Conundrum Series: Sun or Shade?

Ever since I started gardening, I've found myself falling into the "sun or shade" trap. It works like this: I buy a plant, such as the beautiful manzanitas I purchased last weekend, and in my mind, I have the perfect spot for them. In the front garden, where the plants will have sun for most of the day. Or at least half of the day. Or will they? 

Most extreme are the examples of plants at the edge. The Meyer Lemon in the pot above is in a sunny spot on the porch in winter, I move it to bright shade (with 4-6 hours of morning sun) in summer. This year, I've waited too long to return the pot to the sunny porch. You can guess which side of the plant is in the shade. Correct! The little lemon wants to be in the sun and has large beautiful leaves on the right, and sickly looking small leaves on the left. I'm adding the move to the list of weekend chores. 

And here's the rub: Out during a hike, it would not trouble me that the two Monardella villosa plants in the picture above have completely different sizes. But here, in my garden, I'd prefer if they could present the pleasing matching little mounds of purple (or, right now, green) that I had in mind. Instead, we have the little guy on the shady side. 

And the big guy on the sunny side. 

Sometimes I don't follow the rules and things work out. My Salvia spathacea (hummingbird sage) was languishing in the nice shady spot I had chosen for it, full of a white spotty fungus and no blooms all year. I decided to choose a mostly sunny location instead, and even with fairly little water, I've had beautiful blooms and very few fungus problems (the photo below is from this spring, but even now, the plant is mostly green and even trying for a few blossoms). 

Sometimes, the plant survives but does not produce the desired abundance of blossoms, or languishes for months or even years. Here are two Salvias my garden designer put into the original design of the Mediterranean mounds. The first is in bright shade, except for a few months in summer.

And here is its big sister, getting some sun for most of the year. The two are right next to each other, and look just a little bit odd together.

And here's the bad part: No matter how much research I do, I'm never sure what books or websites mean by "part sun" or "part shade". Sometimes they even specify: Sun means 6 hours or more of sunshine. Well, what time of year? Sometimes, they specify "Sun inland, part-shade in coastal locations". Well, is my garden in a coastal location? I'm about 40 miles from the coast, is that coastal?

And so I live and learn, and remain grateful for the plants that tolerate just about everything, such as California poppies, and the plants that look good (though different) in many conditions. Here, Festuca Californica, beautifully bluish green in the shade.

And here Festuca Californica, golden and glorious in the summer front garden.

As for the manzanitas I bought, we'll just have to see how that works out. Will they languish for lack of sunlight? Or will sun after 1 p.m. be enough?  Only time will tell.


donna said…
Well, the manzanitas I planted in the back yard in shade grow just fine, and the ones I planted in the sun in the front yard died. Go figure.
Anonymous said…
What interesting contrast of the plants in sun or shade. It is so hard to know what, or who will be so affected and who will happily grow in that dappled light. You are brave to do so much moving to get it right. My hats off to you! :-)
The age old problem of gardeners everywhere. And the answer seems to be, keep trying. You may just hit it right sometime.

I never had trouble growing nasturtiums until I moved here. Turns out in the baking heat of July and August here they prefer to have some afternoon shade instead of the full sun the enjoyed in California and thrived in in Alaska.
A Deacon's Wife said…
I am delighted to learn that I'm not the only one to notice that the sun doesn't shine the same length of time in the same spot every day of the year! :-) I haven't had the courage to dig things up and move them, although I have developed the good sense to not replace the one that died with one just like it. You've inspired me to give it a try. Thanks.
Rachel said…
Maybe I can give you a little help. Coastal refers to areas where you are getting salt spray. 40 miles would not be coastal.

The 6 hours of more of sun is for the entire year.

Most plants prefer full or part sun. There are very few that like shade. Usually following the tag on the plant is your best bet because it can range between varieties of the same species. For example, Southern Indica hybrids of azaleas can handle some sun, unlike other azaleas. Silvery Sunproof Liriope can also handle some sun, but other varieties cannot.
Christine said…
I'm surprised by the Mondardella in the shade being smaller- usually they get leggy trying to find some sun. I push the boundaries, too- sometimes with success and sometimes not... I've found Manzanitas to have wiggle room in the sun/shade dept though.
Anonymous said…
I also seem to forget regularly that the same plants will behave very differently in the sun and the shade. When I chose Rudbeckia 'Herbstsonne' for my fence border, I imagined it behaving just like the one I already had in the blue and yellow border. But the one in the blue and yellow border is in part shade at the edge of the woods, and the one in full sun in the fence border ended up being very tall and gawky and blooming much earlier. I guess that living in a short-season climate does save me from agonizing about what time of year I should be measuring hours of sunlight; summer is the only season that really matters here! -Jean
Town Mouse said…
Rachel, that's great information. The weather forecast does consider us coastal, and it's useful to hear that plant-wise, we're not. As for the label -- well, the native plant nurseries I frequent never have labels. If you're lucky, the plants have a sticker with their name. Often they don't ;-> I guess I have to continue experimenting. Comforting that I'm not the only one.
Gail said…
It's a dilemma and a puzzle why one plant will thrive and the exact one right next to it doesn't. In my garden that often means~Big rock someplace below the plant! I am puzzled about plant tags in general~and what area of the country they are written for~I think the North East~certainly not the Middle South where full sun means something altogether different. gail
We had a truly, full shade garden at our first house, and a scorching full sun (brand new Central Valley tree-less neighborhood) garden at the last one. I've gardened in both extremes, this is the first 'garden' with a little bit of everything. In my experience, thus far, full shade is only really tolerated by moss and algae. Most plants, even supposed 'shade loving' plants, at least appreciate a morning eastern exposure, with at least some dappled sun. There were areas of that garden nothing would grow in. That said, unless it's a cactus, I think most full sun plants will tolerate some late afternoon shade, and some even seem to demand it, being scorched in too sunny an exposure. I think I've tortured more plants that way than any other. It is a dance though, and one I'm doing here. With our slopes, and high-treelines on part of the property, it's a challenge, as our light is so different in summer and winter. Our temps on hot days are closer to San Jose than Santa Cruz, and some areas get no direct sun in mid-winter. I'll be sure to plant my Mondardellas from the NR sale last weekend in a bright spot though, good tip!
Country Mouse said…
I'm in much the same boat as CVF - we are both in "banana belt" areas of Santa Cruz county. I lost quite a few vulnerable plants in the last heatwave, mostly those in pots. I was shifting things around and watering them daily, but still the sun caught me off guard somehow. And I forgot the fern in the woods!Live and learn... Great topic!