Shade Garden Plants: What Does “Partial Shade” Really Mean?

When Shade Garden Plants Need “Partial Shade”

If you’ve ever tried to read plant tags at a garden center, you probably noticed pretty quickly that each grower puts different information on their tags.  It can be difficult to wade through the range of information provided for every plant you want to take home.  In the shade garden plants section, when a tag says “partial shade,” what does that mean?

How much water does the big leafy one require?  Is the tall one with the orange flowers a full sun or a partial shade plant?  Does the full sun symbol on the tag mean you can put it against the south-facing wall of your garage?

If you’re lucky, garden center staff are knowledgeable and can point you in the right direction, but you can’t always spend your whole visit asking them about every plant you like.

The Breakdown:  Shade Garden Plants

In finding the right plant for the right place in your yard, one of the biggest things to consider is sunlight requirements.  In this issue, I break down what it means to be a “full-sun,” “partial shade,” or “shade” plant.

Hundreds of customers have asked me this question, and when I explain what the labels mean, almost every one of them said they’d had no idea!  Because sunlight requirements are so misunderstood, and there is no standard labeling in the nursery industry, here is how to interpret this key to plant survival.

image: shade garden plantsPlants need a set number of hours of direct sunshine each day in order to complete their life cycle.  To put it more succinctly, they need a certain number of hours in a season, which can be broken down into hours per day.  Many people think of the dappled shade under a tree when they read the words, “partial shade.”  But a plant labelled “partial shade” can actually tolerate direct sun for between 3 and 6 hours each day.  Any less than that and it can’t produce flowers or fruit well, and over time it will die.  And any more than that, it will die from over-exposure.

A plant labelled “full shade” sounds like some sort of rain forest variety where sunshine rarely penetrates.  But this kind of plant can actually handle up to 3 hours of direct sun in a day.  Any more and it will crispify, a word I made up because just about everyone has had the painful experience of witnessing a poor plant succumb to too much sun.  Plants that are labelled “full sun” need 6 or more hours of direct sun every day in order to produce flowers and fruit.  As long as you give plants the sunlight they need, they will thrive.  With proper watering and healthy soil of course.

The big difference here is that many plants need at least some direct sun on their leaves in order to photosynthesize.  There is a lot more to this subject, as with most things in life (am I right?), but if you know this one thing when you tackle those plant labels, it will help you select the plants for your yard that can handle the conditions there.

Stay tuned for next week, when I will shine a spotlight on one of the most functional as well as beautiful plants around. 

If you are ready for help choosing the right plants for the right places in your yard, you can get started with my landscape design questionnaire.