Gardening Know how: Sun or Shade?

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On the surface it’s an easy point: sun or shade?  Read about what’s needed and give your plants just that. But as with all things related to plants and nature, there are shades of grey between the black-and-white picture. 

What if you have afternoon sun and morning shade or vise versa? What about times of the year when summer sunshine turns into perpetual winter shade because of the angle of the sun? And then there are shades of shade to consider too! Let’s demystify this mystery so that you can sow your Seeds of Plenty where they’re destined for success!

How Much Sun is “Sunny?”

All day sun is easy enough to spot – but what about those areas that are shaded for part of the day? Broadly speaking, we can say that four to six hours of full sun exposure will be enough for most sun-loving plants. 

Time of day and season are important too. In general, we can say that sunshine before about 11:AM is fine for most shade-lovers (unless they want really deep shade), but could be too little for sun-lovers.

But with changing seasons, light intensity changes too. In winter, the light intensity is lower, so you might find that areas you could treat as sunny in summer are better suited to shade-lovers in winter. I often find that plants that definitely need a little shading in summer are perfectly happy with full sun in winter. When you’re growing annual flowers and veg, that could be a significant piece of information!

The angle at which sunlight reaches our gardens changes with seasons too. A spot that gets sun nearly all day long in summer could get no sun at all during winter. Yes, it can be confusing, but it’s not all that hard to figure out as long as you keep your eyes open!

How should you use this information to benefit your sun-loving plants?

  • Watch your garden for spots that get afternoon sun. They should be sunny enough for sun-loving plants.
  • Treat morning sun as the equivalent of light shade. If it’s just an hour or two of sun exposure right after sunrise, treat it as shade. 
  • Watch out for seasonal changes in sun exposure, and remember that light intensity is also lower in winter than in summer. Play around and see what works. 

How Much Shade is “Shade?”

By now, you’ll have worked out that a little early morning sun is basically as good as shade. But then you hear that there’s a difference between light or dappled shade, and deep shade. What now? Here are a few more practical tips that may help you to get the balance right. Before we begin, let’s remember that dappled shade is basically bright, indirect light, while deep shade is kinda dark almost all day long. Let’s go!

  • An hour or two of morning sun is fine for plants that like deep shade
  • You can treat light shade as sun for sun-loving plants that don’t like summer heat. Think lettuce and you’re ahead of the curve. Hot weather makes them bolt (flower without making many leaves)
  • Afternoon sun is as good as full sun in summer. Those hot rays won’t suit your shade-lovers.

How Will You Know if You’re Getting it Right?

To begin with, you need to spend time in your garden. When does the sun reach different parts of it? How does sun exposure differ between midsummer and midwinter? Your observations will help you to make the right choices. But even then, a little trial and error may be necessary before you get it right. Luckily, your plants will tell you what you need to know.

  • If plants are getting too much shade, they’ll tend to be lanky, have very dark green leaves, and overly soft, floppy stems. They’ll also be more susceptible to sap sucking insects because they’re so soft. 
  • If plants are getting too much sun, the growth will be hard and stunted, overly compact, and the leaves will tend to have a lime-green to yellow appearance. 

If your plants are really miserable in the location you’ve chosen, consider moving them, but remember that the less the root disturbance, and the better the aftercare, the more you will limit the inevitable shock to your green buddies. 

What Should You do if Sun Exposure is Seasonally Very Variable?

When you choose plants for your garden, the basic specs will usually say “sun” or “shade.” Unfortunately, life isn’t as simple as that! When you’re working with annuals, you can harmonize your planning with seasonal differences in sun exposure. But not all plants are annuals! Let’s look at what you should do in variable light conditions when dealing with perennials.

  • Choose plants that thrive in sun AND shade. Yes! There really are adaptable plants that don’t mind if they get sun or shade! Your choices will be somewhat limited, but at least you’ll know they work.
  • Choose plants that have winter dormancy. Some plants sleep during the winter months (I wish I could do that!) and won’t care if their location is shady while they’re in their dormant phase.
  • Choose plants with summer dormancy. While most deciduous plants sleep during the winter, some of them prefer to rest in summer. Once again, they won’t care about summer sun if what they want in their growing season is winter shade.

Start in Shade Move to Sun – Be Gentle!

There’s no denying that a shaded location is good for starting seeds, especially the finer ones that are sown shallowly and can easily dry out in the full blast of the sun’s heat. As a result, we may start some of our more delicate seedlings in shade so that they can enjoy the gentler conditions before we move them to their sunny homes. 

In general, we need this relocation from shade to sun to be a gradual process. Here’s why. 

Leaves have a waxy coat that prevents them from losing too much water to the sun. How thick that coat is depends on how much protection they need in their current environment. 

If you start seedlings in shade and then move them into the full glare of the sun as soon as they are big enough to plant out, the lack of wax layer can cause them to lose too much water through the leaves. If that happens, they get “sunburn” and may even die. 

Usually, seedlings in this scenario are container-grown, and that’s part of the solution. Moving them to an area where they get more (but not as much) sun exposure than they will get in their final home allows them to build up resistance to the sunshine. Two weeks is generally enough for this “hardening off” process.

In winter, you can afford to take chances. The sun’s intensity is much lower, so sunburn is less likely. If you’re going to go from deep shade to full sun, this is the time when you’re likeliest to succeed without sunburn.

We Want You to Succeed: Tell Us About it!

We hope that this article will help you to succeed when making the sun versus shade choices that face every gardener. But perhaps you have something to add or would like to share your experience with our community. Let’s hear from you! Join us on our social media channels or comment right here. Successes are to be celebrated. Failures are an opportunity for learning, so share your sun vs shade stories and experiences with our community today.

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