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Can You Grow Tomatoes in Partial Sun?

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Ripe red tomato growing on the vine.

If you love the idea of growing tomatoes in your garden but your garden doesn’t get full sunlight, then you might have wondered if you can grow tomatoes in partial sun. Is full sun really necessary for growing tomatoes? Can you get away with just having partial sun and still be able to enjoy harvesting tomatoes from your garden?

These questions are ones that apply to me, too, because my garden space is definitely lacking a bit in the sunshine department. The only part of my yard that gets anywhere close to full sun is part of the front yard. I do have a small garden area in the front yard now that I recently added, but for several years I was gardening in just the back and side yard with only partial sun. For most of the growing season those partial sun areas only get about 5 hours of sun at the most. And even with that lower sunlight I’ve still been able to grow tomatoes in partial sun with a few caveats.

So, in my own experience the simple answer to the question of whether or not you can grow tomatoes in partial sun is, yes . . . sort of. For years I’ve been growing tomatoes in partial shade because that was the space available for me for growing them, and I didn’t want to give up on tomatoes entirely just because I didn’t have the optimal amount of sunlight for growing them. My level of success has been better some years than others, and some of that is because of other factors like too much rain, soil issues, and a pesky resident groundhog. But, overall, I’ve gotten enough of a tomato harvest for me to feel like it’s still worth it for me to grow tomatoes.

When you’re growing tomatoes in partial shade you have to kind of lower your expectations a bit and not expect the same level of bountiful harvest that you would be able to get if you had full sun. So, if your goal with growing tomatoes is to be able to have enough tomatoes to make all of your own pasta sauce for the year then you might have a hard time reaching that goal with partial sunlight unless you have a lot of space and are able to grow a lot of tomato plants. But if you just want some tomatoes for snacking on throughout the growing season then it’s definitely do-able to still grow some tomatoes even if you don’t have full sunlight.

So if you really want to grow tomatoes but you don’t have any part of your yard that gets full sun, then you don’t have to give up on the idea of growing tomatoes completely. You just have to be prepared for lesser yields from your tomato plants and use a few other strategies to get the most success possible out of your partial sun garden. These four tips below are ones that can help to maximize your tomato harvest even if you only have partial sun.

4 Tips for Growing Tomatoes Without Full Sun

1) Plant More Tomato Plants to Make Up the Difference

This tip may or may not be as practical for you depending on how much space you have in your garden, but the basic idea is that growing more tomato plants will help you to still get a decent harvest of tomatoes even though your plants aren’t getting the full sun that would be ideal for them. Since each tomato plant will most likely produce less tomatoes in partial sun than it would if you were growing it in full sun, growing more tomato plants will give you a better chance of getting the amount of tomatoes that you were hoping to get.

The number of tomato plants that you need will depend a lot on how many people you are growing the tomatoes for and how many tomatoes you think you will actually want to eat. Basically, though, if your garden space only gets partial sun, it’s probably a good idea to get a couple of extra plants to help to make up for the lack of sunlight. So if you think that four plants would be a good number for your family size, then you might want to get six instead if you don’t have full sunlight.

2) Pick Early Maturing Varieties

It’s also a good idea to check out the maturity date on the seed packets you are using (if you are starting your own seeds indoors) or the days to maturity on the tag that comes with your seedling if you are buying already started tomato plants. Since having less sunlight could slow down the growth of your tomato plants a bit, picking a variety of tomato that matures early will give you a better chance of having a good tomato harvest.

So rather than picking a tomato variety that matures in 80 days, if you picked one that matures in 70 or even in 60 days you’ll be giving yourself some extra time to make up for having less sunlight. If your favorite variety is one of the slower-maturing ones, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still try to grow that variety, but you just might not get as many tomatoes overall as you would with a faster maturing variety.

3) Grow Cherry or Grape Tomatoes

I’ve found that in my garden, I have a much bigger harvest of the cherry and grape-sized tomatoes. I still do grow a few larger heirloom tomato varieties, but I’ve noticed that I have more success overall with the cherry and grape varieties. Since I’ve realized that, I’ve included more smaller tomatoes in my garden lately. Some of the ones I’ve grown are Yellow Pear, Red Pear, and Hartman’s Yellow Gooseberry, and this year I’m adding Riesentraube to the list. Those are just the ones that I pick because I enjoy planting 19th century heirloom varieties in my garden and I love the historical connection, but there are tons of other great cherry and grape tomatoes that you can pick from, too.

I’ve also found that medium-sized tomatoes work pretty well. One of my favorites that has done well in my garden is another 19th century heirloom called Garden Peach. And an old early 19th century variety called Large Red really isn’t really as large as its name makes it sound. It might have been large by 19th century standards, but it’s really a more medium-sized tomato, and it has also done well in my garden. Again, I’m sure there are lots of other good tomatoes that are on the smaller side that could work in a partial sun area, but I’ve just focused specifically on the older historical heirlooms in my garden.

If one of your favorite tomato varieties is a bigger slicing tomato, though, I’m not trying to say that you can’t still try to grow some of those in partial sun, but you might just have to lower your expectations a bit for the amount of tomatoes that you will be able to grow.

4) Healthy Soil

Another really important strategy for trying to grow tomatoes in partial sun rather than in full sun is to optimize the health of your soil as much as you possibly can. Since your tomato plants will already be at a bit of a disadvantage by not having full sun, you don’t want to make it even more challenging for them to grow by putting them in poor soil, too.

So as much as possible you want to have soil that is healthy with plenty of organic matter and nutrients. Compost is a great addition to your garden whether you make your own compost pile or buy bagged compost from a garden center. It’s also a good idea to add some fertilizer to your garden, too. I prefer to use natural fertilizers that are meant for use in organic gardens, and there are some fertilizers that are geared specifically for growing tomatoes. Or, if you are going to be growing other types of vegetables in your garden and you don’t want to have to buy more than one type of fertilizer, you can always just get an all-purpose type of fertilizer, too.

Getting a soil test done is a good way to really know exactly what your soil needs, but if you don’t have enough time to do that before the growing season starts or don’t want to spend the money for a soil test, then you can stick with adding compost to your garden and maybe a well-balanced fertilizer that doesn’t have too much of any one nutrient so you won’t have to worry about over-doing it with nitrogen or phosphorus, etc.

By adding some good compost and fertilizer to your soil to make sure that your plants have the nutrients that they need you can help to counteract some of the challenges that your tomato plants will be facing with having less sunlight and hopefully increase your tomato harvest, too.

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Ripe red tomato growing on the vine.
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.

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