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The Importance of Sun Exposure

There are three essential contributors to the success of a garden, sunlight, water, and soil health. As gardeners, we must understand what we can control in our garden and how to work with nature.  We can feed the soil to make sure it is healthy, and we can install irrigation to ensure that our garden stays watered, and we can pay attention to the amount of light our garden area receives. Knowing how to understand your garden’s sun exposure is vital for gardeners.

I didn’t always pay attention to the sun when gardening. I gave it no thought when I built one of my first gardens. And that was a big mistake.  I just woke up one day and decided, “yep, right there, that’s the spot.” After building the garden, I realized this was not true. The location was all wrong. I placed the garden in an area where it only received a few hours of sunlight at max. I planted the garden on the north side of a fig tree, where it was shaded for most of the day. Had I built the garden on the other side of the yard or even on the other side of the fig tree, the garden would have received full sunlight. I enjoyed that garden and made the most of the shaded space, but I knew I wouldn’t make that mistake again. 

When it was time to expand the garden, I would spend paying attention to the sun and surrounding trees in different areas before planting.  There are specific criteria to check before building a garden and planting.  Forgetting to check for these things can make your gardening experience less than stellar.  Where you think you want the garden may not be the best spot for it. 

How To Determine Sun Exposure

Tracking the sun is essential in setting up a new garden. Tracking and mapping the sun will help you choose the perfect place for your garden. To track sun exposure, grab a sheet of paper, draw your yard, and begin to note where you see the sun during different times throughout the day.  If you’re not an artist and don’t want to draw your yard, then make a simple chart like the one below.  Note how many hours and which hours out of the day the area receives sun.

While you can do this for a few days, you would be better off doing this during different seasons. Why? Did you ever notice how the sun appears higher in the sky during the summer months? Well, the sun changes its course during different seasons as the distance and position between the earth and the sun move.  So, where you see the sun in the summer is different from where the sun is in the winter. Therefore it is best to track the sun for multiple seasons.  Remember, after monitoring the sun, you may realize that where you originally planned on putting the garden is not the ideal space.

If you want to avoid sun mapping, make sure you plant your garden in the right direction.  Don’t worry. We’ll talk about that next.

Which direction should my garden face?

Southern Facing – Garden sites do best when they are south-facing.  A southern-facing area receives the most exposure to the sun.  Sun-loving crops like squash and tomatoes perform best in these layouts.

East Facing – These gardens receive morning sun. The morning sun is great because the plants receive sunlight during the coolest time of the day, the morning. Here you can plant anything that requires a little shade to succeed.

West Facing – Western exposure gives you afternoon and evening sun, which will work if it is all you have, but you run the risk of your plants overheating because you are receiving the sun when the temperature is at its highest. 

North Facing – The least ideal orientation for a garden is north-facing.  This area would receive the least amount of sun exposure, not to mention that it would be shaded if there were any obstructions, such as trees or buildings.

While south-facing is preferred, you can garden in any of these settings.  You may have to adjust your gardening goals. I have plenty of fruit trees, roses, and vegetables planted on the north side of my garden.  They may not receive the ideal light, but they are growing.  Don’t be afraid to alter the plants you plan on growing in these spaces.

Which way to place my garden beds

The information about cardinal direction applies to determining the garden area used when laying out the actual beds.  Whether you have containers, raised beds, or inground beds, orient them north to south. Doing so will ensure they receive as much light as possible with minimal interruptions.  Proper plant placement is vital if you must use the East to west orientation.  If you pay attention, you can avoid shading many of your plants, thereby reducing the hours of direct sun they receive.

Sun Exposure

The amount of sun an area receives is known as sun exposure. Sun exposure is key to the success of plants. Remember the story of my first garden plot? I ignored sun exposure, and this limited what I was able to grow. With sun exposure, there are three essential terms: full sun, partial sun, and shade. Most vegetable or fruit plants require full sun to be successful. Root crops and other leafy greens grow in full or partial sun. The amount of light available to the plant directly relates to its ability to produce food through photosynthesis, impacting its health and vigor.

Full Sun

Full sun is an area that receives six or more hours of direct sunshine.  There is a catch, all this sunshine does not have to be received continuously.  For example, a plant could receive 2 hours of morning sunshine, from 8-10 am, followed by shade from 10 am- 1 pm, and then direct sun from 1 pm until sunset at 7 pm.  Even though the sun’s 6+ hours are interrupted by a shaded period, the plant receives more than 6 hours of direct sun.  Plants that love the full sun can’t obtain too much sun exposure.  The more, the better. Some vegetables, like tomatoes, want more than 8 hours of direct exposure.

Partial Sun

Depending on whom you ask, partial sun and partial shade are interchangeable.  Partial sun is an area that receives 2-6 hours of sunlight a day.  Just like with full sun, this does not have to be continuous.  Many veggie plants will also thrive in this setting.


The shade is an area that receives less than 2 hours of direct sunlight daily. I do not recommend vegetables for the completely shaded area, but plants thrive in these conditions. Plants that prefer these conditions usually have thin, broad leaves; their broadness leaves a greater surface area to absorb whatever sunlight makes it through. These plants are typically damaged by receiving too much sun exposure. Due to the characteristics, some ground covers fall into this category. Do not let the fact that these plants prefer shade fool you. They are still producing stunning colors throughout the seasons.

Understanding and identifying sun exposure are the first steps to setting up a new garden.  To learn more about setting up a new garden, check out all the articles in the beginner gardening series.  After reading those, you should be armed with enough information to head outside and successfully JUST GROW IT. If you have any questions feel free to email or comment, and I will respond.  

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