Befriending Broadleafs: Our Garden’s Beloved Shade Makers

In recent seasons I have been gaining more love and respect for our broadleaf herbaceous friends. Besides having epic statures and stunning leaves, they have been helping us in our gardening efforts.

Specifically I am encouraging broadleaf plants in our gardens. Broadleaf refers to plants that have fairly wide leaves, or at least noticeably wider than average. That often means the leaves are longer too.

In old English these type of broadleaf plants were referred to as docks. Dock means herbaceous plant with big leaves. That’s why some plants have dock included in their common names. Like yellow dock or burdock for example.

I am allowing broadleaf plants to go to seed in our gardens when they do not interfere with other plants that I am cultivating. I am also collecting and broadcasting seeds of broadleaf plants in disturbed soils and especially on edges.

The broader the leaf the better!

Broad leaves cast more shade on the soil beneath them. This has a lot of healthy benefits like keeping the soil more moist and offering tons of habitat to insects. But my favorite reason for encouraging more shade is that they block weeds beneath them. Specifically broadleaf plants help shade out grass.

Grass is one of the most pulled plants in our gardens because once grass establishes, especially grass with rhizomous roots, its harder to dig up.

Most weeds are relatively easy to dig or pull when needed, so we allow most weeds to grow in our gardens when we are not using the soil and then pull them as needed to plant things, or trim them back to keep them from shading a small plant we don’t want to get covered.

I call weeds nature’s cover crop. That’s great! I’m a lazy gardener and I don’t want to seed cover crops. And plus, nature knows exactly what plants the soil needs right now!

I am a self proclaimed lover of weeds and in the same breath I’ll also admit that grass is one of the plants I pull regularly out of our garden’s soil. But I love grass. This season I am growing corn, wheat, rice and pearl millet – four different species of grass right there.

Wild grass grows so effortlessly outside of our garden too, in marginal soil no less, and thrives where many other plants fail to even grow. I appreciate the grass’ tenacity and resilience. Grass has a lot of wisdom to offer to us gardeners.

So while I pull grass from garden spaces I also love grass. Its a grateful kind of weeding where I offer my love, respect and admiration of the grass I am pulling rather than cursing the chore it makes me do.

Meanwhile, I am discovering that the larger our gardens become, the harder it is to manage grass and other weeds by hand, at least the way I had been doing it before in smaller garden spaces. tending a larger garden encourages me to be creative with the way I interact with plants and design garden spaces.

Every season I am a beginning gardener again. At least in the moments when I am able to humble myself and enjoy the truth that I don’t know too much about gardening I open up space for to learn something new. So when I started hanging out with broadleaf plants, it turns out they had a lot to teach me about gardening more naturally and effortlessly.

Specifically in relation to this article, the broadleaf herbaceous plants, especially biennials and short lived perennials often have a built in ability to block grass from growing directly under them. And they do it very well!

Here are a few of the broadleaf friends that I’ve been allying with lately:

Daikon Radish

Daikon radishes in flower covering horse manure and preventing grass from growing. They were broadcast sown during winter and grew with zero irrigation. They are flowering in the summer.

Daikon is an annual lauded in permaculture circles for having a huge taproot that will decompose after it dies and create more underground organic matter. While this is true, I’ve found that the soil needs to be fairly rich in organic matter, if not regularly moist, for the daikon to make a large root.

While the daikon is not practical in our thinner, drier clay soils, I am seeing how it can help build soil on the edges between thin and rich soils. I am also seeding daikon on top of horse manure which helps keep the grass from fully occupying that space.

Daikon radishes enjoy cool weather and when sown early in the season they will have a chance to grow their huge leaves before flowering.

Daikon flowers offer abundant beauty and the roots offer food when harvested before the plant starts to send up its flower stalk.


Mullein shading our raised beds and preventing grass from growing under its large leaves. When the mullein start flowering the biennial stalks will be harvested for medicine/food. When tending the raised bed bare feet the soft mullein leaves are a joy to stand on.

To me Mullein is the plant that offers what many permaculturalists promise daikon would offer. Because mullein is drought tolerant and thrives in thin or rich soils alike, I am surprised it is not more popular. Mullein has a high honor in and around our gardens. With incredibly large leaves mullein easily shades the soil around it even in droughty conditions and the thinnest of soils. Given some fertility and moisture mullein explodes into growth. Mullein’s roots really do drill down into dry, hard soils that daikon can’t touch.

Even mullein with its massive root can be relatively easily pulled up from a rich garden soil. But whenever possible I will leave the root to decompose and build organic matter and habitat for the soil food web.

I really appreciated seeing how mullein found some space to grow around some of our new raised beds. They shad the soil around the raised beds and their leaves even offer some shade to the raised beds themselves to keep them a bit cooler. When I am barefoot my feet enjoy and appreciate the soft fuzzy leaves.

When the mullein stalks grow skyward in their second year and start to flower I will harvest some of them to dry for our medicine and herbal infusions. Mullein leaves are incredibly mineral and protein rich and are known for building lung strength and health.

Other mulleins will be allowed to set seed. Some of the seed heads will be shaken over new areas where we want them to grow! Mullein seems to take best in disturbed soils but we will sometimes find mullein babies growing in some grass that isn’t too thick.

Clary Sage

Clary sage branches tightly and the wide leaves cast lots of shade preventing grass from growing underneath.

Clary sage has been winning my heart lately as well. Similar to mullein, clary sage has huge soft leaves and also shades grass up to a good 3-4 foot diameter. Clary sage also reseeds incredibly well and we often find clary sage babies growing right in the grass around their mama. Clary sage is also drought hardy and needs little irrigation to thrive in the right conditions, but will explode in lush growth with even modest levels of moisture.

Clary sage is a short lived perennial living for 2-5 years depending on the conditions. I am so impressed how well clary sage blocks grass from growing that I am actually actively transplanting clary sage babies to a garden fence line where I spend at least several hours a season pulling out grass.

On the other side of the fence is dense grass. I have been using old roofing panels to block the grass on the other side of the fence but the grass still comes in vivaciously by rhizome and seed.

My hope is that by allying with clary sage on this border it will prevent the need for those roofing panels and reduce the time I spend pulling grass. I’ll likely end up pulling more clary sage seedlings instead, but they are way easier to pull than rhizomous grass.

Clary sage makes many seeds that are much like chia seeds but larger. I look forward to growing enough clary sage plants that we can harvest bulk seed to use in our cooking in place of chia, especially as a jam thickener and in our granola, but I’m sure we’ll find other fun ways to eat clary sage seeds. For now I am scattering seeds where we want more clary sage to grow and establish and in another season or two we’ll start collecting more for food.

Clary sage is also medicinal and I look forward to exploring those qualities in the future. Another reason to ally with clary sage is the beauty! The leaves have an amazing visual texture, they are soft to the touch and the flowers are gorgeous.

Broadleaf Sorrel

Several broadleaf sorrel plants in a row. Each one is clumping and blocks other plants from growing underneath. That’s compounded by planting several plants shoulder to shoulder.

Broadleaf sorrel or garden sorrel is a perennial herb that grows in a clump. Its long leaves are vibrant and lush and ideally harvested for food early in the season as well as in the late fall. In the summer heat french sorrel sends flower stalks high above their leaves and create beautiful bronze colored seedheads.

Broadleaf sorrel grows really well in the garden where it receives adequate moisture. The densely clumping leaves do really well to block grass on borders. I planted a short row of garden sorrel on the edge of a pathway. While I didn’t do a great job of keeping the pathway clear of rhizomous grass, the sorrel blocked that grass from getting past it into the garden bed.

We love the sour taste of sorrel leaves sliced thinly sparingly in salads and we especially love including handfuls in soups or stews and cooking it neutralize the sour oxalic acid and release more minerals. Sorrel pesto is also delicious! We also save sorrel seeds. Once separated from their husks the seeds are shiny, triangular, beautiful, nutty and delicious.

Perennial Kale

Perennial kale’s huge leaves cast a lot of shade. There are 3 or 4 plants here with lots of branches and they are shading the soil directly under it where not much can grow.

Our family adores perennial kale for the food value, its beauty and the ease of gardening. We eat a lot of kale so its nice to grow a perennial kale which will live for about 3-5 years.

The first year perennial kale grows like any other kale with a single central trunk. Then in year two the kale starts branching takes on quite a large foot print up to 3-5 feet wide!

Depending how much you harvest, or don’t harvest, the many branches and massive kale leaves will shade the soil below it. In many cases we have perennial kale with little to no weeds or grass growing underneath.

When we grow multiple perennial kales side by side they occupy and shade the whole space for several years making weed management very easy. And they also reseed readily which can keep that pattern going fairly indefinitely if you let it!

Want to learn more about perennial kale and how we garden, cook and design with it? Signup for our free Homesteader’s plant profile for Perennial Kale here. Its packed with info, facts and inspiration!

These are not the only broadleaf plants that we grow but they are among my favorites to garden with in this way right now. Other broadleaf plants that you could try allying with include borage, rhubarb, hollyhock, burdock, sea kale, comfrey and others.

Allying with plants while appreciating their inherent qualities is a win-win-win, right? That’s how I like to garden!

What broadleaf plants are you appreciating in your garden right now?

Sea Kale dies back in the winter but come spring it is already shading the soil beneath it again. Any weeds that germinated in the winter are quickly covered and prevented from becoming large.
A burdock patch grown for the edible roots.
Clary sage flowers just starting to open.

2 responses to “Befriending Broadleafs: Our Garden’s Beloved Shade Makers”

  1. Avatar
    Dana C Kline

    Great newsletter about broadleaf plants. As I read this I am gazing at my backyard and noticing the broadleaf plants back here, that I need in my front yard! I attempted to smother the Bermuda grass rhizomes in the front with cardboard/thick straw flakes/bags and bags of autumn leaves. (Too much work!) Instead of perishing, it is now thriving! Oy! Here’s another broadleaf that grows in the back that I’ll be planting to compete with the grass in the front: horseradish! Xeric, prolific and nothing is growing beneath it! It’s enormous after just two years, and dark dark green. Even the leaves smell spicy! And, that oh-so-deliciously edible root… Thanks Noel and Ann, and love love love and broadleaf heaven to you both! ~Dana

    1. Noel

      Dana, thank you so much for your reply! I am glad this article got some creative juices flowing for your gardening adventures. We also have lots of rhizomous grass and its an ongoing dance between feeding the grass and ensuring root space for the other plants. Good idea with horseradish! Ours is doing really well despite being in places that are dry, compact and harder to grow in. I think its a great choice to shade the soil beneath it while growing food and medicine! Good luck establishing a mutual relationship with that bermuda grass ;)

Share Your Thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from this author