Most plants grown in gardens need from 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day. However, if your garden faces north or doesn’t get enough sunlight, you might be worried if starting a garden either indoor or outdoor is a good idea.
The number of sunlight hours of a north-facing garden depends on 1) emisphere 2) season, 3) house location 4) light blockers 5) weather conditions. North-facing gardens receive the least hours of sunlight in the nothern emisphere. Some plants can thrive in such conditions while others will suffer.
Hence, if you are stuck with a north-facing garden it is difficult to know whether you should put the effort into growing a garden or not. There are a few things you need to know. Let’s dive in!
The Emisphere Matter (and Microclimate)
A north-facing garden in the southern hemisphere can get the most sunlight in November, December, and January. In the northern hemisphere, the most sunlight goes to a south-facing garden from May until July.
North emimpshere located gardens (UK and USA) that are North-East oriented can enjoy some light from 4am-until 9am during springtime. In summer the garden can have lights the whole day.
The limited hours of light during spring is responsable for delay in growth. Many gardener I talked with mentioned 2-3 weeks delay of their spring flowers in northfacing garden compared to southfacing ones.
However, think in this way. If you live in a place where summer can get really hot, having some shade area in your north-facing garden can be really a plus. Indeed, you can easily cover it in grass (that will grow OK in sunny areas even if north-faced) and place some cosy chairs and garden tables. This will allow you to have a cooler outdoor place where to go during those too hot sunny summer days.
This is something I want to talk about quickly. It is an important topic in gardening that not many talks about. If you keep reading it will change the way you do gardening avoid to think only in the number of sunlight hours.
The amount of lights is important beyond what people normally espect. Indeed, the light received heavily affects the garden microclimate both indoor and outdoors. This means temperature and moisture level in the air. The factors that affect your garden climate are direction, location, slope, elevation, berm, and wind exposure.
Garden Direction – a garden facing north will likely receive the least sunlight. There is more moisture even in summer so ferns, moss, and orchids can thrive here. In the winter, frost can linger even when there’s sun.
Slopes and Elevations – If your north-facing garden is located on top of a slope where it is windier, soil will tend to dry out faster. The angle of slope determines shade as well as soil moisture. For instance, gardens on steeper slopes will have dryer soil.
Berms – With less sunlight, the flat soil at the bottom of a slope or hillside is shaded, can develop cold air pockets, and collect moisture. Plants that require well-drained soil may not do well in this area where it is cooler with more moisture in the air.
Wind Exposure – Keep in mind that a north-facing garden exposed to windy weather has high evaporation and drier soil. Wind may also damage tender leaves. Plants with waxy, thick, or leathery leaves (e.g., lavender, rosemary) tend to resist wind damage.
New Houses Are Not Garden Friendly (Market Tactic)
In the UK, as well as in many other northern countries, houses are more and more built with their entrance southfacing to increase the house sale price.
Indeed, when people visit the house, before buying, it is during day time and walking naturally illuminated rooms leaves a very positive impression on the potential future buyer increasing sales.
However, a southfacing entrance often implies a back north-facing garden. If this is your case you can enjoy lots of sunshine in your kitchen or living room, but not in your garden. These houses are ideal for indoor gardens.
Another aspect you need to check is the location of houses compared to the garden. If your house entrance is southfacing and the garden is on the back, just outside the house, this is probably the worst combo.
Indeed, the house will create a long shadow in the north-facing garden making it cold and chilled even during summer. This is especially important if you live in a place where the summer is mild (like in the UK, Kansas, Nebraska etc…). In those areas, the north-facing garden can get really cold (close to autumn) during spring late hours, making common spring plants to blossom late (if not at all).
What Can You Grow in a North Facing Garden?
There are a large variety of plants (from herbs, to flower plants and vegetables) that can be grown succesfull in a shade garden. Some of them might simply be fine. They will grow and develop. Their harvest is not comparable to what you can have in a south-facing garden. Others might even thrive.
To discover more I just wrote a whole article on the topic.
Hours of Sunlight
Garden that faces north is shaded most of the day. Nonetheless it can get good sunlight hours from May to October. Good news: a garden that is shaded at midday can be used to your advantage, such as for growing lighter, less bitter vegetables.
Of course, a partially-shaded area that doesn’t get full sun all day long is the perfect microclimate for growing fruits and vegetables that don’t like direct sunlight. Also, you can extend cool-season crops from springtime up to early summertime.
Full sun: From 10 A. M. to 6 P. M., the full-sun areas in your garden are those that get at least 6 hours of direct sunshine each day. However, since sun strength is weaker in northern climates, full-sun plants need at least 8 hours of sunlight per day.
Partial shade: Partial shade or partial sun are areas that get from 3 to 6 hours of sunlight and are shaded the rest of the time. Partial shade can be filtered or dappled where the sunlight shines through leafy trees.
Types of Shade
To determine the amount of shade in your north-facing garden let’s identify the types of shade that you can find in your garden. Depending on the shade, some plants can do better than others.
Open shade: The spots in your garden that get a lot of bright light but no direct sun is called an open-shade area. Although the area is open to the sky, there is a house, fence, or wall that blocks the sun.
Filtered shade: This is where a moving pattern of sunlight gets through the branches of a tree. Each day, this shaded area may get less than 4 hours of direct sunlight.
Medium shade: This is a combination of open shade with more light blocking from leaves and branches. Pruning can increase sunlight exposure.
Deep shade: This is the shade under trees with thick leaves and branches, such as in a forest, where little sunlight penetrates. Very few plants can grow in deep shade.
Although many doubt the value of tools that measure sunlight exposure, some of your options include lower-cost sunlight calculators such as one from Luster Leaf on Amazon, or more higher-priced tools such as the Solar Power Radiation Meter.
Sun Map of Your Garden To Know it Better
One of the ways to know if your garden is a sun map. Put simply, a sun map details the shaded spots and where the sun shines directly into the garden. This sun map helps you identify the areas with the most and least sunlight at key points of the day, throughout the year.
To create a sun map the easiest way is to take, at interval of 2-3 hours durig day time of the garden. This will allow you to spot immediately those spots where lights hit the most.
If your garden’s sunlight exposure varies due to moving shade, try a container garden. Move the pots or containers to spots that receive the most sunlight. Another alternative is an indoor garden in the southfacing part of your house. You can easily grow herbs such as mint and rosemary.
To make the story short, if you have a north-facing garden that gets less sunlight, sun-mapping is easy and will help you position the right plants correctly so that they can get the right amount of sunshine.
Sun Blockers and Reflectors
Having read this far, you’ll agree that even the greenest of thumbs can have hard times with the wrong microclimate due to a north-facing garden with lack of windows.
Still, technology helps, so let’s look at options such as decreasing sun blockers and using sunlight reflectors for shaded garden areas.
As mentioned, sunblockers can include clouds, fog, smoke, mist, as well as the shadows of structures such as fences, hedges, buildings, or large trees. In most cases, these are beyond our control.
Match different plants with the different amounts of sunlight exposure. For a sunny spot, plant a row of peppers and tomatoes. For a spot that only gets morning sunlight, plant lettuce and greens.
Some low-issue strategies to remove sun blockers include trimming hedges or pruning branches. However, if your sun blockers are meteorological elements, it’s best to be patient for those clouds or fog to blow away.
If like me you live in an area where it is constantly cloudy, then I would go for very stubborn plants like fern or very shade loving (check this article for more).
One of the most unconventional but practical ways to increase sunlight in shaded garden areas is the use of reflectors. You can reflect light towards your garden in a couple of ways.
Some claims that reflected light is effective in enabling the success of many gardeners, although this can be a win strategy indoor.
Put simply, reflecting sunlight uses reflective or light-colored surfaces to bring a lot of light and energy to plants growing in shaded areas. In this way, you can bounce sunlight to spots where tall buildings, trees, or fences block the sun.
One thing to keep in mind is this: in the summertime, the sun is several degrees higher in the sky compared to the same time in the winter, so you’ll have to adjust those reflector angles. Here are some examples of reflective technologies available today.
- Reflective mylar film: Sliding doors and windows can often double as reflective surfaces, more so when you cover them with mylar film (such as this one on Amazon) that reflects light towards the garden. Also, using a one-way window film gives you daytime indoor privacy (like this one).
- Reflective surfaces: Walls painted in light colors as well as floors and walls in light-colored tiles are great at reflecting heat and light.
PRO TIP: Be very careful when using glass or metal reflecting surfaces. These can focus so much heat that plants can be burned.
- Alternatives: Mobile alternatives include sheet metal, cardboard covered with aluminum foil, or plywood painted white. You can also glue reflective mirror tiles (they look like this one on Amazon) to strategic surfaces.
Successful gardening requires a good grasp of the right plants for your climate and the right places to position them. These are as easy as getting the right moisture and soil quality.
What’s a bit tricker to manage is sunlight exposure, particularly where the sunshine is limited by your location, or blocked by trees or buildings. Here’s what you can do:
- Know your location – know the hours of sunlight, the types of shade, and the shade patterns available to plants in your garden;
- Map it out – Create a sun map for each season to remind you when and where the sun is available to your plants at key points of the day;
- Choose your plants – Choose the types of plants according to their sunlight requirements and plant them in the right spots in your garden;
- Remove sunblockers – When you can, prune trees and trim bushes to increase sunlight exposure to your plants;
- Use reflective surfaces – There are many ways to reflect sunlight as it travels across the sky. Use reflective surfaces that can make your garden glow – yes, even if you have a north-facing garden.
These are just some of the many ideas for adjusting sunlight exposure for your plants. You will find that many plants can adapt and flourish. Also, keep in mind that light is only a part of gardening. The point is, don’t be afraid to try things out, explore and experiment.
That’s all and I wish you a very good happy gardening!
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