Is Yours a Shady or a Sunny Garden?

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Do you have a shady or a sunny garden?


This question seems to have come up a lot recently.


Could this be because of the Autumn Equinox, which in 2017 occurred on September 22nd?


But maybe it’s because I’ve seen a number of clients who have an issue with shade in their garden when they feel it should be a sunnier spot.

And vice versa; not everyone wants a sunny garden.

A house with a south facing garden is much loved by estate agents; and considered worthy of mentioning along with the breakfast bar in the kitchen diner. But the question “do you have a north facing garden or a south facing garden?” is often given greater significance then it merits.

And it doesn’t answer our initial question: “What makes a shady or a sunny garden?”  It is certainly wrong to presume that all north facing gardens will be shady and cold. Equally, that all south facing gardens will be hot and sunny all day long, all year round.

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In small city gardens, tall buildings and even boundary fences can create shade. And even in larger, suburban gardens a tall unpruned tree in your neighbours’ garden may be shading what would otherwise be a sunny patio.


What is the definition of a shady or a sunny garden?

The generally accepted definitions of sun and shade that you’ll find on plant labels is a good place to start. It is as valid for a seating area as it is for a Hosta. After all, the garden is for you to enjoy, not just for your plants!

Full Sun
Full sun means six full hours of direct sunlight. Those six hours could be from 8am – 3pm or 12 noon – 6pm. Or the time could be split between some hours in the morning and some in the afternoon. So, six hours of direct sunlight at any time of the day. For the rest of the daylight hours, light, rather than shade is presumed, but it doesn’t need to be direct sunlight.

colourful sunshades, patio umbrellas, RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2017, London

Partial Sun and Partial Shade
These two terms are often used as alternatives to each other, and are used to denote 3 – 6 hours of direct sunlight each day. However, although largely interchangeable, there are subtle differences.


Partial Sun
For a plant listed as partial sun, they will require several hours of sunlight during the day in order to set flowers and fruit.


Partial Shade
Partial shade typically refers to a need for shade from the strong, late afternoon sun.


Dappled Sunlight
Dappled sunlight is similar to partial shade. This is the soft sunlight you can enjoy under a deciduous tree and is the requirement of woodland plants.

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Full Shade
Let’s be clear, full shade does not mean no sun at all. That suits certain fungi (mushrooms) but not much else!
What full shade means is less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day; and that to preferably be the cooler morning light. Filtered light for some of the rest of the day is also preferable. Even full shade plants need the sun in order to photosynthesise.


So, in relation to your garden as a whole, rather than the individual plants within it, how will you discover where is sunny and where is shady?


The Autumn Equinox Effect

The different areas of your garden – however small – are going to receive varying amounts of light

And the amount of light, direct sunlight, dappled sunlight, etc will change over the year as the seasons change. “Well, that’s obvious!” may be your reply. But do you really know how the sun moves across your garden during the course of a day at midsummer? And how that compares to a day during the winter months?

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And of course where you live affects whether the September equinox is an autumn equinox for you or a spring equinox. As this diagram of the astronomical seasons from the UK Met Office shows.

You see, what you think of as a sunny spot in your garden may not be a sunny spot during the winter. Now, that may not matter if its somewhere you only sit during the warm weather. But, if you would like to turn that same area into a kitchen garden, it suddenly becomes a critical piece of information.

stipa tenuissima, ornamental grasses in winter sun

To a discover how to map the passage of the sun in your garden is a topic we cover in a gardening course. It’s a part of learning about your garden and what plants you can successfully grow in it. I like to call it the Autumn equinox effect. Using the time of equal day and night length to question the validity of the statements: ‘that’s a sunny spot’ or ‘that’s a shady corner’.

One simple way to map the sunlight and shade in your garden is to take photographs of fixed points in your garden at regular intervals during the year. For example, the first weekend of every month. You should also mark where the sun rises at the Spring and Autumn equinox, Summer and Winter Solstice. For more on how different day length affects your plants and when the first day of spring really is, check out the blog links below.

So do the plants I can grow in my garden purely depend on whether it’s a shady or a sunny garden?

Now, it’s not going to be that simple, is it!

Carrying out a site survey of a garden for yourself, perhaps as part of a Plews gardening course can be highly satisfying. When surveying a garden as part of a garden design or consultancy work, mapping where the sunlight is to a greater or lesser degree forms part of that survey.

Other essentials for discovering which plants will thrive include testing the soil pH and nutrient quality. Some plants prefer an acid soil; some need it to survive. Existing trees and buildings also have an effect; they may cast both a light shadow and a rain shadow. If they’re deciduous trees this will have a different effect on your garden and the plants in your garden than if they are evergreen trees.

Silver Birch tree - Betula pendula -winter

And, as we saw above, when the plants enjoy their sun bathing session can be important too. Some plants effectively get sunburnt if they bake in strong sun.

Thought you could just buy some sun loving plants, pop them in the sunny border and everything would be fine? Hopefully I’ve helped explain some of the reasons why they might not be growing as well as you’d expected.

Still feeling overwhelmed? Check out our other blogs for planting ideas whether you have a shady or a sunny garden. For example, Introduction to Woodland Habitats in Your Garden has planting suggestions and further links for shade loving plants. Or if you would like to create shade, read Ornamental Deciduous Trees for Small Gardens

Do you need more help? You could always drop us an email to enquire about Plews’
Garden Advice and Garden Consultancy services
Garden Design and Planting Design options
Gardening Courses and Gardening Lessons

As we’re here to help you to enjoy your garden, whether it’s a shady or a sunny garden!


Related Gardening articles you may enjoy from our Award Winning Blog

Harvest Festivals, Autumn Equinox and Your Garden
The Winter Solstice and Your Garden
The First Day of Spring and the Spring Equinox
Midsummer Gardens
Why are there Changes to Your Garden Growing Season?

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