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Everywhere the Light Falls: Mapping Sun Exposure in Your Garden

There are some plants that can’t help but grow whenever and wherever you put them in soil, but the most beautiful and advantageous garden plants tend to be a bit more finnicky. To thrive, seeds and shoots must be planted at specific depths and distances apart; they must be watered according to their individual needs; and they must receive an appropriate amount of sunlight. Fortunately, savvy gardeners can build stunning outdoor spaces by maintaining complete control over their garden space — even the sun.

Photo by Shutterstock/All Around Photo

Light is fuel for plants, but just like you shouldn’t pour diesel into your hybrid, you shouldn’t assume that all plants require the same amount and type of light. While you can’t turn off the sun, you can map where light and shadow falls throughout the day. This guide will help you understand your garden’s exposure and give you ideas for planting a healthy garden.

Mapping the Analog Way

It doesn’t take high-tech gadgetry to obtain a practical understanding of the light in your garden. In fact, all you really need is a pencil, paper, and diligence. The process can be incredibly simple:

Wake up just after dawn.
Draw a map of your yard.
Using different shading or colors, label which areas are in full sun, partial sun, and full shade.
Repeat, every three hours, until sundown.

The night before your experiment, you should produce as many maps as you’ll need throughout the day — which will vary depending on your latitude and the time of year. You need more than one map because as the sun travels through the sky, shadows will fall differently across your yard. Then, you can set alarms to remind you to check your garden every three hours. You should consider repeating this experiment at least three times, so you know how light behaves in different seasons.

If it isn’t clear, full-sun areas are regions in your garden that are not touched by shadow; partial sun areas are a mixture of light and shadow; and full shade areas are dark and untouched by light. By adding the data from your multiple maps, you can determine which areas get several hours’ worth of sunlight and which get none.

Mapping with Digital Tools

If all that drawing and observing seems like a terrible chore, you can simplify your exposure mapping with a few digital gardening tools. You can place one or more sunlight calculators in your yard to read the light in various places. More advanced sunlight calculators can also track the sun’s position and report it to a mobile app. Alternatively, you can use an augmented reality app, like Sun Seeker, to learn about solar paths, and daylight hours in your area.  It is important to remember that these might not be able to accurately predict the exact light conditions in your yard.

You can still use high-tech devices without investing in dedicated gardening gadgetry. For example, you can use security cameras to watch your yard throughout the day, and then you can fast forward through the tape to determine which areas were sunny and shady. Alternatively, instead of hand-drawing all those maps of your garden, you can print out aerial views of your home from services like Google Maps and mark the moving sun and shade on those. Technology offers plenty of solutions for making gardening easier, if only you use your devices creatively.

Photo by Shutterstock/Klem Mitch

What to Do with Your Exposure Map

Once you have a comprehensive understanding of the light and shadow in your garden, you can begin planning which plants to place where. This is called exposure gardening, and it gives you the best chance to grow exceedingly healthy flora.

Most plants are labelled according to their sun exposure needs:

Full-sun plants require more than six hours of light.
Partial-sun plants require three to six hours of light.

Still, rarely are plants’ light needs so simple. For example, tomatoes tend to benefit by plenty of early-morning light, but they will languish under afternoon sun. That’s why creating several maps of your yard is so beneficial: You gain near-complete knowledge of sun conditions in your garden.

Meanwhile, any areas that are cast in darkness for the entire day will likely not be able to sustain any plant life and should be filled with other decorations, like birdbaths, fountains, or seating. Every area of your yard has a purpose, even if that purpose is a place to sit and admire your healthy, green kingdom.


Jackie is a content coordinator and contributor that creates quality articles for topics like technology, business, home life, and education. She studied business management and is continually building positive relationships with other publishers and the internet community.

Published on Oct 5, 2017

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