What is Full Sun, Partial Sun, and Part Shade? (How to Grow Happy Plants)

INSIDE: What is full sun? And how many hours is part sun, part shade, and full shade? Feel confused? This guide to how much sunlight your plants need explains it all.

The sun can be both a generous friend and a relentless foe.

Ever planted a full sun diva in a shadowy spot or exposed shade lovers to the unforgiving sun?

You probably ended up with a full sun plant huddled in the shadows, pining for the light, and your shade-lover looking as crispy as a potato chip.

But this post will help you avoid those mistakes.

You can create a garden filled with happy, healthy plants by understanding the difference between full sun, part sun, and full shade.

So let’s dive in and explore what it all means!

Heads up: If you buy something after clicking a link in this post, I’ll earn a small commission. I only link to products I’d recommend to my best friend.

sunflowers growing in full sun
Sunflowers need to grow in full sun.

Before you forget…

At the end of the post, don’t forget to download your free sun mapping checklist so you know exactly how much sunlight your garden gets.

Here’s a sneak peek of your free checklist:

printable sunlight calculator checklist

What is full sun?

Full sun is six or more hours of direct sunlight per day.

Some plants thrive in full sun, like tomatoes, lavender, and sunflowers.

  • But a garden in the sun all day (8-12 hours) can be challenging even for a sun-loving plant.
  • The heat and dry conditions in a garden with no shade all day can overwhelm some plants.
  • Be especially careful with ones that are “part-sun to full sun.”
  • If you live at elevation (like I do), then 6 hours per day is full sun, no question. The sun is so intense here that over six hours per day can scald some plants.
  • Depending on how hot your full-sun garden beds get, you may need to use shade cloth to protect your plants.

Plant tags, gardening books, and online descriptions will tell you how much sun that plant needs to thrive.

Most annual flowers, perennial flowers, and succulents prefer full sun.

Vegetables that need full sun include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash.

“Full sun” on a plant label means it needs at least six hours of direct sunlight daily to thrive.

Simply Smart Gardening

What does full sun to part shade mean?

Plants labeled “full sun to partial shade” can grow in spots that get full sun (6-8 hours per day).

And they can grow in areas that are considered partly shady (3-6 hours of sun per day).

So, these plants need at least 3-6 hours of sunlight per day.

How to measure full sun

To measure sunlight levels in your garden, observe the areas where you want to plant sun-loving plants.

Keep track of the time and monitor the changes in sunlight throughout the day.

This will give you an idea of how many hours of sunlight your plants will get.

I’ve written a full tutorial on how to make a sun map of your garden.

OK. So, now we know that full sun is at least six hours of sun, but what about part sun and part shade?

What is partial sun?

Partial sun is four to six hours of direct sun (or six hours of dappled sun) daily.

  • Part-sun plants prefer less sun exposure than full-sun plants, often during the cooler parts of the day.
  • Like Goldilocks, they don’t want too much or too little sun, but just the right amount.
  • Plants that need partial sun will do best if they get morning sun and are shaded from the intense afternoon sun.

Examples of partial sun perennials include:

  • Ajuga reptans
  • Campanula
  • Geraniums

Vegetables that tolerate part sun include carrots, beets, and peas.

What is partial shade?

hostas growing in partial shade
Plants that prefer partial sun can also do well in areas of partial shade.

Partial shade is three to four hours of direct sun per day.

It overlaps with partial sun a bit.

So, you can see how the two can be confusing.

Vegetables that tolerate part shade include lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens.

What’s the difference between partial shade and partial sun?

Partial-sun plants can tolerate more sun than partial-shade plants.

  • Partial shade is often used interchangeably with partial sun.
  • But don’t get too hung up on part shade vs. part sun.
  • Most plants that tolerate one will tolerate the other.

But if you want to be very careful when placing partial shade plants, use three to four hours of direct sun as your measurement.

What’s dappled shade or dappled sun?

dappled shade in a garden
You’ll find dappled shade under the canopies of tall deciduous trees.

Dappled shade is a type of partial shade.

Its sunlight filtered through the leaves of deciduous trees, casting a soft, shifting light onto the plants below.

  • This gentle exposure to sunlight is perfect for many shade-loving plants, as it prevents them from frying under the harsh midday sun.
  • Partial shade plants, such as ferns, hostas, and coral bells, tend to thrive in these conditions, as they are sensitive to harsh direct light.

Be cautious when choosing trees to create dappled shade.

  • Not all trees provide the ideal level of filtered sunlight.
  • Trees with dense foliage may block too much sun.
  • While trees with sparse leaves might not provide enough protection.

What is full shade for plants?

Full shade is less than 3 hours of direct sun per day.

It’s perfect for those plants that prefer a cool, shady nook.

a pathway through a shady garden
There are plenty of plants that are adapted to full shade.

What is bright shade?

Bright shade is cast by one-story buildings or a tall, dense, deciduous tree canopy.

But some shade-tolerant plants grow fairly well in this indirect sunlight (think woodland plants).

What does dense shade mean?

Dense shade occurs under evergreen trees, tall, closely-spaced buildings, and dense deciduous trees or shrubs.

  • These spaces typically have a low, diffused light, which might seem challenging for plants.
  • You may have little to no direct sun in these areas.
  • For plants to survive in this environment, they must be well-adapted to low-light situations.

And if it’s shady due to trees, the soil is likely to be dry. It can be challenging to find plants that tolerate these conditions.

Can full sun plants grow in shade?

achillea growing in a shady garden
These achillea (yarrow) are stretching toward the sun because they were planted in an area with too much shade.

Full-sun plants require at least six hours of direct sunlight daily, while shady areas only supply at most three hours of sun daily.

Full-sun plants will struggle in shade and won’t thrive.

If you plant full-sun plants in a shady spot, they’ll get stretched out and leggy as they reach for the sun they’re not getting.

So, it’s best to avoid planting full-sun plants in full shade.

But what about part shade?

Can full sun plants grow in part shade?

No. Full sun plants will also struggle in part shade. They need a minimum of six hours of sun per day.

If the plant is labeled full sun to part shade, then it can tolerate part shade.

Morning sun vs. afternoon sun for plants

The morning sun is typically gentler, with cooler temperatures and less intense rays.

This is when plants get a chance to photosynthesize and grow without the stress of the hot sun.

On the other hand, the afternoon sun brings more heat and intensity because heat builds up over the day.

You might notice that your plants struggle in the hot afternoon sun, especially if they’re not full-sun plants.

Morning and afternoon sun are different, can impact plant growth, and should be considered when planning your garden.

Cheryl, from Simply Smart Gardening

Bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla) is an example of a morning sun plant. It prefers morning sun and afternoon shade.

What time is afternoon sun?

It’s usually between 2 pm and 6 pm. It’s the most stressful time for plants because they get blasted with the sun after the heat has increased during the day.

And it’s at its hottest mid-summer when the sun is high in the sky and the days are long.

Frequently asked questions about sunlight and gardens

What is considered full sun for vegetables?

Full sun for vegetables is six to eight hours of sun per day. And some vegetables prefer eight to ten hours of sun. Some vegetables tolerate part sun and even part shade. To make the most of your growing space, choose vegetables that match the amount of sunlight your garden gets.

What does filtered sunlight mean?

Filtered sunlight (also known as dappled sunlight or dappled shade), passes through a tree canopy and reaches the ground in patches. This scattered light gives plants enough sun exposure without the harsh, direct sunlight they might not like.

What is the difference between partial shade and full shade?

Partial shade is three to four hours of direct sun per day. And full shade is less than three hours of direct sunlight each day.

Why is morning sun better than afternoon sun?

Morning sun is better than afternoon sun for some plants because it’s cooler and gentler. Afternoon sun is more stressful for plants because it’s hotter and more intense.

Download your free sun mapping checklist (With a bonus sun exposure cheat sheet!)

Print this checklist right now to discover how much sun your garden gets.

Here’s a sneak peek of your checklist:

printable sunlight calculator checklist

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Sunlight in your garden

It’s important to pay attention to the sun requirements of your plants when designing your garden and choosing the best location for your plants.

Understanding the differences between full sun, part sun/shade, and shade will help you create a beautiful and productive garden.

And now that you know the difference between them, you can say goodbye to plant/sun mismatches.

No more shade lovers wilting under the blazing sun or sun lovers sulking in the shadows. Just happy, healthy plants!

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