Understand Your Garden’s Sun and You’ll Know What to Plant Where. The amount of sun your plants get can make a big difference in how well they do. This guide will help you understand the amount of sun your plants are getting so you can pick the best plants for each area.
- Full sun: This means the area gets direct sunlight for six or more hours per day.
- Part shade: This means the area gets direct sunlight for three to six hours per day.
- Full shade: This means the area gets direct sunlight for less than three hours per day.
The three key ingredients for healthy foliage, flowers, and fruit are sunlight, water, and soil. The amount of light your yard gets will naturally change throughout the day as shadows from buildings and taller plants move with the sun. Full sun is defined as at least six hours of direct sunlight, but many plants will still unfurl fabulous foliage and beautiful blooms in less than full sun conditions. So even if your yard doesn’t get a lot of sunlight, you can still create a lush and colorful garden.
Study Your Yard’s Sunlight
To get started, begin by recording how much sunlight your yard receives over time. This can be done by assessing light patterns every hour or two throughout the day, and noting where shadows fall and for how long. It’s important to keep in mind that in spring, bare-branched trees may give the illusion of sunny spots beneath, but once they leaf out, they often create heavy shade during summer and fall.
Buildings and walls also cast shadows; so be sure to consider those structures as you plot the sun’s path over your patch of earth.
By using marking flags or stakes, you can indicate where light and shadow falls in your yard throughout the day. Or, you can create a light map on paper. To do this, start with a few sheets of tracing paper and sketch a copy of your yard’s outline on each page. About two hours after sunrise, observe where light and shade fall and mark them on the tracing paper, noting the time.
Then, repeat the process throughout the day, each time using a different sheet of paper. Finally, stop recording about an hour before dusk. Use a pencil to mark the shady sections on each page. Then label sun and shade pockets to indicate whether they reflect morning or afternoon conditions.
Understanding Sun and Shade Areas
Sunlight is one of the most important factors to consider when designing a garden, as different plants thrive in different lighting conditions. If an area receives direct sunlight for most of the day, it will be easier to work with as you can rely on the intensity of the sunlight to remain consistent. However, bear in mind that the rays of the sun will be softer in the morning and more intense in the afternoon.
Shade is a little more complicated than just the lack of sun. There’s deep shade, which you find on the north side of a house by a stone wall or privacy fence, or beneath a 70-year-old beech tree. These areas only see sun from winter through early spring. To pair these deep shade locations with plants, look for ones that don’t require direct sunlight to thrive.
The dappled shade of a honey locust tree dances beneath the leaves, which filter the sunlight and cast a shifting glow. Deciduous trees, such as maples and ashes, offer seasonal shade.
Spring sunlight under leafless boughs provides the perfect spot for ephemeral plants, such as bleeding heart or naturalizing spring bulbs, which produce an early-season flower show and then quietly disappear as tree canopies fill in and shade deepens. As the sun takes an overhead route, shade patterns shift and shorten in summer under deciduous trees and then lengthen as summer moves into fall.
Test Garden Tip: In a woodland setting, tall trees often cast light shade, punctuated by shafts of sunlight. Count on reliable shade performers such as astilbe to brighten shady gardens with colorful blossom spires. To create a long lasting flower show, plant a mix of astilbe varieties that bloom at different points in the season. Companions for astilbe include golden hakone grass, goatsbeard, hostas, and several types of ferns.
A plant’s light requirements can change drastically depending on where it’s located in the United States. For example, sun-loving plants in the South might need shade during the hottest part of the day, while in the Pacific Northwest, cloud cover can prevent sun-lovers from getting the sunlight they need. In areas with cool, wet summers, partial shade-loving plants can often do well in sunnier conditions.
Plants and Light Requirements
Most plants have their own specific light requirements for optimal growth, which are typically described as full sun, part sun, part shade, or full shade. Not sure what these terms mean? You’re not alone. Here’s a brief explanation of the light code to help you better understand your plant’s needs.
- Full sun: This means that the plant requires direct sunlight for at least six hours each day.
- Part sun: The plant prefers direct sunlight for at least four hours each day, but can also tolerate some partial shade.
- Part shade: This plant prefers shady conditions and should only receive direct sunlight for no more than four hours each day.
Full shade: As the name suggests, this plant requires low light conditions and should only be exposed to indirect sunlight or artificial light.
Part sun/part shade: These terms usually mean the same thing – that plants should receive three to six hours of sun per day, preferably in morning or evening, not during the hottest parts of the day. The rest of the time, the plants can be completely shaded or in dappled shade.
This type of exposure is ideal for many types of plants that might otherwise suffer in full sun or full shade. By giving them a little bit of both, you can create a happy medium that will keep your plants healthy and thriving.
Full shade describes areas where plants receive less than three hours of direct sunlight per day. This might be the north side of a building or under a tree where sunlight filters through the leaves for part of the day.
Shade isn’t always a bad thing – in fact, you can use it to your advantage! If you have a tree with branches that cast dense shade, you can try “limbing up” to let more sunlight in. This process involves removing lower limbs to lighten the scenery below and allow more sun to penetrate.
During late summer and fall, the sun can slant beneath the limbed-up trees to provide some natural light. You can also try selectively thinning the trees to increase light to the ground below. Another option is to replace solid fences with vine-covered lattice, which will also help increase the amount of light that comes in.
Rules Are Flexible
Once you know your garden site’s sun and shade characteristics, start picking out plants. And keep in mind that if you place a plant where it gets too much or too little light, it might not thrive. You could experience fewer flowers, shorter life span, less color, or gangly stems.
So if an annual or perennial isn’t doing well in a given light location, grab your shovel and transplant it to another spot. Plants are tough; they usually can handle moving from place to place.
Once you know the sun and shade characteristics of your garden site, you can start picking out plants. And keep in mind that if you place a plant where it gets too much or too little light, it won’t necessarily die. You’ll likely experience fewer flowers, shorter life span, less color, or gangly stems.
So if an annual or perennial isn’t thriving in a given light location, grab your shovel and transplant it to another spot. Plants are tough; they usually can handle moving from place to place.