A How-To Guide to Mapping Sun Exposure In Your Garden

Knowing how to determine your yard’s sun exposure is an extremely handy skill for all gardeners. When some plants thrive in direct sun, some like the shade, and others like a little bit of both each day, you’ve got to plan wisely. Depending on the layout of your lawn, some areas may get more sun than others. Observing and mapping the sun exposure will help you make an informed decision about what you can plant, and where.

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How to Determine Sun Exposure Using Cardinal Directions

The cardinal directions—north, south, east, and west—come into play when determining how much sun a garden will get. You know how south-facing windows are the sunniest? Think about your garden in the same way; what direction does it face? If it’s close to your house, it may be partially obscured from the sun for a portion of the day. The direction your garden faces helps you determine when it’s exposed to the sun, and how bright that sunlight is.

    • South-facing gardens get the most sun exposure. From sunrise to sunset, the garden is lit up (as long as it isn’t shaded by trees). South-facing gardens are great for planting summer annuals like vinca and angelonia, or sun-loving vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.
    • North-facing gardens get the least amount of sun exposure. If they’re close to your home, they might be entirely shaded all day. Many shade-tolerant plants can easily thrive in a north-facing garden, like hibiscus and plumbago, or salad greens like spinach, arugula, and lettuce.

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  • East-facing gardens get to soak in the warm glow of morning light, but avoid the bright, direct sun of the afternoon. Plant flowers and vegetables that like the sun, but are sensitive to getting scorched by it. Roses make lovely additions to an east-facing flower garden.
  • West-facing gardens are a bit dimmer in the morning, but get lots of bright direct sun exposure from noon onward. Flowers that like full-to-partial shade, like lantana and coral fountain, add a beautiful burst of color to west-facing gardens. Squash and melons, and tubers like sweet potatoes and onions are perfectly suited to growing in that bright afternoon sunshine.

Unsure of how to determine what direction your garden is facing? If your phone doesn’t have a built-in compass app, download a free one! Stand with your back to the house or fence your garden is up against, so you’re looking out in the direction your garden faces. Your compass will tell you the direction you’re facing.

If you end up with a garden that faces southwest, southeast, northwest, or northeast, just take into consideration the sun exposure of the two directions. Your garden’s sun exposure will fall somewhere in between the two. So, a northeast-facing garden would probably get a little morning sun, and a southwest-facing garden would be slightly shielded from some of the morning sun, but will get plenty of afternoon sun.

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How Much Sun Will My Garden Get If I Have Trees?

Trees are beautiful, and of course we love the cool shade their leafy canopies provide, but sometimes they can obstruct sun exposure. The degree to which they shade your garden depends on how thick and lush the canopy is, and how many trees you have. A south-facing garden could potentially be completely shaded if there’s a group of giant maple trees on the property.

Some trees may create dappled shade in your yard. This is when the sun twinkles through the leaves and branches as they sway in the wind. This provides your garden with partial sunlight, so plants that prefer a little shade or indirect sunlight will thrive in these areas.

The placement of trees in your yard, in relation to your garden and the direction it faces, can also affect sun exposure. If you have a south-facing garden with a tree on the east side, it may block the morning light, but still leave your garden exposed in the afternoon. If you have several trees, or other structures like storage sheds throughout your yard, you may want to take a more detailed approach to mapping the sun exposure.

How Do I Make a Sun Map For My Garden?

Knowing how to determine sun exposure levels throughout your yard can be difficult if there’s a lot of trees, buildings, or fixtures partially blocking the light. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is hang out at home on a sunny day, and set an alarm on your phone every hour, from around 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.

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Each time the alarm goes off, take a photo of your yard. Once you’ve got all your photos, you can compare them to see how the light and shadows change over the course of the day. Take note of all the areas in your yard with different sun exposure levels, and map them out on a piece of paper. Label the different areas like so:

  • Full sun
  • Morning sun, afternoon shade
  • Morning shade, afternoon sun
  • Dappled shade
  • Full shade

Once you’ve got your sun exposure map drawn out, you can plan your garden layout accordingly! Put the sun-loving plants in the sunny spots, the shade-loving plants in the shady spots, and the partial-sun plants everywhere else. Tip: remember to group plants together that also have similar watering needs. Now, it will be so much easier to keep your flowers blooming, and your veggie plants producing delicious edibles.

If you’re worried about the Arizona heat taking down your summer plants this year, don’t worry! We have plenty of heat-tolerant full sun plants for sale at SummerWinds. Visit us soon to see all the amazing varieties that are brand new for 2021!

About SummerWinds Nursery: SummerWinds Garden Centers is a leading high-end retailer of garden and nursery products. Headquartered in Boise, Idaho, SummerWinds operates retail nurseries in the greater Phoenix, Arizona area, and in Silicon Valley, California, making it one of the largest independent retail nursery companies in the west. SummerWinds appeals to both the serious and casual gardeners, with a broad selection of premium gardening products and a friendly and knowledgeable staff.