How to Determine Sun Exposure in Your Garden

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How to determine sun exposure


How to Chart out the Sun Exposure in Your Garden

I get a lot of questions from friends and readers asking for advice on what types of plants they should put in their gardens. One of the first questions I always ask is “What is the sun exposure of the area?”.

Many people are unsure how to answer this question and ask me how they can figure it out. An easy way to figure it out is to chart out the area on a sunny day. This is definitely something you should do before you buy any new plants for a garden area.

If you haven’t done this before, or you haven’t done it in a while, it’s a good exercise. You might be surprised to realize that your “full sun” garden isn’t getting enough sun… or your “shade garden” gets more sun than you thought.

To chart out your garden area, start early in the morning after the sun comes up. Take note of whether your garden area is fully or partially in the sun or shade at this time. Then every hour, check the garden area again and write down the sun exposure. Keep tracking the sun exposure every hour until the sun goes down.

Charting out garden sun exposure

Charting out garden sun exposure

If it’s a large area, you might want to note the different sections of the garden as they come into the sun, or move into shade. You could even take this on a larger scale and do your entire backyard, front yard or the whole property in one chart.

Related Post: Perennials -vs- annuals

Buy Plants According to the Sun Exposure of Your Garden

Once you know how many hours of sunlight your garden gets, and at which hours during the day, you can take that information and buy plants accordingly…

  • Full Sun: This is an area that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight.
  • Partial Sun / Partial Shade: These terms are similar and generally mean an area that gets 3 to 6 hours of sun. Partial sun would be an area that gets closer to 6 hours of sun; and partial shade is an area that gets closer to 3 hours of sun that is also protected from the intense afternoon sun.  Another term in this category is Dappled Sun, this means the sun is filtered through tree or bush branches, fences slats, pergolas… etc.
  • Shade / Full Shade: Shade refers to an area that receives less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day, with the bulk of the sun exposure occurring during either early morning, late afternoon or dappled throughout the day. Full shade is an area that doesn’t get any direct sun exposure, but may receive bright, indirect light.

Read the tag on every plant before you purchase it. The tag should tell you the sun exposure requirements for the plant.

Plant labels show ideal sun exposure

Plant labels show ideal sun exposure

Watch the Sun Throughout the Year

Remember that the sun changes position in the sky throughout the year, so an area that is mostly shade in spring and fall may get more intense sun during the summer. This could lead to your sensitive shade plants being burned by the sun in July and August. You don’t want that so be sure to take this into consideration when planning a garden area.

Related Post: Planning The Vegetable Garden

Annual flowers in full sun

Annual flowers in full sun

Also think about how a garden area might be affected once trees get their leaves in the spring. A full sun garden area in the spring and fall could become pretty shady during the summer once the trees are full of leaves.

Full sun garden areas

Full sun garden areas

Is your garden mostly sunny, or do you struggle with too much shade?

For more information about planning your garden, click here… Garden Planning

Leave a comment below and tell me about your garden’s sun exposure.

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  1. says

    RandomGardener – That's a really good point, and my wording is poor on that statement. What I was trying to say is that full sun lovers should be in the sun during the peak hours of the day when the sun is at it's highest/hottest. Rather than being in full sun only during say 8am-10am and 4pm-8pm, with no full sun during the peak hours. I guess it's hard to explain. :-)


  2. Anonymous says

    I'm in South Dakota and am working with a garden plot new to me. It has partial tree branch coverage. What is the earliest month, in your opinion, that I could do this?

    • says

      Wait until the trees have fully leafed out before doing this in the spring. That will give you a pretty good feel for what the sun exposure will be through the summer. You could do it again at the peak of summer (June/July) to see how it differs, but I don't think you need to wait to plant stuff until then. Keep an eye on it through the summer and modify next year if necessary.


  3. says

    Is the sun further south in the summer? I just moved in and I want to till, but I have tree lines on two sides and don’t know how much difference it might be in spring and summer.

    • says

      The sun is more intense in the summer, and of course is up longer than it is in the fall/winter. So, we definitely get more sun during the summer. You also have to think about your surrounding trees – have any of them dropped their leaves? If so, those will create more shade when they are full of leaves in the summer. If you have an area in mind that is pretty open, and the tree leaf-out is not a

  4. Mary Vidrine says

    Thank you so much Amy! This puts on paper what I’ve been trying to sort out in my head. My question is similar to the last one. Hope this is not a super old post. My North facing front steps are in the shade right now. It seems to me the plants fried there last summer. So that would mean to me that the sun is further north in the winter.?? Is this correct?

    • says

      Yes. Definitely check the sun exposure at different times during the year. That area must get some sun during the middle of summer while the sun is high in the sky (and most intense).

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