Light Tips for Gardening


While sunshine may not literally make the world go 'round, it does power the process of photosynthesis, which makes many things possible. Photosynthesis allows plants to make their own food, using only air and water. As they grow, plants provide food for grazing animals that in turn provide sustenance for higher levels of the food chain. Since sun provides the start for the whole food pyramid, it's vital to give it the respect it deserves in the garden.

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Watch how shadows and sunlight hit the ground under deciduous trees to help you determine light conditions.
Watch how shadows and sunlight hit the ground under
deciduous trees to help you determine light conditions.
See more pictures of garden ideas.

Many plants, especially lawn grass, flowers, roses, vegetables, fruit trees, and conifers (needle-leaved evergreens) thrive in bright sun, which provides abundant energy for growth, flowering, and fruiting. But some plants, particularly those native to forests and glens, need shadier conditions. Learn the sun requirements of any plant you intend to grow so you can put it in the right place.

Watch how shadows and sunlight hit the ground to determine how much shade exists during the growing season under deciduous trees (which drop their leaves in fall). This test will determine which shade-loving plants will thrive there.

  • Full shade is found under thickly branched trees or evergreens. A garden that's located here will receive little or no direct sun and remain gloomily lit. Only a limited number of plants are suitable for this situation. You should choose flowers and ferns with evergreen leaves.
  • Partial shade can be found under trees that allow sunlight to penetrate through the canopy and dapple the ground throughout the day. A garden grown under a lightly branched honey locust tree would fall into this category. A larger selection of plants are capable of growing under these conditions than in full shade.
  • Light shade is found in places where plants are in direct sun for a portion of the day. This could be found in a garden under mature trees with long barren trunks. The sun can shine in under the high leaf canopies. Light-shade conditions also exist on the east or west side of a wall or building. Here you can grow many shade-loving plants as well as shade-tolerant plants, which are sun-lovers capable of growing moderately well in light shade.

Faced with a garden that is mostly shaded? Learn tips on the next page that will help get things growing.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Shady Garden Conditions

A shady garden doesn't necessarily mean you won't be able to grow anything. There are plants that actually thrive in the shade as well as measures you can take to make the most out of the little sunlight available. The following tips will help.

  • Grow sun-loving spring bulbs and wildflowers beneath deciduous shade trees to make the most of the sun before the tree leaves emerge. This is a great strategy for people who have a shady yard and therefore have trouble getting flowers to grow during summer and fall.

    Crocuses, squills, Spanish bluebells, daffodils, windflowers, glory-of-the-snow, and wildflowers such as bloodroot, squirrel corn, and other local natives thrive in spring sun. When tree leaves emerge and the setting grows dark, many of these spring growers fall dormant and lie quietly below the ground until spring sun arrives again.

  • Paint a dark wall white to reflect more light onto plants. Just like the silver solar reflectors used by sunbathers to intensify their tans, a light-colored wall will reflect additional light onto nearby plants. Similarly, using a mulch of white pebbles, sand, or gravel will reflect light up through the bottom of plants, a technique often used in gardens of Mediterranean herbs or silver-leaved plants that thrive on plenty of sun.

    A painted white wall can reflect more sunlight onto plants.
    A painted white wall can reflect more sunlight onto plants.

  • Limb-up trees or remove smaller, scraggly, or unwanted saplings and brush to brighten a densely shaded spot. Tall, mature shade trees can have their lower limbs removed (a heavy job requiring a professional arborist) to produce light shade. For even more light, arborists can thin out overcrowded branches in the canopy, leaving some openings in the foliage for sun penetration.

  • Removing unwanted tangles of young trees, wild shrubs, and other woody growth is a project you can do yourself. Look for self-sown seedlings around trees such as maples, oaks, ashes, and elms. Crabapples will send up vertical sprouts called suckers, turning the tree into a bush. Get a pair of long-handled pruning lopers to trim out the smaller growth and a pruning saw to remove larger trunks. When finished, you can admire the newly revealed shape of the tree trunk and the ferns, hostas, and other shade plants that can grow beneath it. Be sure not to overthin; you should leave enough saplings to replace older trees as they die.

  • Prune low-hanging branches on a sunny day so you can see how the light changes. This way you can watch the shade lighten. You also can keep an eye on the shadows, which will dance from one side of the tree to the other, changing with the time of day and position of the sun. Their silhouettes can be a beautiful part of the garden, especially in winter when the dark shadows stand out on the white snow.

  • Do not prune oaks in summer. Even though this may be when you are anxious to lighten shade the most, it will make your trees susceptible to oak wilt disease. Prune, instead, in late winter.

  • When growing potted plants indoors, supplement natural light with fluorescent or grow lights. Sometimes in winter the weather may be cloudy for days, even weeks. This creates problems for tropical plants, potted flowers, and even foliage plants which need light to remain healthy.The solution is to hang a fluorescent shop light directly over your indoor plants. Special grow lights or full spectrum bulbs (formulated to produce light wavelengths that plants need most) can be used in place of fluorescent bulbs for spectacular results with flowering plants. For extra-easy maintenance, plug the lights into an automatic timer, then set them to turn on for 14 to 16 hours a day and off again at night.

Just like too much shade can be difficult to work with in a garden, so, too, is an abundance of sunlight. Check out the next section for suggestions on dealing with sunny garden conditions.

Some Plants for Shady Conditions
The following plants need varying degrees of shade.

Plants for full shade:

Plants for partial shade:

Plants for light shade:

 


Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Sunny Garden Conditions

A garden with some sun exposure is a good thing; but you can't stop there. Read on to learn more about sunny garden conditions and how to get the right amount of light to your plants.

Gardens with an eastern exposure are shaded in the afternoon.
Gardens with an eastern exposure
are shaded in the afternoon.

  • Consider differences in sun intensity when planting on the east and west side of shade-casting trees or buildings. Even if east- and west-facing sites receive the same number of hours of sun, they will not produce identical results.
    • Gardens with an eastern exposure are illuminated with cool morning sun, then shaded in the afternoon. They are ideal locations for minimizing heat stress in southern climates or for plants such as rhododendrons that can burn in hot sun.
    • Gardens with western exposure are shaded in the morning and drenched in hot sun in the afternoon. Sunburn, bleaching, and sometimes death of delicate leaves can result, especially in warm climates and when growing sensitive young or shade-loving plants. Afternoon sun can also cause brightly colored flowers to fade. However, the west side of a building is the ideal place for sun-loving plants.

  • Try exposing flowering shade plants to a half day of morning sun to encourage better blooming. Extra light can also keep the plants more compact, tidy, and self-supporting.

  • Providing 6 to 8 hours of direct sun a day is sufficient for most plants that need full sun. The term "full sun" doesn't actually mean plants must be in bright light every moment of the day, only most of the day. The 6 to 8 hour minimum must be met, however, even during the shorter days of spring and fall for perennials, trees, and shrubs.

Whether sunny or shady, all gardens need some light to help them grow. Use the tips in this article to help you find the right balance.

Some Plants for Sunny Conditions
These plants prefer the sun:

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.