Fun in the sun!
When you think of a sunny yard, what comes to mind?
A bright and sunny flower garden always seems to be filled with a flurry of activity with flowers, bees, and insects.
Let’s talk about sun gardens. I will go over why plants can handle full sun, how to pick a full sun spot for planting, and chat about some great annual and perennial options for the sun.
Why a Plant can Handle Full Sun
In the plant world, light is life. Some plants require bright sun all day long, and others depend on shade to thrive. It has to do with plant genetics and their innate adaptations to their environment.
Sun-loving plants have unique characteristics that help them grow well for long periods of bright light. Sun plants have protective mechanisms to help them retain moisture and prevent burning. Here’s some of them:
- Sunny garden plants can have dark pigments to help limit leaf burning in excessive sun exposure.
- Thick, waxy leaves hold in moisture for plants growing in the hot sun by preventing excessive transpiration (transpiration to plants is as sweating is to humans).
- Silvery and hairy foliage are another adaptation for plants that grow in the sun to reflect sunlight away and cool leaf surfaces slow moisture loss.
How to Pick a Full Sun Spot to Plant
A garden space qualifies as a sunny garden when it gets a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight. But not all sun gardens are equal. A morning sun garden is different from a midafternoon and late afternoon sunny garden. As the sun moves during the day, the light and heat intensity increases; so, the morning sun garden is a cooler garden than the other two.
When you figure out what kind of sun garden you have, you can pick the appropriate plants for it. Here’s some ideas on how to determine what kind of sun garden you have:
How to Assess the Sunlight Levels in Your Garden
The quantity, quality, and reliability of available light, as well as soil quality determine which plants can grow in a garden. A successful garden matches the right plants to the right conditions.
1. Figure Out How Many Hours of Sunshine an Area Receives
Get to know how many hours of direct sun (the quantity of light) your gardening space gets rather than the direction your garden faces because there are things that can affect sun exposure. Direct sun exposure means that the sun is shining directly on your garden.
Here are some things to ask:
- Where and when does the sun first hit your gardening space in the morning?
- How does the sun change throughout the day?
- Does it get sun in the early morning, all afternoon, or late in the day?
- Is there anything that blocks the sun? Are there any trees, buildings, eves, pillars, or other structures that block the sun? What time of day does that happen?
- How does the sunlight change through spring, summer, and autumn?
2. Determine the Quality and Intensity of the Sunlight
Light quality is a measure of how bright or intense the light is. Light intensity changes throughout the year as the angle of the earth changes. The most intense and direct sun occurs from mid-June to late August.
Full Sun is when the sunlight lasts for 6 hours or longer. Some full sun locations are hotter than others.
Morning sun locations, like an eastern exposure, can get up to 8 hours of sunlight in early summer as the sun rises at 5 am and then starts to get shade at 1 or 2 pm as intensity gets quite hot.
Morning sun locations are a cooler ‘full sun’ location than a garden that gets sunshine from 2 pm to 9 pm that rides out the late afternoon heat. Some plants, like sun Begonias, thrive in a morning full sun location but can burn in a late afternoon full sun area.
Part Sun is a site that gets 4-6 hours of direct sunlight. This kind of exposure can happen when something like a tree blocks the sun for part of the day.
Dappled Sun is a description of filtered light. It allows light to shine through the leaves of a deciduous tree or shrub. Evergreen trees usually create full shade.
3. Assess the Quality of Soil in the Sunny Garden
Soil quality has an enormous influence on the success of a sunny garden. Sunny gardens need soil that can hold enough water and nutrients to meet the high metabolic demands of the growing plants.
Dig in, look, and feel the soil. Is the earth clay-based and hard, or is it porous, loamy, or rich in organics?
How does the soil feel in your hands? Is it soft, cool, and moist? Is it dry? How well does the soil hold moisture? Does the water puddle on top or run off when watered, or does the soil absorb and retain the water?
Does the soil have a good top layer of mulch? Mulch is a powerful mechanism for conserving soil moisture.
Related: What is Mulch? Making Gardening Magic with Mulch
How to Care for Sun-Loving Plants
Sunny gardens are busy growing places. They can be hot, get dry quickly, and the plants have high metabolic demands. The hotter the exposure, the faster they will dry out.
Sun gardens are the first places to lose their snow cover, particularly if they are next to a building. Flowerbeds on the south side of an unshaded building lose their snow 3 to 4 weeks earlier than their cousins in the shade because of the reflected heat of the building. A warm, sunny flowerbed could be in full bloom before the noses of Hostas are poking out in a shade garden.
Monitor the hydration of a sunny flowerbed daily.
It may surprise you how fast a sunny garden can dry out. Allowing eavestroughs to drain in a dry flowerbed is one way to help maintain moisture levels. Low-pressure drip irrigation systems are simple and effective way to water, too. They are easy to install, relatively inexpensive, and very water efficient. Cover the drip hoses with mulch to maximize every drop of water.
Water sunny gardens in the early morning.
Watering in the morning is better for plants for several reasons:
- It fortifies plants for the day.
- Leaf burning can occur as water droplets magnify sunrays at the hottest time of the day.
- Evening watering can encourage fungus and mold growth while the plants ride through the dark of night while wet. Plants should be drier during the night.
Mulch is a sun garden’s best friend.
As mentioned earlier, mulch is magical for maintaining moisture levels and keeping weeds down. Use natural, undyed mulch for your garden. A 7.5 cm (3″) layer of natural mulch will last 2-3 years and significantly save on watering needs.
Fertilize sunny gardens weekly.
Because of the high plant metabolic demands plants have when they face maximum sunlight exposure, you need to fertilize far more regularly than shade gardens.
Great Perennials to Grow in the Sun
Perennials are the workhorse of a sunny garden. Sun perennials provide reliable structure and colour to a garden year in and out as they die back to the ground during the winter and re-emerge in spring.
Know your horticultural growing zone to get the best perennials for your unique growing space.
Deciphering Plant tags:
Here is a quick note on deciphering plant tags before getting into the specifics of flowers that work well in sun gardens. Use this reference to help make your plant decisions:
- Full Sun means: 6 hours or more of direct sunlight
- Part Sun means: 4-6 hours of direct sunlight
- Part Shade means: 2-4 hours of sun per day
- Full Shade means: less than 2 hours
Plants tags give basic information about annuals and perennials. Some perennials are long-day plants that require more daylight hours than night. This includes Echinacea, Sedums, Salvia, and Violas. These can live in areas that get 8 hours of sun, but they will bloom later than their counterparts that get 14 hours of sun. Research and ask questions about the plants you’d like to grow.
Here are some fantastic perennial plant choices to try in your sunny zone 3 or 4 perennial gardens:
Peonies have come back around as a favourite garden flower over the last few years, and they are currently soaring on the charts for wedding flowers and cut flowers. Their floral beauty is unparalleled, with colours in almost every shade of the rainbow. Their flower shapes are available in single, semi-double, double, and anemone types. And some have the most heavenly fragrances.
Peonies are a long-lived, rugged, and hardy perennial rated from zone 3-9. They develop a deep taproot; and once they are established, they can weather almost any storm. Peonies live to 70 years or more. There are three basic types of Peonies: Garden (Herbaceous), Tree, and ITOH (Intersectional – which is a cross between garden and tree peonies).
Grow Peonies in areas that get more than 8 hours of sun. After their roots have developed for about three years, they need little water or fertilizer. Garden and ITOH Peonies may need support rings.
My favourites: Full disclosure, I emphatically love Peonies, so which one isn’t my favourite?? Let me mention Sarah Bernhardt for its simple beauty and reliability, Eden’s Perfume for its rose-like fragrance, Hawaiian Coral for its unique colour, and Red Magic for its deep red colour.
Daylilies are a very hardy, easy to grow perennial for our zone 3-4 zone with flowers available in a vast array of colours and textures. The blossoms can be solid colours, striped, or have a gradual, Ombre-type progression of colours with lime greens or yellows at the throat blending into pinks, yellows, creams, reds, or purples at the flower tips. Blossom shapes vary too; they can be simple with smooth edges, ruffled, or combinations.
Daylilies grow in full and partial sun, and they can tolerate a significant amount of heat and drought once established. These also need a minimum of 3 years to develop strong roots.
When their sword-shaped leaves start to wrinkle, they are showing signs of water stress. Daylilies have few pests and are low maintenance.
My favourites: Barbara Mitchell, Sundried Tomatoes, Happy Returns, Stephanie Returns, Mighty Chestnut, Frans Hals
Ornamental Perennial Grasses
Ornamental Grasses are hardy, tough, and easy-to-grow in zone 3 and 4. Grasses provide structure, colour, and movement to a garden. Taller varieties add an element of height. Once established, grasses champion heat and drought; and as with all perennials, give them three years to strengthen their root foundation.
My favourites: All the Calamagrostis – Karl Foerster, Eldorado, Lightning Strike, Overdam, and Avalanche are wonderful in zone 3/4 gardens
All Sedums, tall, short or medium height, are adapted for sunny, hot growing conditions. Their leaves are thick and rubbery, designed to hold in moisture. Sedums work well in rock gardens and hot sunny places with poor soil. They are easy to establish and are available in various leaf and flower colours.
Tall, late-blooming sedums are one of the stars of the fall garden, and they work well as cut flowers too. They are a bee and butterfly magnet as these insects tank up and prepare for winter. Sedums have few problems or pests.
My favourites: Autumn Joy, Matrona, Autumn Delight, Autumn Charm
Salvia (Garden Sage)
Salvia is another tough, no-fuss zone 3-4 perennial that thrives in poor soil. Salvia is a long summer bloomer with spires of flowers in white, pink, or purple. They vary in heights and spreads. Salvia are fragrant, bees love them, and they make lovely cut flowers.
My favourites: Caradonna, Sensation Rose, Sensation White
Baptisia (False Indigo)
Baptisia is a lesser known, solid, tap-rooted spring blooming perennial that looks like a Lupine but has none of the negative characteristics (like aphids) related to Lupines. Bees are attracted to their early spring flowers. After they bloom, their foliage holds up throughout the summer and it looks like a leafy shrub.
My favourite: Indigo Spires
Other Lovely Sun Perennials: Alcea (Hollyhock), Alchemilla (Lady’s Mantle), Campanula (Clips), Dianthus, Dictamnus (Gas Plant), Euphorbia polychroma (Cushion Spurge, Spurge), Iris, Lupine, Veronica, and Veronicastrum
Great Annuals to Grow in Sun
There are so many great sun annuals.
Annuals are flowers that are planted afresh each spring because they aren’t zone hardy like perennials. A mix of annual and perennial plants can make a lovely sunny garden. Perennials provide a backdrop of structure and colour, while annuals can supply a constant colour bridge as perennials move in and out of their seasons of bloom.
Try some of these beautiful annuals in your sun garden:
Geraniums are no longer that stinky, boring old upright flowerbed plant of the 60s; they have branched out and emerged in new bright colours and growing habits. Cascading, or trailing, Geraniums are beautiful and trending in popularity. Geraniums pack a lot of colour power. Orange is the latest colour addition to the Geranium colour spectrum, and there are light orange and deep orange colour options.
Most Geraniums can tolerate hot, sunny conditions and are easy to care for. They bounce back well if they end up getting dry or underfed.
My favourites: Calliope & Caliente varieties, Citrosa (Citronella)
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Growing Geraniums
Annual grasses, just like perennial grasses, add colour, structure, movement, and a little whimsy to a sunny garden. Annual grasses are available in unique and striking colours, like reds and purples, and interesting variegations.
They can take any sun exposure, from partial to full-on, all-day sun. The hotter the location, the more water they will need. Annuals grasses aren’t fussy, fertilize weekly and trim them when needed to keep them in top shape.
My favourites: Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum rubrum), Cordyline, Pennisetum Sky Rocket, Cypress Prince Tut
Solenia Begonias (Sun Begonias)
Solenia Begonias aren’t for the crazy hot sunny garden, but for a cooler full-sun location that gets morning sun and early afternoon sun; their rose-shaped flowers pack a lovely and lively punch of colour. They rarely need to be deadheaded as their flowers are long lasting and plentiful.
My favourites: Solenia Dark Pink, Light Pink, Yellow, Red Improved, Velvet Red
Snapdragons are fun, sun-loving annuals with unique flowers that grow along spires. They are available in various heights, and the flowers come in monocoloured and bicoloured varieties. There are choices in their flower structure, too. Most sport single flowers, but some varieties have double flowers, like Madame Butterfly and the Twinny Series, that produce flowers reminiscent of azaleas. Taller Snapdragons add height and structure to a garden and make good cut flowers. Another huge bonus for Snapdragons: Deer don’t like them!
My favourite: Rocket & Potomac varieties. I love tall flowers!
Mirabilis (4 O’Clocks/Marvel of Peru)
Mirabilis is a taller, old fashioned flower that blooms from spring to fall that is regaining popularity. Back in the day, they were named 4 O’Clocks because they bloom later in the afternoon. They are prolific bloomers.
Flower colours vary in the pink, orange, and yellow range in solid colours and bicolors. There are both fragrant varieties and relatively nonfragrant varieties. The fragrance attracts nocturnal pollinators. Their trumpet-shaped flowers are favourites of butterflies and hummingbirds. Deer aren’t attracted to this flower, either.
My favourites: Limelight, Marbles Mix, Marvel of Peru Mix
Sunpatiens are a newer addition to the horticultural scene and they are gaining momentum because of their versatility and ease of care. They grow well in pots, raised beds, and in-ground plantings. Sunpatiens grow well anywhere: sun, shade, or any combination. They like to be kept evenly moist, and sunny locations require more water than shady. The good news is, though, that if they start to wilt, even a terrible wilt, they recover after a deep drink of water.
Their natural growth pattern produces a beautiful dome shape and they require little deadheading. They are classified as vigorous growers and compact growers.
My favourites: They’re all my favourite, but I particularly love Vigorous White with its white flowers atop variegated yellow and green leaves.
Other Excellent Sun Annuals: Gazania, Canna, Coleus, Datura, Dianthus, Lobularia, Marigold, Morning Glory, Portulaca, Rudbeckia, Stocks, Sunpatiens, Thunbergia (Black-Eyed Susan)
Related: Check out my blog called The Best Smelling Flowers to Grow in Your Garden for more sun-loving options.
Try Something New This Year!
There are so many fantastic florals to choose from if you have a sunny garden. Which sunny garden flowers are your favourites? Which ones are completely new?
Why not give it a shot and choose something that you’ve never grown before? You may find yourself falling in love with a new soil-mate!
©Sharon Wallish Murphy ©Gardening with Sharon