Sun 101 – Understanding sun patterns in your garden

June 20 was the Summer Solstice, the longest (most sunlight hours) day of 2021 for us in the Northern Hemisphere. Understanding where the sun is in your garden is very important. I am amazed at how many people cannot point east in their garden. When I ask where the sun rises each morning, some people cannot answer that.

So let’s have a short Sun 101 course. You may find this useful to share with a new homeowner. Since the sun moves through the sky on annual and daily cycles it takes a year to get to know a garden’s shade patterns and microclimates.

When the sun is the hottest.

My go-to weather app is DarkSky, which includes temps, feels-like temps, the chance of rain, wind speed and direction, and more in their hourly forecast. The hottest part of a summer day in my garden is not High Noon; it is 3-5 p.m. It often doesn’t cool back down to the temperature it was at noon until after dark.

Where the sun rises and sets.

On the Summer Solstice, the sun is highest in the sky and rising and setting at its furthest north. How far north the sun appears and when the sun rises and sets depends on where you are geographically. You see, the Earth rotates around the sun, but it tilts at an angle (23.5°), making the sun appear to be moving from the Northern Hemisphere in our summer to the Southern Hemisphere in our winter. People living on the equator do not notice a difference in day lengths (12 hours of day, 12 hours of night year-round), but the further you live from the equator, the more dramatic the seasonal changes in day length. There are two days a year when almost all of us see the sun rise due east and set due west – around March 20/21 and Sept. 22/23, the first day of spring and fall. Luckily, this is my father’s birthday and my mother’s birthday, so it is very easy for me to remember.

One year I visited England in late June. While I was used to sunrise at 6:30 a.m. and sunset around 8:45 p.m., mush further north in Kent, England it was daylight for morning coffee outside by 4:45 a.m. and still light enough for a conversation on a garden bench after 9:30 p.m. Find sunrise and sunset times for your location at

In winter the sun is lower in the sky and sunrises and sunsets at their furthest south. In Kent the sun sets before 4 p.m. – yikes!

Sun angles

In summer the sun is higher in the sky at midday than it is in winter and that varies by location too. This is why neighborhood homes all have similar eaves; they are designed to both shade from the high summer sun and allow in the warming lower winter sunlight. That lower winter sun also means that shade patterns in winter are much different than shade patterns this week. Also, many trees drop their leaves in winter with some leafing back out earlier than others. My pecan tree takes its sweet time leafing out in spring; it is May before it is casting full shade.

Defining shade.

What is part shade? Oh, that is a tricky question. Here in hot Georgia, prime garden real estate is a spot that gets cooler morning sun and is shaded after 1 pm or so. If a spot is the opposite – shaded all morning and wicked hot sun from 2 p.m. on – that needs a full sun plant. My west side is like that, and I have learned that the strongest plants for that area include aster, rosemary, oregano, lantana, dwarf yaupon holly, crape myrtle, and daylily. Even the salvia often wilts there. But daffodils, who show up in cooler spring and fully retreat in summer, thrive in that area too.

Light coming through a tree canopy is dappled shade, which can be a great place to be a plant. Just keep in mind the tree that shades a plant also has dibs on water during a dry spell. Little plants below may struggle for moisture.

Protecting you from the sun.

Tula hats hang by my back door.

You need to be aware of the sun on you too. We all want some Vitamin D, but too much can do a number on your skin and your body. Please use sunscreen and a hat and drink plenty of water. I am loyal to Tula Hats, available at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia gift shop. Some of mine are well over 10 years old.

Know the symptoms of heatstroke and that there actually is such a thing as sun poisoning. A shirt that protects your skin can be cooler than a tank top. If you are sweating the absorbed moisture can help cool you. If not wearing a collar, I wear a bandana around my neck to stay cooler and stop the back of my neck from turning red.

Keep your phone on you when you are outside in case something happens. When I was little, Mom would send me outside to the garden periodically with a glass of lemonade for Dad. It was later that I figured out that was how she was covertly checking up on him. If you are a gardener I hope that someone is peering out the window to check up on you.


It was quite a challenge to find a website that clearly explains the sun paths. You don’t have to understand all of this, just know that the sun moves up and down, and north and south with the seasons and that shade and heat are different at different times of the day. Notice what the sun is doing in your garden today. You may want to do a shadow map of your garden, noting where the shadows are at different times of day. A friend printed out her garden map and highlighted the areas in shade. Make sure the time and date are on the map and create a new map every three months (around the 20th of March, June, September and December). You will see very different shadow patterns.

Thanks for reading this to the end. Class dismissed. Hope this helped.