hand, indirect light is the one still produced by the sun, but that arrives at the plant by reflection. To understand, imagine having a plant in a windowsill from where you cannot see the sun as it is midday (sun upon your head). Despite not seeing the sun from the window, the room is not in darkness. That light is “indirect” light.
The four levels describing the light requirements for herbs, as defined by a horticultural professional, are as follows:
- Full sun: herbs in this category require at least 6 hours/daily of direct sunlight. This condition can be challenging to satisfy all year round in a closed environment without the use of artificial light;
- Light shade: this type of herbs require 4-5 hours of direct sunlight to live (and more hours to thrive) while the remaining 3-4 hours they can stay in the shade;
- Partial shade: this type of herbs can live with only 2-3 hours of direct light and in the shade (here is defined as not direct sunlight) for the remaining 4-5 hours;
- Full and dense shade: this refers to herbs that require only 1 hour or less (even nothing) of direct sunlight. These are plants that can survive exclusively in the shade.
As in the previous case, all the above definitions can also be used to describe the light conditions of your chosen growing area. Again, to successfully growing your herbs, you need to match the herb light requirements with the environment light condition.
The Shade Herbs: The Outliers
You are a notch ahead of many gardeners now that you know the basics of light levels and how to read them. You also learned that the term “shade” used by many is not accurate as the situation is way more complex. Indeed, it is not enough to know that your herb can thrive in shade. This is a too generic term. What you need to know is if your herb requires a low or medium-light level (or light, partial shade).
Hence, based on extensive research on authoritative sources, I summarized the light requirements of those 18 herbs that do not require full-sun (or high-light level). So you will allow you to understand better the herb requirements.
If you buy them in a nursery or supermarket they come with a label where the light requirements are indicated.
|Queen of the Prairie
Hence, as you can see in the table above, there is a difference between planting lovage or parsley. The former one can tolerate heavy shade while the latter would not survive with only 1-2 hours of direct sunlight a day.
You have to keep in mind this fact if you want your herbs to survive.
Last point: The above table above shows the minimum light requirements! Those at which your herb will survive but will not thrive or develop in a bush as it would do in a better condition. Hence, the bottom line here, any herb will be happier (except for a few exceptions) in full sun (6 to 8 hours of light).
Herbs To Avoid in Shade
Above you saw all those herbs that can be grown from light to deep shade conditions.
However, which are the other herbs that are a total not-to-go? Here a list of the most known:
- Basil: it will suffer if it does not receive 6 to 8 hours of sunlight. Indeed, it naturally grows in spring-summer to then die in winter although, inside, it can last way longer if the adequate light level (artificial) is provided;
- Oregano: differently from Cuban Oregano (also known as Mexican mint) this herb do require full 6 to 8 hours of sun as used to Mediterranean climate;
- Spike Lavender: this is a common variety of lavender that differently from its cousin might face a real struggle to survive in a not full-sun environment
- Caraway: this underrated edible herb, known primarily for its seed, requires at least 6 hours of full light;
- Dill: This perennial herb requires 8 hours of full light;
Part-Sun Shade Shrubs
A shrub (also known as a bush), is a short and bushy plant with so many leaves that you can hardly see most of its woody stems and branches.
Most shrubs require full sunlight and serve as hedges as well as decorative borders in gardens. At the same time, there are also several shrubs that can flourish in partial shade or in partial sunlight.
|Oakleaf hydrangea (Snow queen)
|Viburnum (Japanese snowball)
|Pink charm (mountain laurel)
|L. rhododendron ferrugineum
Shrubbery is greenery grown for ornamental or decorative purposes. A more practical gardener may, however, opt for vegetables that can be sold or cooked.
2. Part-Sun Shade Vegetables
If your garden is dedicated to growing vegetables, keep in mind that favorites such as beans, cucumbers, corn, peppers, peas, squash and tomatoes require full sunshine.
PRO TIP: If your veggie garden gets less than 6 hours of direct sunlight, try growing leafy green vegetables (mesclun greens, lettuce, Swiss chard, etc.) or root crops (beet, carrot, radish, and so on).
Moreover, here’s a list of favorite kitchen veggies that can be grown in a partially shaded or in a north-facing garden. Scientific names and links to photos are included for accuracy.
|Eruca vesicaria sativa
|Asparagus (Sparrow grass)
|Beet (beetroot, table beet, garden beet)
|Beta vulgaris conditiva
|Bok choy (Chinese cabbage, Chinese chard cabbage, Chinese mustard cabbage, spoon cabbage, celery mustard, Peking cabbage)
|Brassica rapa chinensis
|Brassica oleracea italica
|Brussels sprouts (spruitjes, choux de bruxelles)
|Brassica oleracea gemmifera
|Carrot (baby carrots, rots and tots, coddle)
|Daucus carota sativus
|Brassica oleracea botrytis
|Brassica oleracea capitata
|Kohlrabi (cabbage turnip, German turnip)
|Brassica oleracea gongylodes
|Lettuce (crisphead lettuce, iceberg lettuce)
|Mizuna (California peppergrass, Japanese greens, Japanese mustard, kyona, potherb mustard, shui cai, or spider mustard)
|Brassica rapa nipposinica
|Mustard greens (leaf mustard)
|Parsnip (racine blanche, chirivia, grand chervis)
|Pea (garden pea, green pea)
|Potato (white potato, sweet potato, tater)
|Rutabaga (neep, swede, Swedish turnip, or wax turnip)
|Scallions (green onion, spring onion, sibies)
|Swiss chard (beetroot, perpetual spinach, seakale beet, spinach beet, silver chard or silverbeet)
|Beta vulgaris vulgaris
|Tatsoi (rosette bok choy, spinach mustard or spoon mustard)
|Brassica rapa narinosa
|Turnip (rutabaga, neep)
|Brassica rapa rapa
Some gardens are devoted to beauty: ornamental plants with beautiful leaves come to mind. More commonly, however, it’s flowers that lighten our days.
3. Part-Sun Shade Flowers
If you’re a gardener focused on the joy of seeing flowers bloom in the sun, you’d be familiar with the colors of cosmos, dwarf canna lilies, daylilies, geraniums, marigolds, petunias, sunflowers and zinnias.
If you go for more exotic names of full-sunlight flowers, you’ve got angelonia, anise-hyssop, calibrachoa, celosia, cleome, coreopsis, echibeckia, gerbera, lantana, lisianthus, penta, purple coneflower, and the russian sage.
But then, again, if you happen to have a north-facing garden or one with less sunshine than usual, here are some examples of flowering plants that thrive in part-sun or part-shade environments.
|Astilbe (false goat’s beard or meadowsweet)
|Coral bell (alum root)
|Hardy fuchsia (Alice Hoffman, beacon, dollar princess, garden news, genii fuchsia, hawkshead, Heidi Ann, and Mrs Popple)
|Geranium (cranesbill, pelargonium, storkbill)
|Spiderwort (wandering jew, spiderlily)
|Touch-me-not (impatiens, jewelweed, snapweed, patience, balsam, busy lizzie)
|Sweet kate (golden spiderwort, blushing bride)
|Yellow fumitory (yellow larkspur, hollowort)
For those into adding an extra zest of flavoring to favorite dishes or for emergency treatments, an herb garden is a blessing.
5. Part-Sun Shade Fruits
If your gardening focus is more on fruits, you would tend towards growing sunlight-loving, fruit-bearing plants such as corn, cucumbers, cantaloupe, eggplant, peppers, squash, tomatoes and watermelons.
PRO TIP: Yes, 6 hours of direct sunlight is best for fruit veggies (beans, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, squash, tomatoes, and so on). However, this doesn’t mean continuous sunlight: 3 hours of morning sunlight and 3 hours of late afternoon sunlight would be fine.
But then again, there are many kinds of fruits you can grow in the partial sunlight or in dappled shade. Here are some examples.
|Cherry or gean
|Ribes uva crispa
|Rubus idaeus strigosus
Can You Use Artificial Light?
As you might have noticed, the majority of herbs can tolerate shade. Nonetheless, to really thrive and develop at their best, they require full sun (6 to 8 hours).
Hence, what to do if you live in a dark apartment, or you do not have a south-faced window, or a glooming winter with 2-3 hours is coming? Should you give up your dream of an edible herb garden? Not at all!
Indeed, you need to know that herbs (as well any plant) they do require light, not sunlight! Even though evolved, over millions of years with sunlight, they cannot differentiate the light depending on the source.
What herbs noticed (and are very picky with it) is the “quality” of the light. Without getting into much detail (for more, you can read this article), every light can be seen as an aggregation of different “elementary” light colors.
Herbs are very picky on the color component (they typically disregard green light and love blue/red light for different purposes). However, once two sources (like a bulb and sun) produce the same light components, plants cannot only tell the difference!
Hence, any herbs can grow as well (if not better) with artificial light! Indeed, different from sunlight, artificial light is way more reliable. Indeed, there are never clouds and you have full control on the number of hours it gets.
Of course, you cannot grow anything with a standard light bulb; you need the so-called “grow light”. However, nowadays, as you can notice in this article and this one, such light is getting cheaper and cheaper.
Lack of Light Exposure? Signs to Watch Out
Being able to recognize the first signs that your herbs are not receiving enough light is essential if you want to save them before too late!
First and foremost, light is vital for the plants to produce glucose to growth. Hence, from this basic fact, you can understand that in case of insufficient light, there will not be enough glucose. So, the growth of your herbs will be a stunt. New leaves will take longer to happier; they will be smaller compared to the older ones at the bottom of your plant.
Moreover, the plant, in an attempt to reach more sunlight, it will grow in height with fewer leaves. Hence, the distance between leaves on the same stem (also called internode) will increase.
The lack of light will also cause yellow leaves due to a reduction in the photosynthesis process. However, be cautious. Yellow leaves are a ubiquitous sign of plant distress that can be caused by a variety of different factors (such as lack of nitrogen, as explained in this article).
Hence, a little trick used by gardeners is to look at the side less exposed to the light of your herbs. If this is the one with the highest concentration of yellow/fade leaves, then the light is the issue. To address the problem, you can rotate the herb container, or you can try to opt for a different location or artificial light.
Beat in mind that an excessive lack of light for a long time will ultimately cause those yellow leaves to drop. This is not good as leaves are a nutrient factor for your herbs, so less leaves even slower growth.
Is an ordinary light bulb able to meet the light herb’s needs? No, a standard light bulb (either incandescent or fluorescent) does not provide the type of light components in an amount enough for the plant to fully develop. A grow light is needed
Is it possible to migrate an herb from the outdoor garden to indoors in a pot? Yes, and this is a recommended solution in many cases. Indeed, especially for seasonal changes, moving the plant indoor if will allow the plant the herb to stay in an environment with ideal temperature, humidity and light level as controllable.