Chasing The Sun - Choosing plants for the right aspect.

15th April 2024

Choosing plants that will suit your small garden relies heavily on the sun exposure your space receives during the day. Without enough sun, your plants cannot use their energy to function and thrive in your space.

Every plant requires different levels of sun exposure to thrive in its environment, and the amount of sun each plant needs depends on how it has evolved over time. Therefore, looking back at a plant's natural environmental conditions can teach us about the type of conditions it will enjoy most.

Luckily, modern-day horticulture has made this process a lot easier for us to digest with the nifty little plant tags that come with each plant we purchase from a nursery. However, while those tags can provide a quick guide into a plant's needs, how are we supposed to know whether our garden is full sun, part sun, part shade, dappled shade, or shade?! Here's a breakdown of the common sun aspects that you will find on these tags.

Full Sun

Like a day at the beach, sprawled across the sand, soaking up the sun's rays, Full Sun refers to this type of exposure. Plants in this category require a minimum of 6 hours of the sun's direct rays during the day, including the hours when it is most intense. Most fruits, vegetables, and plants from the flowering family will require this aspect to produce sufficient crops and flowers; some will even require at least 8 hours to produce their best. So, if you plan to grow tomatoes on your shady balcony, then unfortunately, you'll need to add these to your weekly grocery shop or look at moving house.

Part Sun, Part-Shade & Semi-Shade

Essentially, these aspects all refer to the same thing—partial direct sunlight throughout the day. Between 4 and 6 hours is essential for these types of plants. Plenty of plants fall into this category, with an array of flowers and foliage colours to suit all palettes. While some herbs and leafy crops such as lettuce and spinach will produce reasonable crops in this aspect, they will do much better in full sun.

Dappled Shade

These plants love the constant flicker of the sun's run as it shines down through taller trees and plants. Essentially, these plants could be part-sun lovers or even shade tolerant; however, the protection provided by the plants above creates an acceptable environment for them to thrive in. It's important, though, to ensure that the dappled shade remains consistent for most of the day, just like it would in a forest situation.

Shade & Deep Shade

If shade is what your plant is after, planting these plants in anything more than 4 hours of direct sun will likely burn its foliage and kill it. Shade tolerance will vary for each plant, however

2 to 4 hrs of direct sun is suitable for shade lovers, while 0 to 2 hrs is enough for deep shade plants. Most plants in this category are focused on foliage production, with very few or less showy flower options available. The great thing about shade plants is that they can often be grown indoors, especially if placed near a bright sunny window that only receives morning sun or no direct sun at all. But don't be mistaken - A shady outdoor environment is often much better than a low-light room, as the sun's energy is reduced when it has to work past internal windows. Therefore, bright, indirect light is best if you grow indoors.

Of course, there are always exceptions to rules, and some plants may adapt and survive in various aspects. It's possible to even find some plant labels that state a plant will enjoy either Full Sun / Part Sun / Shade. But how does that work?! This means the plant is super adaptable and versatile. As a general rule, though, you can expect that a plant that will survive in multiple aspects will always have stronger growth, better foliage, more flowers, and more sun. It all comes down to energy availability - The more energy available, the more growth a plant will show.

So what about the strength of the sun's exposure?

The Morning Sun is the sun's rays that we see before midday, and the Afternoon Sun is the light we receive after midday. The morning sun is less intense, while the afternoon is the opposite. It's also important to remember that the morning sun in Summer will always be more intense than the morning sun in winter, and the same goes for the afternoon sun. You can use the sun's intensity to help you choose the right plants for your space. For example;

* A Full Sun plant that flowers in Summer would require 6+ hours of direct sun across the day. However, it might thrive just fine if it receives 5 hours of direct Afternoon Sun during the summer months. It will still flower in these conditions, but the flower show may be smaller, or there may be less of the,

* A shade-loving foliage plant may only need 2 hours of direct sun during the day, but if your aspect receives 4 hours of Morning Sun, then the lower intensity of the morning sun means that your plant should cope just fine.

Calculating the number of sunshine hours your space receives can often be tricky, especially if you haven't had a chance to properly observe your aspect over the course of a full year. In very simple terms for us folk here in the Southern Hemisphere, a northerly facing garden or balcony will receive the most sun throughout the year, while southern facings spaces will receive the least. The east-facing will receive the morning sun, and the western-facing will be hit by the afternoon sun. Use your phone's mapping system or download a compass app to help determine what direction your garden space faces.

Chances are, though, your aspect will change dramatically throughout the year, especially for those of us who live in apartments where balconies can often be blocked by other buildings, making it challenging to grow plants. For a more detailed look into your aspect, a phone app that helps track the sun's position throughout the year can be downloaded from any app store. Test a few to find one that is the easiest for you to understand and use.

But what about if my garden aspect receives full sun in Summer but part sun or no sun in Winter?!

This is a common problem that most of us living in urban environments will struggle with. Buildings, neighbours, trees, and fences will all impact the changing aspects of the sun throughout the year. The key in this situation is to pick plants adaptable to multiple sun scenarios. Look for these on the tag, or ask your nursery to suggest options. Understanding a plant's yearly growth cycle will help you choose the right plants. Here are some examples for consideration;

* If you have a veggie garden that gets Full Sun in summer but Part Sun in winter, grow Tomatoes (which flower and set fruit in the summer months) in the summer and leafy lettuces, spinach and parsley (which don't need as much sun to convert energy into fruit production) during the winter.

* Perhaps your garden gets Full Sun in Summer but no or very little sun in Winter. Grow deciduous trees and plants that will lap up the sun's rays during the warmer months but won't require the energy during the cooler months, as these plants go into dormancy, only to come alive again in the Spring when the sun has returned.

* Bulbs are a great way to bring colour and floral interest to gardens and balconies without sun. Bulbs store their energy from the previous season to sprout foliage and flowers the following year. Planting them in late Autumn will ensure they come alive as the weather warms up. They will still put on a good show if they are receiving a sufficient amount of light, which does not need to be from direct sunshine. If your garden doesn't receive full sun during the warmer months, then be sure to replace the bulbs each year by purchasing new ones, as the lack of sun energy means the bulbs won't be able to store enough for next year's show.

* Use lightweight and small pots that can be moved around your space quite literally to chase the sun as it moves throughout the year

A good garden will always require good plant selection to thrive. Understanding the sun requirements of plants and observing the sun's movements in your garden is the first step to ensuring success. If you still feel daunted by the overwhelming selection of plants available and are still not quite sure what will work in your space have a professional analyse your aspect and make suggestions, or ask your local nursery for some guidance.

If your plant fails to thrive, don't despair! There is a plant out there for every garden, every space, and every aspect. You just have to go hunting for it.

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