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  • Writer's pictureMartin Steel-Brown

Chasing The Sun - Choosing plants for the right aspect

Tree's can provide a suitable environment for plants that thrive in dappled shade conditions

Choosing plants that will suit your garden rely heavily on the sun exposure that your space receives during the day. Without enough sun, your plants are unable to use its 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 plants 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 us with a quick guide into a plants needs, how are we suppose 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 suns rays, Full Sun refers exactly to this type of exposure. Plants in this category require a minimum of 6 hours of the suns direct rays during the day, including the hours when it is most intense. Most fruit, vegetables and plants from the flowering family will require this form of aspect to produce sufficient crops and flowers and some will even require at least 8 hours to produce at its best. So if your plans are to grow tomatoes on your shady balcony, then unfortunately you'll be needing to add these onto 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 sunshine throughout the day. Between 4 to 6 hrs is essential for these types of plants. There are plenty of plants that fall into 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 all day flicker of the suns runs 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 from the plants above create an acceptable environment for them to thrive in. It's important though to watch 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, then planting these plants in anything more that 4hrs of direct sun, will likely burn its foliage and surely 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 of direct sun 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 quite often be grown indoors, especially if they are placed near a sunny bright 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 suns energy is reduced when it has to work its way past internal windows. Therefore bright, indirect light is best if choosing to grow indoors.

Beautiful floral displays such as this one, will require a full sun aspect to look their best.

Of course there are always exceptions to rules and some plants may adapt and survive in a range of different aspects. Its possible to even find some plant labels that state a plant will enjoy either Full Sun / Part Sun / Shade. But how does that work?! Basically this means the plant is super adaptable and versatile. As a general rule though, you can expect that a plant which will survive in multiple aspects will always have stronger growth, better foliage and more flowers the more sun it receives. 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?

Morning Sun is the suns rays that we see before midday and Afternoon Sun is the light that we receive after midday. Morning sun is less intense, while the afternoon sun is the opposite. It's also to remember that morning sun in Summer will always be more intense than the morning sun in winter and the same goes for afternoon sun. You can use the suns intensity to your advantage to help decide on 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 hrs of direct Afternoon Sun during the summer months. It will still flower in these conditions, but the flower show may be smaller or there maybe less of the,

* A Shade loving foliage plant may only need 2hrs of direct sun during the day, but if your aspect receives 4hrs 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. East facing will receive morning sun and western facing will be hit with the afternoon sun. Use your phones mapping system or download a compass app onto your phone, 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 that live in apartments where balconies can often be blocked by other buildings, creating challenging aspects to grow plants. For a more detailed look into your aspect, a phone app that helps track the suns 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 have an impact on the changing aspect of the sun throughout the year. The key in this situation is to pick plants that are 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 also 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 you garden gets Full Sun in Summer but no or very little sun in Winter. Grow deciduous trees and plants that will lap up the suns rays during the warmer months, but wont 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 some colour and floral interest to gardens and balconies that don't receive much sun. Bulbs store their energy from the previous season and use this to sprout foliage and flowers the following year. Planting them in late Autumn will ensure that they come alive as the weather warms up. Providing they are receiving a sufficient amount of light, which does not need to be from direct sunshine, then they will still put on a good show. 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 wont be able to store enough for next years show.

* Use lightweight and small pots that can be moved around your space to quite literally 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 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, then have a professional come and analyse your aspect and make suggestions, or ask your local nursery for some guidance.

If you plant fails to thrive then don't despair! There is a plant out there for EVERY garden in EVERY space with ANY aspect. You just have to go hunting for it.

Ferns are natural shade lovers and will do well on south facing balconies that provide some protection from strong winds

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