Sun Plants in Sun; Shade Plants in Shade

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Sun Plants in Sun; Shade Plants in Shade

A plant’s provenance helps define where it will best survive.

A plant’s provenance helps define where it will best survive. As the earth transforms over time, plants strive to adapt to change. They may develop the ability to retain large amounts of water to endure periods of drought. They may begin to grow fuzz to ward off chewing pests. They may adjust color to absorb or reflect more sunlight. Or, they may simply fail to adapt, become sickly and even die as the world changes around them.

In home gardens, respecting that various plants perform best under particular environmental circumstances can ensure our gardens remain relatively healthy, pest free, lower maintenance, less costly and more beautiful. Certainly, more intrepid gardeners enjoy pushing their plants to the edge of survival by experimenting with less likely locations for an individual plant. But, for those gardeners looking for rock-solid results from their plant purchases, respecting a plant’s known requirements is a best bet.

Begin by understanding your garden’s environment. Are you gardening in a deep, evergreen forest or a sandy, exposed desert? Is your soil typically acidic or alkaline? Are you in zone five or zone nine? Is it windy and is that wind filled with salt water? What amount of rain does your garden receive? Does it stay soggy all the time or just seasonally? Or is it just plain dry? Or perhaps you have some combination of all these things. Once you have assessed the basics of your garden’s overall environment, begin to drill down on where each type of micro-environment begins and ends. Then, you can embark on choosing plants that should flourish in each spot.

Most plants succeed in areas with morning sunlight. Following the dark of night, morning light isn’t as harsh as the sunlight that bears down from above at mid-day or burns from the West on hot, late summer afternoons. Generally speaking, many shade-loving plants will do fine if given a few hours of early morning sunshine. Later, shade lovers will require protection from the sun. Some like a bit of dappled shade – meaning shade with spots of sunlight filtering through. Others will require more complete, deep shade with little or not sunlight touching them. If you’re uncertain about what kind of shade a plant really requires, ask at the nursery before you buy.


Some shade lovers, like Jack Frost Brunnera (shown in shade at the beginning of the article and in too much sun just above.), won’t take the afternoon sunshine, but they will thrive in drier spots in the shade. This makes them particularly great for locations under large trees that easily take up nearly all the available water. On the other hand, shade-loving shrubs like Hydrangeas prefer a spot that offers them water to sip throughout the heat of the day, so both shade and water are critical for their success.

If your garden is more sunny than shady, avoid frying your favorite plants under the great heat lamp in the sky. If you find yourself falling in love with shade loving plants, take the time to shop for a something similar that is adapted to your sunnier garden. Odds are there will be a similar plant combination that will help you come close to matching the shade plant you adore. Most higher-end nurseries, garden designers and garden coaches can help you drill down on the best choices to match your wants with your garden’s needs.

Some tried and true sun loving plants like David Viburnum and many sedums, like golden ‘Angelina’ (shown below) will do double-duty by also thriving in the shade. But remember: not all plants can do double-duty. Many sun loving plants will be come leggy and more prone to pests and disease when grown in deeper shade spots.


And, of course, keep in mind that environments change over time. If your garden is sunny today, planting a strategically placed tree may help you develop a shade garden within a few years. Just don’t plant the understory shade plants until you actually have a shade garden in which they will thrive!

Should a tree that canopies your shade garden today end up falling or losing a sun-blocking limb, know that the garden below the previously shady spot may suffer. Some plants may adapt over time, undergoing stress at first and potentially requiring additional supplemental watering to get them through the adjustment period. Or, if they appear they’ll never adapt without sun protection, either add an immediate large plant, structural, or art element to protect them or move them to a new location. And, if you move them, then enjoy the opportunity to begin a new sun garden in your previously shady spot.