Strolling through a garden center we are eventually going to be drawn to a particular plant. Reading the plant tag, we are already imagining where it will look good in our yard, and then we come to the dreaded sun/part shade… line. Confusion sets in quicker than the guilt from visiting your mother-in-law. What’s full sun? What’s the difference between partial sun or partial shade? Does shade mean absolutely no sunlight?

Let’s try to explain these sun exposure terms in a way that makes sense when determining how much sun a plant needs or tolerates.

  • Full Sun:  An area that receives a total of 6 hours or more of direct sunlight.  Even an area on the north side of the house could be considered full sun if it gets 3 hours of sun in the morning, then 3 additional hours of sun as it sets in the west.
  • Partial Sun or Partial Shade: We can interchange these terms. 3-6 hours of direct sunlight best describes this situation.
  • Dappled Sun: When an area goes in and out of direct sun; usually as a result if surrounding deciduous trees.
  • Full Shade: An area receiving less 3 hours of direct sunlight, especially if it is morning sunlight.

Often we see a range of sunlight conditions on a plant tag or nursery sign. It might say full sun/part sun. This means the plant will thrive with less than 6 hours of sunlight, but will also tolerate 6 or more hours of direct sun.  The opposite is part shade/full shade. Here this means this plant will do fine with little or no direct sun, but may also tolerate 3-5 hours of direct sun.

  • A Word of Caution: Plant tags from the grower are often generic to cover all the climate zones where the plant will live. A pieris in Vermont will thrive in full sun, but here in the South it suffers and dies in our hot afternoon sun.  It is better to ask questions, or research what a particular plant needs to thrive in our climate before making decisions.
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