Sun vs. Shade: The Right Plant for the Right Spot

At the nursery, plants always look pretty in the pot. But will they grow and thrive once you get them home? Most likely, yes — as long as they’re planted in the right place.

Plants need the sun’s energy to grow. If they don’t get enough, some will become stunted, bare and diseased. But some plants have evolved to live in the dark under thick tree cover — including many garden favorites that have been imported to Texas. Here, the scorching summer sun places a special burden on growing plants, especially if they’re not adapted to the conditions.

At the nursery, plants usually come labeled with sun exposure requirements: sun, partial sun/shade, or shade. Read the tag of every plant before you buy it. Better yet, do a little homework and look up the ones that interest you.

It helps to know just how much sunlight your landscape really gets. Not all shady or sunny areas are immediately obvious. Sometimes afternoon scorch can be reflected back at the landscape from windows, creating telltale patterns on the ground. And shade can come from a tree, but also from a neighboring building or fence.

So survey the area you want to plant. Starting early in the morning, note whether the area is fully exposed to the sun or partially shaded. Make a list, and keep checking it as often as you can over the course of a summer day until the sun sets. 7:00AM-SUN. 8:00 AM-SUN. 9:00 AM-SHADE; etc.

Then count up the hours of sun or shade for the entire day. Full sun generally means at least eight hours of direct sunlight. Full shade may mean two hours or less, or no direct sunlight at all. (Under live oaks and other spreading trees, the shade may be especially deep.)

Partial sun/shade may mean up to six hours of sun; but it can also be used to describe the filtered, dappled light around bigger shrubs and trees. As a rule of thumb, plants recommended for “partial shade” may be able to handle a bit of morning sun, but may need protection from the hot summer sun during the afternoon.

You may be surprised — sometimes your landscape gets far more sun, or far less, than you imagined.

Picture of Brad Wier
Brad Wier
Brad Wier is a SAWS conservation planner. Years in South Texas landscaping and public horticulture gave him a lasting enthusiasm for native plants that don’t die when sprinklers -- and gardeners -- break down. He’d rather save time and water for kayaking and tubing. He is a former kilt model, and hears hummingbirds.
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