Garden Design

Learning to Follow the Sun


Typically, I do not follow a clear-cut gardening plan, with little circles indicating where specific plants should go. I describe my garden as “organized chaos” because I, with plant in hand, will spy an empty space and will plop the plant in it, without using much forethought. I don’t say this proudly but rather simply state it as a fact.

Lately I have had to change my tune because as my garden ages, the sun seems to have disappeared. When I first bought my house, the front yard consisted of trees and English ivy. Intentionally, the ivy disappeared while, between Hurricane Fran and a great arborist, the trees became few in number, leaving me with that rare Chapel Hill commodity: sun.

I went on a fifteen-year planting frenzy, filling up the yard with understory trees, shrubs, and perennials. Then suddenly the sun seemed to roll back. I had installed a fence to keep the deer out but fences require climbing plants. Thus I planted a lovely climbing reblooming rose, ‘Cécile Brünner’ one March when there was plenty of sun. She grew and she seemed to thrive, blooming consistently every April. However, she never rebloomed, as she was supposed to do.

I then realized that many of my planting problems dealt with my inability to read the sun. You see, ‘Cécile’ received plenty of sun before my neighbor’s trees leafed out but after the leaves appeared, there was not enough sun to spark blooms throughout the summer and autumn.

Likewise, in one section of my perennial border, I have had repeated failures even with tried and true plants, such as echinacea and monarda. Every March I would set out these plants, only to see them looking bedraggled by August. As these are not difficult plants to grow, I was mystified.

Suddenly one day I looked up only to notice my lovely Japanese maple had leaves—don’t laugh. I realized I’d planted my perennials in March when the tree had no leaves, leaving this section of the perennial border sunny. By August, after spending three months with no direct sunlight, my sun-loving plants were experiencing an existential crisis, all because I’d persisted in regarding the area as a sunny one.

The sun rises in the east, moving across the sky until it retires in the west. Yet, this arc subtly moves until it is no longer high overhead. By August we realize the sun is lower in the sky than it was in June but fail to take into account how this can affect our late blooming perennials.

Now all of this should be quite obvious, but I garden with my head down most of the time. I’m looking at the details of the garden. I’m searching for weeds while I’m busy deadheading perennials. I’m not inclined to view the vistas, observing where the sun is shining—I have never claimed to be a clever gardener.

I have come to realize that some of my planting disasters are due to a lack of reading the sun at the right time. Sun-loving perennials need sun during the right time of their blooming cycle. Plants can adapt. ‘Cécile Brünner’, for example, puts on a lovely show for three weeks in April—then she concentrates on growing long, flexible canes that drape my fence beautifully for the remainder of the growing season.

The patch in my perennial border is now supporting Spigelia marilandica (Indian Pink) and Polygonatum odoratum, aka Solomon’s Seal. Both of these plants can handle the early spring sun they will receive before basking in shadier conditions. By the time the Japanese maple loses its leaves, they will be ready for their winter nap.


Kit Flynn has been an Extension Master Gardener in Durham for thirteen years. Besides being a compulsive gardener in Chapel Hill, she also writes gardening articles for the Durham County Extension Master Gardener newsletter and for “Senior Correspondent,” an online magazine.

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