The Element of the Sun

Let’s talk a bit about the sun. It is a factor that we use to decide what plants can grow where. Plants are labeled full sun, part sun, part shade, shade, directly meaning 6 plus hours for full sun, 4-6 hours for part sun, 2-4 hours for part shade, and 0-2 hours for shade. Morning sun is gentler than afternoon sun. Dappled shade is different than a wall providing shade. Where you live, and what latitude, can make a difference in the light also. All aspects of your light should factor into your planting schemes.

Eastern Garden in Naguabo, Puerto Rico

While living in Puerto Rico, I discovered our 8am, 18 degree latitude sun was as bright as high noon, mid summer sun at our current 42 degree latitude of Barrington Hills, Il. I didn’t need much to tell me this beyond my sensitive eyes needing sunglasses very early in the day. Considering this intense sun, I positioned our PR kitchen garden on the east side to get the “softer” morning sun and saved the authentic tropical plants for that “full on” afternoon sun on the west side. I was surprised to see canna, hibiscus, and ginger soaking it up, getting rained on mid day, and never having sunburnt leaves. I also would like to mention that vitamin D and happiness is a thing….it’s not just vacation….it’s the sun! Ahh, the tropics.

Late leaf out of our Oaks

We now live in Illinois under the oak trees. This dappled shade is different, and I am learning. It is cooler and damper. I can grow herbs and tomatoes in the breaks between trees. There is likely 4 hours max in any area, yet there is supplemental dappled light throughout the day. Last year was an experiment. I found I could grow tomatoes, yet eggplant and peppers really needed the blaze of 6 plus hours.

Tulips enjoying the Spring

In Spring, we get much more light, with oaks leafing out later than most trees. I decided to plant tulips in our fenced in area (away from deer). The tulips did fantastically, and I will definitely be adding more this fall. The edge of the forest stays cooler, and the tulips have had a very good and long season.

Trout Lily

With dappled shade, I am experimenting now with natives. We have five dogs that love to run, play, lay on plants, dig, and be dogs. I want the yard to be a place for us and them to enjoy. Most of the idea for the yard is to be wild and native. Luckily, there are many natives already thriving. One I find particularly interesting is the trout lily. I was unaware of this plant before it starting coming up last Spring. It is an ephemeral. It enjoys damp, yet well draining areas. It helps capture nutrients that would normally run off the land with heavy spring rains. Trout lily dies back with the heat of summer and disperses those nutrients back into the soil for the other plants to use. How sweet.


Other natives that seem to enjoy the dappled shade are nodding onion, aster, goldenrod, fleabane, daylily, winter cress, coneflower, beads tongue, self heal, and black eyed susan. In spots of light, I am trying columbine, yarrow, queen of the prairie, eastern bluestar, rose milkweed, rose mallow, climbing rose, clematis, iris, and bunch flower. So far, so good.

As the season continues, I discover more and more about what plants like the on/off slightly filtered shine of dappled light. It’s like short naps for plants to take a small break from the heat of the day, and everyone loves naps.

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