Are you shady? How and why to make a sun/shade map

It’s midweek and you look at the weekend forecast to see that it’s another scorcher. You are longing for those days a few months back, when you could plant a few things here and there, finishing the day on the back deck with a glass of something cold. Instead, one foot outside and sweat is in your eyes, bugs are on your back, and you are two seconds away from a heat stroke. In the gardening world, there seems to be only two things you can do this time of year in the Carolinas, weed and water. Both are exhausting and about as torturous as waiting for homemade ice cream to freeze up enough to eat. But, it is a perfect time to dream about plans for your garden. One of the most essential and easy parts of that plan? A sun map.

What’s a sun map? A sun map is simply a diagram of your yard showing how much sun or shade any area gets on a particular day. So why make a sun map? It will finally help you understand how to put to use all of those plastic picks that you find in your flower pots when you get them from Roundtree. You know, the ones that say FULL SUN or 2-3 HOURS OF SUNLIGHT. It will explain why that gardenia you’ve always wanted to grow just yellows and drops leaves, no matter what you try to do to it. I have heard folks hypothesize over soils, drainage, pH, nutrients, etc. To me, the very first couple of culprits of success or failure in this part of the country are sun and water. Let’s tackle the first one.

While there are more extreme and exact ways of creating this map, I’m talking to the beginning gardener, or maybe a gardener who has never made their first sun map (for which there is absolutely no shame). I just made my first one last year as I am finally in a home that has enough sun to even justify making one. I’m also talking to the peeps who would never consider themselves gardeners or fear to use the word. Maybe you just call yourself a home owner. If you have read this far, you are a gardener my friend. The sun map is just a tool to help take away some of that fear.

Again, there are many ways to make these, this is just one of the easier ways to get started. If you have made one by a different method and are open to sharing, please do. I love to hear how people do their thing, and it may help someone else do their thing too.

  1. Get a map. You may want to start with a Google map of your property. Depending on the season of the satellite capture, there may be more or less of a leaf canopy covering your land. If the Google map offers you dense trees covering most of your land, try another source. Many counties have a GIS program available online that will offer different map views of your property. Some offer different years, showing various season. Try to find a map that is over the winter period, with few leaves on the trees so that you can see through the canopy to the land below. I had to use the GIS map for Mecklenburg county where I am located, as you can see, the Google map contained too much tree canopy. The goal here is to be able to mark areas, specifically areas of plant growth. If you can’t see the beds from the aerial photo, it will be hard to mark the sun/shade pattern.
  2. Screenshot your map. Zoom into the map, so that your property is covering the maximum part of the screen. Depending on your computer (MAC or PC), grab a screenshot and save it to your desktop. If you have a basic photo editing program, you may be able to crop out any unwanted areas, rotate the lot to make it fit a standard size sheet of paper, and control its brightness and contrast. Ideally if you can, you will want this image to be black and white, and washed out enough that you barely see the lines of hardscape, like beds, walkways, decks, etc.
  3. Print 13 copies. For this example we will be monitoring our sun/shade every hour, starting at 8am and ending at 8pm. You could of course break this down into even smaller increments, every 30mins for instance, to make it even more precise. If you are doing this for the first time, stick with the hour increments for now. If you are like me, you will be surprised to learn the truth of what is happening in your yard versus what you think is happening in your yard regarding sun and shade. After you have printed, mark the top of each page with the time of the top of the hour, and this is the time you will do your markups. Leave one copy empty.
  4. Get some pens, highlighters, crayons, whatever, and start following the sun. (*Note: This activity is best done with little to no cloud coverage to help see the variation). You will see in the picture that I chose to use different highlighters. That is so I can quickly cover over some big areas at one time while still seeing what is under the highlighter on the map. You can use whatever you want, as long as it suits your purpose. You will want three separate marking distinctions: Full Sun, Full Shade, and Dappled Sun. In my example, I use yellow for full sun, purple for full shade, and I dot both colors for dappled. Create a legend on the side or bottom so you know what is what. Full sun and full shade may be self explanatory, but dappled can confuse sometimes. When you look at the ground and see confetti of sunlight that changes with the breeze, that’s dappled. Get your markers and go to town, making sure to pay close attention to those areas you want to cultivate with annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. Now for my pro landscaping and gardening friends out there, I know that this is over simplified. But, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the love of gardening for most.
  5. Repeat every hour. Head out and do this same thing at the top of the hour on a new printing of the lot. You should have 12 when you are finished starting with 8am and ending with 8pm.
  6. Watch over the season. Now, if you do your sun map in April, and compare it to your sun map in August, you may find drastically different results. In April, I would expect much more sun, as the leaves are still emerging from some of our hardwoods. In August, you will see more shade and dappled sun. Another huge influence is Earth’s axis tilt through the year. This shift will open up or close off areas of sunlight as the summer progresses. As you become more entrenched in your garden, you may choose to monitor your sun map every 2 weeks or monthly. For your first time, split the difference and do it around the first part of July.
  7. Add it up. Check out all of your areas and create a new map on your last sheet. Draw lines with a pen to designate which areas get how many areas of sun. You need to pick four different colors/markers to help you distinguish on this map. Just like before, create a legend on the side or bottom so you know what is what. You may notice that we marked three items before, Full Sun, Full Shade, and Dappled. This time, we will be marking Full Sun, Partial Sun/Shade, Dappled Sun, and Full Shade. You will rarely see Dappled Sun marked on a plant info label, but the others simply refer to the number of hours the plants get (or don’t get) full sun.
  • FULL SUN – 6 plus hours of sun per day
  • PARTIAL SUN/SHADE – 3 to 6 hours of sun per day
  • FULL SHADE – Less than 3 hours of direct sun (usually morning sun) per day
  • DAPPLED – Just remember confetti that changes as the breeze blows. Usually counts as 1/2 full sun.
Courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens


8. Plant and watch. While this is just an intro into sun mapping, everyone has to start somewhere. If you’ve ever read gardening blogs about sun, you will see conversations on morning vs. afternoon and evening sun, cloud coverage effects, bright light with shade, etc. Start with a general hourly sun map, and the basics. In no time you will be learning and using all of the nuances of light to maximize your gardens growth potential.

Happy Gardening!

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