Sun Versus Shade: Know Before You Plant

Arum, Carex and Hydrangea in November. Photo by Erica Glasener.When it comes to gardening successfully, selecting the right plant for the right place is key. To determine the right location in your landscape, get to know what conditions individual plants need to thrive. When you purchase plants, look for labels that state the amount of light required i.e.: full sun, shade or part shade. Remember, though, that these are broad terms and the intensity of the sun varies according to the part of the country where you live and the season. Certain plants are more likely to be stressed by afternoon sun, which is brighter than morning sun. 

Full sun

Full sunshine, especially on the coast, is unfiltered for 6 or more hours per day. In mountainous regions, full sun is usually from morning until sunset. In other areas, full sun is unfiltered for 8 or more hours per day. Roses are an example (with a few exceptions) of plants that require full sun to thrive and produce the maximum number of blooms. 

Part sun or part shade

In coastal areas, part sun or part shade  is when sunlight is filtered all day through tall mature pines or hardwoods (like oaks, maples and tulip poplars) or direct morning sunlight for 3 hours. In mountainous areas, part sun means 5 hours of direct sun between sunrise and noon. In other areas, part sun is defined as direct sunlight for part of the day or partial sun all day (such as under high pine trees).

Deciduous woodland is perfect for growing spring flowering bulbs like daffodils or spring ephemerals like trilliums and spring beauties. The sun bakes the soil all winter and in early spring before new leaves emerge on the trees. Many perennial wildflowers are spring ephemerals (with a short growth cycle). They grow, bloom and set seed in spring and then die back to the ground in summer when light is reduced and they are shaded from hot sun. Daffodil foliage stays around a bit longer until it turns yellow and then brown before it disappears.  

For gardens that receive part shade in the spring under deciduous trees, early-flowering shrubs are also a good choice, so that they receive enough light when they are setting flower buds and blooming. Remember that most blooming plants require a minimum amount of sunlight to flower. If your garden is dark from shade, not much will grow or bloom.   

Full shade

Full shade in coastal gardens occurs when an area is shaded all day by leafy evergreen trees including live oaks and magnolias. In mountainous regions, full shade means that plants only receive occasional direct sun during the day or dappled shade (all day) under deciduous trees like dogwoods, redbuds or crabapples. 

Even without flowers, your shade garden can be colorful if you use plants with variegated foliage including selections of ferns, variegated Solomon's seal and plants like Carex ‘Evergold’ with grass-like foliage that is green and white. For maximum impact, plant combinations that include different types of foliage and flowers for every season

Find an experienced landscaper to help you choose the perfect plantings for your garden conditions.

Erica Glasener writes for Networx.

Updated December 6, 2018.

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