Sun, partial sun/partial shade, shade, dappled sun, full shade

Posted by on April 25, 2013

Sun Gardening with Confidence lovingYou’re looking at your plant tag to see if it’s a plant you can grow. It tells you your plant wants partial sun. Do you know what means? Do you have the right sun requirements to grow this plant?

There are a lot of different definitions of sun levels, and they can be just as confusing to beginning gardeners as they are to seasoned ones.

I put the sun into the following categories: Full Sun, Partial Sun / Partial Shade, Dappled Sun, Full Shade.

It’s a good idea to know your sun. I recommend monitoring your garden beds every hour, from 9-5 to keep from guessing how much sun or shade your garden receives. It’s also best to do this during times specific plants are growing. Daffodils, for example, grow and flower best in full sun, yet they do well under the canopy of a deciduous tree. If you base the amount of sun in that bed during the summer, you would fail to recognize that the area under the canopy will be sunny in spring when the bulbs are blooming, and before the tree leaves out.


Although determining if a location will meet your plant’s sun requirements is not an exact science, it will give you a good idea of each garden area’s situation. When you go plant shopping, know what plants grow where, making better purchasing choices.

Below are some common standards for sun exposure.

  • Full Sun: Fun sun means 6 full hours of direct sunlight. Those six hours could be from 8 – 3 or 12 – 6; anytime during the day. These hours can also be three morning hours, plus three afternoon hours.
  • Partial Sun / Partial Shade: These two terms are often interchangeable to mean 3-6 hours of sunlight each day. While the terms are interchangeable, there is a default understanding.  Partial shade typically refers to morning and early afternoon sun, while a plant listed as partial sun, relief from the intense late afternoon sun is needed. This shade could be from a structure or the shade from an old oak tree.
  • Dappled Sun: Dappled sunlight is my favorite kind of sun, if I had to choose. Dapple sun is similar to partial shade. The plants are getting partial sun as it makes it’s way through the branches of a deciduous tree. Woodland plants and under plantings, even for many mosses, prefer dappled sunlight more so than partial shade.
  • Full Shade:  Full shade means less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day, best if it’s morning light. But even in the absence of  direct sunlight, full shade can be a bright light. Plus, full shade likes a filtered  sunlight the remainder of the day. Every plant needs some sun; even those that thrive in full shade.

Know your sun!

48 responses to “Sun, partial sun/partial shade, shade, dappled sun, full shade”

  1. Laurie says:

    Thank you, Helen! I have been gardening for umpteen million years, yet never looked for these definitions, specifically, and just used trial and error, with mostly success… odd that these names are so commonly used without a definition attached to the tag! I live in No. CA, where summer heat runs from 95′-115′, so even full-sun means part-shade for many plants! Your explanation gives me a ‘visual,’ and is very helpful. 🙂

  2. Nalda Flores says:

    Hello, is bright light the same as full sun?

  3. HelenYoest says:

    No, unless the light is direct, it would be considered shade, but it can still be bright light. This is a term typically used for house plants indoors.

  4. Kendra says:

    Thank you, Helen! I am a definite BEGINNER to gardening and I’m very intimidated about the whole process. My husband and I moved into a new construction home almost two years ago, and we’re just now about to do away with the crappy plants the builder installed. The last few weeks have been spent in Home Depot, Lowes, and Pike trying to decide which plants to put where according to the tags….confusing because it seems that plant tags and garden center staff aren’t even on the same page when it comes to the meaning of sun/shade requirements!

  5. HelenYoest says:

    Good luck building you new garden!

  6. Mathi says:

    Hi Helen, My patio gets lot of light from sun. Nice and bright not hidden by any trees. But the sun rays never fall in my patio. Is my patio considered shady or sunny?

  7. HelenYoest says:

    I would call it part-sun.

  8. […] part sun, part shade, dappled shade, full shade, afternoon sun, morning sun, winter sun, more sun. Know your sun. If the plant tag says full sun (6 hours or more a day), then that means it needs full sun. […]

  9. Cathy says:

    I’m struggling to find the best spots for my hydrangeas. I’m on the west coast (Vancouver Bc). I have a light O’ day that for the first time has blooms but the leaves are fairly sparse this year. It now gets early morning sun. I’ve read somewhere that it needs full sun but I would only have afternoon full sun. Is that too much? And then I have a limelight, a little lime and an Annabel. What do they need?

  10. HelenYoest says:

    Hi Cathy! The first part of the questions about locating your hydrangeas, what kind are that, Mopheads. In the south where I am, they benefit from moist morning to afternoon sun. Our hot afternoon sun seems to be painful to them. They weep until the morning. I’m assuming where you are, afternoon sun wouldn’t be some much of a problem. I’d put the mopheads in your afternoon sun, as well as the Limelight and Annabel. These types of hydrangeas perform best in full sun.

  11. Swati says:

    Thank you so much Helen. It solved most of my issues. I am looking for a spiral trees that can grow in my north facing entrance. So full shade. Can you make any recommendations? I was looking for boxwood or emerald green Arbor vitae.

  12. HelenYoest says:

    You best bet will be the boxwood.

  13. Sara Nixon says:

    Thank you so much for the definition of sun/ partial sun etc. I’m a Brit living in Staffordshire between Manchester and Birmingham. So our weather is really mixed and confusing. Thank you again.

  14. Mavis says:

    I get full sun behind my conservatory from about 2.30 pm midsummer but not winter. Do I count this as full sun when planting?

  15. HelenYoest says:

    It depends on what you are planting. If planting plants that are dormant in the winter, it doesn’t matter. Sun-loving bulbs will be out of the question. If planting late spring, summer, and early fall plants, by all means YOU can count it as full sun. Why YOU? because your mid-summer is much longer than mine in NC. Although, I would call this full sun too. Full suns just means six or more hours of sun a day.

  16. […] and light are different things,” explains Johnson. Some plants need direct sun (that is sitting in an east, west or south facing window so they can be exposed to the sun), […]

  17. Jim says:

    I live in northwest,Fl. Do the vegetable plants get the same effect from 10 hr partial sun with 80 degree temperatures as it would from direct sun light?

  18. HelenYoest says:

    That should be enough. 10 hours is a good amount, so probably yes.

  19. m. zimmermann says:

    So glad I have a copy of Gardening With Confidence. Wanted to get it for young friends who ask questions as they start exploring, but I see it is sold out. Well done!
    You were a grand addition to the DHS this year. Keep digging!

  20. HelenYoest says:

    Thank you!!!

  21. HelenYoest says:

    I love caladiums too! I order from They are great t work with. What are you soaking your caladiums in?

    I guest that would make me the Polish sirens haha

  22. Stephanie says:

    Hello, I’d like to start a new garden in the front of my house.
    The garden bed is shaded all morning till approximately early afternoon.. then it gets FULL, direct sun light till the sun goes down.
    What would you recommend?!
    Thanks in advance 🙂

  23. HelenYoest says:

    Stephanie, that is a huge question. I don’t think I can give you any advice from the blog. If you want to do a consult, email me and we can come up with a plan.

  24. Kay Howell says:

    Hello Helen, I live in south east Va. I have a garden that is shady most of the day, except from 1:30-3:30,then its in direct sun which is very hot that time of day. What types of plants or bushes are best for that garden? Can I plant hydrangeas there??

  25. HelenYoest says:

    That’s not the best time of the day to be hot, but very doable for partial su/partial shade. The hydrangea should be fine. It may wilt at the end of the two-hour workout, but will bounce back. If it doesn’t, it needs to be watered.

  26. Hi Helen,

    I live in the Highlands of Scotland at the bottom of Loch Ness, I’m very much a beginner gardener, but have purchased lots of 2ft Rhododendrons for my south facing garden. We have lots of 70ft conifers, so the garden is shaded until 10am and after 4pm. The weather is also much harsher here, but I noticed rhododendrons are very popular in exposed spots, so I ignored the ‘partial shade’ labels. Do you think they will be happy in my southerly front garden, or should I plant them in the shaded rear? Many thanks for your help.

  27. HelenYoest says:

    Given you are Scotland, can I assume you get a good amount of rain, particularly in the summer? You have 6 hours of sun, but up north where you are, you summers are very long. I would think you would be fine.

  28. Sherri says:

    Hello Helen, I just want to thank you for this post! It made things so clear to me on how these terms are interpreted. Do you happen to have a list of flowers that are best for partial sun? Thank you!

  29. HelenYoest says:

    I think I have one over at In the absence of time, can you search post there?

  30. PhiHa says:

    Hello Helen, hydrangeas and I have a love-hate relationship. I live in Louisiana where it is hot and humid. I have two spots I want to plant my hydrangeas. One spot gets sun from 9am-3pm then shade and the second spot gets sunlight from 2-6pm. I tried setting it out by the second location to test it out, first week was fine, but the second week the leaves started to brown and leaves were wilting. Help, what can I do?

  31. HelenYoest says:

    What type of hydrangeas do you have? I’m going to assume the mop top,(hydrangea macrophylla) or pink type. If that is the cast, the 2-6 location is a no go, and even the morning location is probably in sun for too long. It may work though, but it will need extra watering. Often you’ll see the leaves droop when they receive too much sun, but then will perk up by morning. If not, they are very thirsty.

    For your afternoon sun location, consider planting the Oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, or Hydrangea paniculata. They can tolerate more sun. I hope this helps. HY

  32. XAVIER HURD says:

    Hello Helen. I have a plant that tag states the light requirement is “Full Sun,Partial Shade. I’m confused as about what light to plant it in. Is it Full Sun or Partial Shade? Is this saying I can plant it in both? Thank you for your help!

  33. HelenYoest says:

    Yes, that is exactly what it means. The plant can take Full sun and/or partial shade.

  34. Sylvia Butler says:

    I have a lower garden that is in the shade all day except for 3 hrs in the very hot afternoon sun. I need a focus point plant. Hydrangeas cook in that heat but Meadow Rue, Lady’s Mantle, Spanish Blue Bell, Heuchera, do very well. What would you suggest for some dramatic interest?

  35. […] hours of sunlight; it’s all about the sun when you dig out the beds for your new plants. Look at this handy guide, by the way, to make it a bit […]

  36. HelenYoest says:

    The first thing that comes to my mind are the Crinum lilies.

  37. Steve says:

    I realise this isn’t an exact science but can I ask when should my garden experience 6 hours of direct sunshine / day? Winter or summer? It makes quite a difference the longest day in summer is 16 hours and the shortest in winter only 8.
    many thanks

  38. HelenYoest says:

    Six hours of direct sun light can be morning or late afternoon when the plant is growing. If it’s a shrub needing full sun, it will want six hour sun light year round. If you plant is a herbaceous perennial growing in the summer, than summer, etc.

  39. Terry Wheeler says:

    The side yard on the east side of my house gets full sun from 11 am to 2 pm, but is in complete shade from the house next door and our house the rest of the time. I live in Chattanooga, TN where we get more than 50″ of rain each year on average, and the soil has a fair amount of clay in it. Will anything grow in my side yard besides weeds?

  40. HelenYoest says:

    Yes, there is always something for any condition. One of my faves that would work there is the Oakleaf Hydrangea.

  41. Boo says:

    Helen! Help. After throwing out my back, I hired a gentleman to help me pull out some weeds. He didn’t speak much English. When I arrived home, he had pulled out my entire garden! I’m starting over. Can I plant English Lavender (Provence) if I have sun 8-9am, filtered sun 9-12pm. Full, hot sun 12-2:00pm then back to filtered sun 2:30-3pm then shade the rest of the day? What about Peonies in this spot as well?

  42. Boo says:

    Opppps, I forgot to mention that I am in zone 9b, Napa Valley. Also, any ideas for ground cover with white flowers for a shade/partial sun area?

  43. HelenYoest says:

    Probably not. Lavender needs full, baking sun all day, plus dry, well-drained soil. You probably have the latter, but need more sun. As for your other question, I’m not very familiar with plants in your neck of the woods. I’m on the east coast. Hope this helps.

  44. Boo says:

    Thank you so much Helen! Very grateful for your help.

    I love your website.

  45. Kay says:

    I may be asking a question already answered, if this is true I apologise:
    At midsummer, my garden has direct sunlight from 4pm until around 9pm, but this is fading light.
    Does this class as light-shade or moderate shade?
    During the winter it gets no direct sunlight due to the sun being behind neighbouring houses. (and less direct sun spring and autumn).
    I want to try to design my garden but need to know what will survive.
    Thanks in advance!

  46. Elisa says:

    Hi! This seems to be a great place for me to start. I am a total beginner in flower gardening. I just started and realized I made some mistakes already. My fiance is a master carpenter and built me a beautiful wooden planter. The spot it is in is in an area where first sun of the morning is dappled for about an hour and half, then full sun for about 3, & 1/2 hours on the top layer, then the bottom gets about 4. I live in south florida and planted garden mums on top, & bromeliads, bagonias, & inpatiens on the bottom. I love seeds as well so in the middle of the mins I planted calendula seeds. They are growing nicely so far after only 6 days. We have an excellent soil mix I am now learning that the mums need full sun, but seem so far to be doing well. Do you suggest I transplant them to a sunnier area? I have plans for other flowers so I was wondering what the best thing might be for them before I design the rest of my gardens.

  47. Dear Helen I am trying to fill in my backyard with some slow growing evergreens such as pine. But I have two very tall ponderosa pines on the southeast to southwest sides that filter sunlight for a good part of the day. So direct is only about 4 hours per day. Do you think with 4 hours direct and highly filtered the rest, they will thrive? Thanks , Claude , Denver Co

  48. HelenYoest says:

    Conifers need more light than that. Most likely, you will have will have green on the side facing the west/south but not on the other side of the plant. Hope this helps. Helen

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