The Sun/Shade Dilemma

By Paul James

When shopping for plants, one of the first and most important questions you’ll likely be asked is, Will they be growing in sun or shade? And often it’s one or the other. But that’s not always the case. Truth is, the whole sun and shade discussion can get rather confusing, but it’s a critical consideration when it comes to picking the right plants.

First, realize that telling the salesperson that your house faces east or west (or any other direction) isn’t specific enough. For example, most people would assume that a south- or west-facing property gets lots of afternoon sun. But if the property is loaded with mature trees, it may actually get very little sun, so make sure you convey that information.

Figuring out how best to describe your particular situation means you’ll carefully have to observe when and where the sun is shining throughout the day. And why is it so important to make such a determination? Simple. Plants that require full sun won’t grow well in the shade. They may survive, but they won’t thrive, and they’ll forever lack the vigor that they would otherwise have. However, they may do just fine in dappled light, or a spot that gets some sun throughout the day. Plants that require full shade will croak in the sun. Period.

Here are the most common sun/shade situations and suggestions on how to select the right plants for each.

Morning Sun/Afternoon Shade

Lucky you, because this situation gives you lots of choices, depending on exactly how much morning sun the area gets. If it’s just two or three hours worth, then you should consider Azaleas, Hydrangeas, Yews, Japanese Maples, and Dogwoods, plus all annuals and perennials that are considered shade tolerant. If it gets sun until midday or later, you should opt for plants that prefer full sun.

Morning Shade/Afternoon Sun

In this situation, your best bet is to go with plants that require full sun, because the shade-tolerant plants mentioned above cannot handle afternoon sun. Still, the list of plants that will adapt to such a situation is a long one, and includes nearly all flowering annuals and perennials as well as trees and shrubs.

Partial Sun/Partial Shade

This situation is also called “dappled light,” and here things get a little tricky. But generally speaking, if there’s more sun than shade, go with plants that require full sun, and if there’s more shade than sun, choose plants that prefer shade. If there are roughly equal amounts of sun and shade throughout the day, you can plant pretty much anything you want.

Following these guidelines, you may not be successful 100% of the time, but then no gardener has that kind of success, including me.