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Sun, Shade or Perhaps Something in Between

One of the most basic questions on gardening is whether you are looking for a sun or shade plant, or maybe something in between. This simple idea can be difficult to define if you don't understand what constitutes full sun, full shade, and partial sun/shade. This article will go over the basics of sun and shade and how to determine which category different areas should be labeled.

Contributors: Kerry Meyer, Rick Schoellhorn

One of the most basic questions on gardening is whether you are looking for a sun or shade plant, or maybe something in between. This simple idea can be difficult to define if you don't understand what constitutes full sun, full shade, and partial sun/shade. This article will go over the basics of sun and shade and how to determine which category different areas should be labeled.

Gardening doesn’t have a lot of black and white issues; a lot of having a garden is in understanding the many different shades of gray. How easy it is to put a sun plant where it gets too much shade or a shade plant where it gets too much sun? We think part of the problem is that many people aren't certain just exactly what constitutes full sun or full shade, much less partial sun or shade.

The rules of thumb we go by are these:

Full Sun is 6 or more hours of direct sun a day

Partial Sun or Partial Shade is 4 to 6 hours of direct sun a day

Full Shade is less than 4 hours of direct sun a day

So how can you avoid torturing your sun plants with too much shade and your shade plants with too much sun?

One way is to draw a simple diagram of your garden. Then one day when you have time go out every hour, starting first thing in the morning, and mark which areas have sun or shade. Count the number of hours each area has sun to determine which conditions apply. The angle of the sun will impact how much sunlight each area gets. Northern exposures become much shadier in the winter and southern exposures get much more sun in summer. You may want to ch

eck the hours of sun each area receives every few months to get a really good feel for the amount of sunlight each area gets as the seasons change.

Full sun plants like bright sunny areas. Many full sun plants will be perfectly happy with sun 14 hours a day, every day. Some plants are happy with sun 14 hours a day, unless it gets hot then they like some afternoon shade (when the sun is hottest.) How do you know which sun plants prefer a bit of a heat break?

If the plant is noted as being great for early spring it is a good bet that it will be happiest with some afternoon shade. Some plants that fall into this category are:

Fruit Punch®

Soprano® & Symphony®  Osteospermum

Pure White Butterfly, Vanilla Butterfly®

Plants that are noted as heat and/or drought tolerant are generally pretty tolerant of even hot afternoon sun. Plants in this category include:

‘Tuscan Sun’





Flambé® Chrysocephalum

Partial sun and partial shade are probably the most confusing category. The two terms are fairly interchangeable. These plants prefer 4 to 6 hours of sun a day and would be happiest getting their sun mostly in the morning and/or evening with shade through the middle of the day. If a plant is called partial sun the emphasis is on making sure the plant gets at least 4 hours of sun a day. If a plant is called partial shade then greater emphasis is placed on the plant not getting more than 6 hours of direct sun.

You may also see the term Dappled Shade. Dappled shade refers to areas where there is a mixture of sun and shade, generally because a deciduous tree is nearby. Dappled shade is similar to partial shade. Plants in this category are often woodland plants and will do best with little full sun (even morning or evening sun). These plants thrive in sun that has been filtered by trees:



New Guinea


‘Bottle Rocket’

‘Jade Peacock’


Full shade plants prefer to get little direct sun. They like less than 4 hours of direct sun a day and prefer morning and evening sun to mid-day sun. Full shade plants should also do outstanding in dappled shade conditions. An area that will be shaded by a fence or wall will need to get several hours of sun in either morning or evening for plants to do well. Full shade does not refer to dark places.  All plants need at least some light.



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Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Tue, 06/02/2015 - 10:16am

What a great question and unfortunately there is no simple answer.

So much depends on the location (is there a house wall on that side of the garden? Do you live in the north or the south of the country? What kind of shrubs are nearby taking up water and affecting the heat load at a given time of day?) it is simply.... not simple....chuckle

In general if a plant is labelled for part sun, it is likely that it also does not like the hottest sun of the day, so like your description most of yours like morning sun which is usually much gentler than afternoon sun.

We are often frustrated by the part sun/part shade definition, because it often comes down to developing a 'feel' for what plants do well in your garden specifically and that is something you can only develop by trial and error. We feel your pain, but suggest that you always start first with these plants in morning sun and part shade in afternoons as you have learned!

I wish there was an easier answer!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 05/05/2015 - 7:07pm

I live in an apartment in central Maryland. My balcony faces east, but there are trees about 50' away that block the earliest sun. So realistically, we only get 2-3 hours of morning sun, but are looking for flowers to brighten up the space. Unfortunately we've had trouble finding suitable varieties. Any suggestions?

Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Tue, 06/02/2015 - 10:21am

OK so it sounds like what you really have is shade. Those 2-3 hours of morning sun are wonderful, but the rest of the day your living on shadows and reflected light. The south east corner of your patio will be corner that gets the most light, even if it is only by a few minutes. Here is a primer of some easy plants to start with and learn what does best on your balcony. Remember the amount of wind can also be a factor, a lot of shade plants do not like high winds, so be a bit careful!

Easy and colorful:
Begonias of all kinds - Try the Surefire types and see if you like them!
Coleus - like the ColorBlaze series
House plants - things like Philodendron, or Chinese Evergreen can add a tropical effect.
Experiment with Impatiens - start with a few and see if they hold their flowers, if not it is likely too shady.

Give these a shot and let us know what works best for you!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 05/03/2015 - 9:51am

I am in zone 6 Berkley MA. We have a Cape with a farmers porch across the front. Last year I ripped out all the over grown lanky shrubs and planted the same flowers on both sides. Black eyed susans, painted daisy, coneflower, tick seed, gayfeather. I also planted gold spirea one on each side planning to put one more on each this year. One side is growing faster than the other. I assume one side getting more sun than other. Any thoughts?. I may take plants out and plant along brick walkway on sunnier side. But what to with the less sun side to incorporate it with all plants on other side.

Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Tue, 06/02/2015 - 10:27am

Hi there
Which direction does your house face? The southern side of your house will always get the most sun, so it sounds like the southern half of your yard is growing faster? Check to make sure one side does not stay drier than the other as that could also explain the difference, or if there are overhanging trees or large shrubs nearby they can out compete the flowers for water and fertilizer and that could also add to the difference between each side.

I think the main thing is that you have some plants that are common to both sides of the walkway to keep things balanced. The gold spirea would be very nice and if they are happy but a bit smaller on one side than the other, that's OK, in landscape design our human eyes look for similarity or continuity and having a few 'bones' type plants that act to connect either side of a walkway is a very good idea, but unless you are doing a formal garden, try uneven numbers of each side of the walkway so that it doesn't look like rows of soldiers but more like a naturalized landscape,.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 04/29/2015 - 7:18pm

Hi I have a front yard with beds flush with large windows on both sides of porch. One side is full sun (house faces west) and the other side is part shade due to large tree on that side. I would like to plant symmetrically, something that has color all year (Columbus, Ohio) and not boxwoods. I was thinking of wine and roses, but not sure they would do well on part shade side. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks!

Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Tue, 06/02/2015 - 10:32am

Hi there -
This sounds like a great idea and I think Wine & Roses would be a good choice. Whenever you have this inequality of light you will need to adapt your pruning to account for the fact that the sunny side will always grow a bit denser and larger than the shadier part of the garden.

Deep shade will not work for Wine & Roses, but partial shade will be OK - you just need to work each year after flowering to shape the plants so they remain close to one another in size. The sunnier side of the yard will likely take a bit more pruning and the shadier side you will need to exercise a bit of caution and do a little less pruning so the plants can grow well.

Actually i love that kind of job where you have to stand back and evaluate the balance of what you are doing as you prune it is very rewarding!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 08/10/2014 - 11:15am

I have a small flower garden (8x8) the first and second rows are full sun and then as you go down it gets less and less and back corner is almost always in complete shade. I purchased blacked eyed susans and planted them in my front row not realizing how tall they were. These BES are growing so well that they have drowned out the shasta daisies planted between them. Now I need to move them this fall but my problem is where?? They need to be in the back obviously but they will not grow well there because they do not get enough sun. I am wondering if I could plant them down the left side where they will get enough sun and will not hide the other flowers?

There is room in front of my flower bed to add to it and that area happens to get 6 hours of sunlight each day. My problem again is the BES will cover up the flowers in the current bed if they are planted in the back of the new bed. Get my problem? I am having a horrible time designing this flower bed and I do not want to give up my BES. If I could plant them down the side that would work but don't know if it would look right.

Oh I am in TN in Zone 7b

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Tue, 08/19/2014 - 10:34am

You don't mention what, if anything, borders the left-side of the bed, where you are contemplating planting the Black-eyed Susans.  Without seeing a photo or photos it is really difficult to know how it would look.  If you want to send photos, email them to me at  Please include a reminder on the challenge you are trying to solve.  I answer a lot of qeustions and they can really start to blend together and it gets hard to remember any details.

Planting the Black-eyed Susans on the left side edge of the bed, could very well be fine.  Think of it a bit this way.  If you plant something tall along that edge you are basically setting that up as a backdrop for the flowers in front of them.  This means that the bed will be basically be viewable from the right and front sides, since you will have height creating a backdrop on the left.  If that seems like it would maybe be OK, then give it a try.  Black-eyed Susans are pretty darn forgiving plants, so after a year, if you don't like that look, then move them again next year...

If you send photos, I'll try to give you a more definitive answer...

Kerry Meyer
Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 06/12/2014 - 1:55pm

Do Supertunias need to be deadheaded and can they grow in partial shade or require full sun?

Kelly Geoghegan's picture
Kelly Geoghegan Wed, 07/16/2014 - 2:44pm

Supertunias do not need to be deadheaded! They do need sun! So try to stay away from partial shade!

Hope this helps! Kelly Geoghegan PW

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 06/12/2014 - 1:50pm

Is it necessary to deadhead Supertunias? In years past, I haven't done so, but this year I have much smaller blooms and lots of stems from blossoms that have fallen off that now appear to be gone to seed .... much like petunias of the past. Should I cut those off?

Kelly Geoghegan's picture
Kelly Geoghegan Wed, 07/16/2014 - 2:49pm

No, it is not necessary to deadhead Supertunias! You can cut those off if you want but it is not necessary!

Hope this helps! Kelly Geoghegan PW

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 05/09/2014 - 11:40am

I noticed this year on the plant label that my dragon wing begonia could be planted in full sun or full shade. Any other plants that aren't picky?

Kelly Geoghegan's picture
Kelly Geoghegan Thu, 05/29/2014 - 4:19pm

There are plants that aren't picky with full sun or shade! Here are some examples: Surefire™, Pink Chablis®, Charmed®, any of the Colorblaze®, Sprinter™ and Wedding Ring™.

Hope this helps! Kelly Geoghegan PW

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 05/02/2014 - 12:53pm

Despite extensive research I have been unable to find any online information that directly addresses the challenges of landscape planning around a partially exposed concrete foundation. The conditions on west facing side of the house are particularly brutal - a concrete foundation wall absorbing & reflecting the heat from prolonged afternoon sun. Seasonal temperatures & the length of the seasons here in New England are no longer what they once were. The winter and summer are harsher with more extreme temperatures, temperature fluctuations & shortened intermediate seasons (spring/fall). It can be 60 degrees & sunny on a Monday in mid-April followed by freezing overnight temperatures on Wednesday. It tends to rain too much in a short span of time (producing flooding and sodden mulched plant beds ripe for fungal diseases) followed by long stretches without rain (weakening the plants & lowering their ability to withstand pests & viral diseases). Plant hardiness in New England is becoming an oxymoron - the hardiness zone & heat index charts are in desperate need of updating.

Those are the environmental conditions working against the west facing concrete wall plantings in addition to the increased heat index & soil alkalinity the wall itself creates. Is there anything that can withstand those conditions? (Our hardiness zone is usually considered 6a). Are there ways to minimize the heat absorption/reflection off the concrete, other than covering it with ivy (we have a problem with clover mites & don't want to invite them to winter under the siding), until the newly planted trees grow large enough to provide some shade?

I've come to the limit of what I can figure out on my own. Any advice would be greatly appreciated as all of the plants the landscaper used have since died from disease/pests/heat damage of incorrect placement.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 05/19/2015 - 10:51am

Good point! I live in New England and you are right on about the conditions here over the years.
It seems all I've been doing in the last few years is relocating my plants and my back is very tired of it!!!
But there's no global warming is there!!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 04/26/2014 - 1:43pm

I've read your article, thank you, and have planted different perennial flowers for over 18 years in my walkway, with no success of the flowers lasting...they look horrible at the end of the summer....the flower bed has a roof overhang, part of the flower beds on each side get full sun at one end and full shade at the other end....I haven't found a combination that works and would love some thinking about going to a would have been much cheaper in the beginning if I would have done this at the very beginning but thought I could figure it out....

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/10/2014 - 12:32am

Caladiums do well in your situation. The shaded end will be smaller and not as full but will still grow and look nice.

Kelly Geoghegan's picture
Kelly Geoghegan Mon, 04/28/2014 - 5:16pm

For the shaded area I would recommend any of the Rockapulco® Impatiens, all of the Infinity® New Guinea Impatien, the Dolces® Heuchera or the ColorBlaze® Coleus.

For the sun area I would recommend any of the Supertunias®, Sweet Romance™ Lavender, Stratosphere™ Pink Picotee or the Diamond Frost® Euphorbia!

I hope this helps! Kelly Geoghegan PW

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 03/29/2014 - 5:18am

I want to frame my front door, which is red in color, and gets maybe four hrs. Of late afternoon sun. Can u suggest a nice small combination of plants that will thrive for me. My pots are concrete and approx. 12-14 inches round and 12 inches deep. Please help!!! Thank you!!

Kelly Geoghegan's picture
Kelly Geoghegan Tue, 04/08/2014 - 4:03pm

The shade is the hardest! But this link will show you all of the combinations! Pick full shade or part shade to full shade and those will be the best options for you!

Hope this helps! Kelly Geoghegan PW

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 10/01/2013 - 9:00am

I have an area in one of my beds that gets about 2-3 hours of afternoon sun between about noon to 3 (at most). I have found it very difficult to find partial sun/shade perennials that will work there. I live in Missouri so, during many summers, the afternoon temps can climb to 90 - 100 degrees.

Any suggestions?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/09/2017 - 4:13pm

I'm in Texas and my garden is in shade until 3 pm and then it gets hit with intense sun. I have had many part shade plants burn, including azaleas, gardenias and endless perennials. I have some polyantha rose cultivars that bloom profusely in this space, but can't seem to keep companion plants alive. We get both drought and flood with waterlogged soil for up to a week at times. It just depends on the month. I'm aiming for a cottage garden look, but right now it's roses and weeds, especially vines. Any suggestions?

Sandy Wentworth's picture
Sandy Wentworth Fri, 10/04/2013 - 11:36am

I think we all have problem areas like this and so many plants that take part sun would prefer morning sun. It also depends on the size of plant you want. A boxwood would be nice and stay green all year round, something smaller would be Heucera, they come in many different colors. Our Ligularia 'bottle Rocket' is nice but likes moist conditions, will tolerate dryer contitions once established.Baptisia 'Lemon Meringue' may work too.

Hope this gives you enough opptions. Good Luck!

Feel free to call if you have any questions.


Sandy Wentworth

Proven Winners


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 07/30/2013 - 2:35pm

Thank you so much!! You are exactly correct when you said none explained the difference between full sun and partial shade and stuff.. I am a newbie in gardening and i really have no clue on what to do. I thought you just dig a hole in the ground and plant and water. (That's exactly what i did in my front yard and now my flowers are dying) And i also thought, just build a trellis all around my semi prepared 8 by 8 ft garden and grow veggies that climb and my garden will be beautiful.. lol!! So, since surely you are the best person to ask because you hit the very smallest details for beginners in gardening, i wonder if you could tackle the difference in watering..(average or moist) kinda thingy.. Also, my whole semi prepared garden seem to get more than 6 hours of sun per day, can i just build trellis in rows too so if i plant bokchoy and other asian green in between the trellis, then i know they will start getting shades from these trellises by 11 a.m. since most of the veggies that i want to eat are those that requires 2,3 or 4 hours of sunlight a day? Thank you very much again...

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 05/23/2013 - 3:30pm

Thank you so much! I thought "duh, I know the difference between sun and shade", I have, sadly.and unintentionally mistreated many lovely.plants. I began to buy only the ones from the (infirmary) 1/2 price area of my local Garden center because I felt like if they died, they were going to anyway, but if they survived it would be like I had done a good thing.i thought I was just not destined to have a garden.
Turns out though that I did not really know the difference between full shade, full sun, partial etc..
Thanks again, I am putting things where they want to live now and having some success.
Funny about that plant that just decided to relocate on its own though!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 07/21/2012 - 1:59pm

I have been gardening for 30 years and have never seen this explained as well. Thank you. I just purchased a shade/part shade shrub and I'm looking at that thinking, "what does that mean?"
Five years ago I planted a "prophet" mum where I knew it wouldn't get enough sun. It was a dumb idea but it looked good there. A funny thing has happened. Hardy mums have a habit of spreading and this one only spreads toward the sun. It has literally moved its homebase three feet from where I planted it. Apparently, the mum is smarter than me.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 06/15/2012 - 12:41pm

I've found it easy to use my digital camera to go around my yard every hour or two. I've organized the photos into folders for each garden area. Makes it easy to see at a glance what's up with each area. It's the beginning of summer, now, so I'll redo the photos for mid-summer and fall as the light will change for us in the north (Pennsylvania).

Great article, though. The information helped me a lot.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 04/25/2012 - 6:22am

I just working at a garden center and this was so helpful and the articel was easy to find. Now I can help me customers so much more. Thanks again Tonia Hauch.

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