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Full Sun vs. Partial Shade: 5 Types of Sunlight for Gardening

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Apr 24, 2020 • 2 min read

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Ron Finley Teaches Gardening

Different plants need different degrees of sun exposure. While many thrive in direct sunlight, others can be worn out by a few hours of sun. If you understand the amount of sunlight a plant needs, you can arrange your garden so that the right plants always get the right allowance of sunshine.

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Ron Finley Teaches GardeningRon Finley Teaches Gardening

Community activist and self-taught gardener Ron Finley shows you how to garden in any space, nurture your plants, and grow your own food.

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5 Types of Sunlight for Garden Plants

When you purchase a plant at your local hardware store or garden center, check to see if it comes with a plant tag attached to a leaf or a plastic stake wedged in the soil; this plant label will inform you of the plant's light requirements. It will specify how many hours of direct sunlight the plant needs and describe the recommended light conditions and growing conditions for the specific plant species. There are five types of sunlight a plant may require.

  1. Full sun: Many plant species can endure—and even thrive under—a full day of sunlight. Grow sun-loving plants away from foliage, fences, or buildings that cast long shadows for most of the day. Full sun plants don't necessarily need all-day sunlight, but they generally need at least six hours. Afternoon sun tends to be stronger than morning sun, so if you know you can only offer a plant six hours of sun exposure, plant it in a spot that gets most of its sunlight in the afternoon. Full sun perennials and drought-tolerant plants like succulents and salvia love full sun, as do most plants you'd grow in a vegetable garden. Reserve sunny spots for these species.
  2. Partial sun: Partial sun plants typically also need around six hours of sunlight (and no less than four), but they also benefit from some time spent in the shade. Morning may be the best time of day for these plants to receive their daily dose of sun. Hot afternoons may prove overwhelming for part sun plants, so give them several hours of direct sun in the morning, but keep them shaded from the most intense afternoon heat. Many flowering plants do best in partial sun.
  3. Partial shade: If a plant tag calls for partial shade, take care not to overwhelm the plant with sun. Plants that thrive in partial shade typically need less than four hours of direct sunlight, but more than an hour and a half. Partial shade plants do well when planted in an east-facing yard or garden bed. They'll still get enough sun during the morning hours, but they'll spend afternoons in the shade.
  4. Dappled sun: Not many plants require dappled sunlight or dappled shade, but this care description indicates that they need less sun and even more protection than part shade plants. Plant a dappled sun or dappled shade plant under a tree, where the sun filters through the tree’s leaves in a “dappled” pattern. Morning and early afternoon sun are fine for these plants, but limit them to just a little sun per day.
  5. Full shade: Full shade plants still need sunlight (all plants do), but they can get by with at most three hours of direct sun per day. In nature, these plants live in shaded areas like the forest floor. You can grow full shade plants in the shadiest parts of your yard, or you can grow them indoors and keep them as a houseplant. Full shade plants are low maintenance once established.

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Grow your own food with Ron Finley, the self-described "Gangster Gardener." Get the MasterClass All-Access Pass and learn how to cultivate fresh herbs and vegetables, keep your house plants alive, and use compost to make your community - and the world - a better place.

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