Updated September 2020
In this article: –
- Determining which way your garden is facing
- North Facing Garden
- East Facing Garden
- South Facing Garden
- West Facing Garden
Getting to know your garden is an important challenge for any gardener. Wherever you live in the UK, which way your garden is facing will have a large impact on the benefits and challenges you encounter, and the plants you are able to grow. While a sunny, sheltered garden facing south may be the dream for many, south facing gardens can also have their challenges, and gardens facing east, west and even north can be beautiful and productive too.
First Tunnels polytunnels can work well in many locations, no matter which way your garden is facing. But using one effectively does require an understanding of the strengths and limitations of the space at your disposal. In this article, we will take a look at how to tell which direction your garden is facing before looking in depth at each type of garden.
Determining Which Way Your Garden is Facing
When we talk about a ‘south facing’ or ‘north facing’ garden, we are talking about the aspect of your garden – the direction that it faces. One way to work out the aspect of your garden is to stand by the back wall of your house with a compass[i]
If, with your back to the wall at the rear of your home, south is directly ahead of you, then you have a south facing garden. Even without a compass, you can get a fairly good idea of the aspect of your garden by monitoring the position of the sun, and the shade cast, throughout each day and over the course of the year. Remember, broadly speaking, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west[ii].
The aspect of your garden will affect how much sun your garden gets, and how much shade is cast, and when. However, while it is important to work out which way your garden faces, other elements can also have a large bearing on these matters. For example, it is important to note what other surrounding trees or structures will cast shade throughout the day and at different times of year.
While areas of shade can be a challenge, it is also important to remember that shade gardening can also open up a range of different opportunities.
North Facing Garden
Most of a north facing garden is usually in shade for much of the day, as your home will stand between the sun and the garden throughout many of the daylight hours. Between May and October in the UK, however, north-facing surfaces like the back of your home will get reasonable early morning and evening sun.
Plants for a North Facing Garden
Mimicking the conditions of a woodland can be ideal for a north-facing garden. For areas that get morning sun: –
There are also a wide range of interesting edible perennials that could be an alternative to annual crops for lower light areas. Edibles that will do well in a North facing garden include: –
- Determine Whether You Have Damp Shade or Dry Shade – The first thing that it is important to understand is that there are different kinds of shade. North facing gardens will generally be shaded. But it is important to determine whether that is damp shade or dry shade. Which one you have will play an important role in determining which plants it will be best for you to grow. Moisture levels in the soil and light levels are equally crucial in determining plant choices. As in any garden, it is important to choose the right plants for the right places.
- Choose Shade-Tolerant Plants Suitable For Your Area – There are certain plants often recommended for shady areas – including a range of ferns[iii], for example. But another thing to bear in mind that the plants perfect for one north facing garden may not be equally perfect for another. As well as thinking about light, shade and soil moisture, it is also important to think about other characteristics of your garden – such as soil type and soil pH, for example. And the micro-climate as well as the broader climate zone. It is important not to get bogged down by the direction your garden in facing. Instead, you should think about the garden holistically, as you would do any other site.
- Don’t Forget Edibles That Can Grow in the Shade of a North Facing Garden – Many gardeners make the mistake of thinking that because they have a north facing garden, they cannot have a kitchen garden, or grow fruits and vegetables and other edible crops. But while certain edibles will do best with full sun, there are still plenty of edibles you can grow in the shade in a north facing garden. For example, hostas are one of the most frequently mentioned shade tolerant plants. And these are not only ornamentals. They are also a very useful leaf vegetable and top edible crop. And there are plenty of other leafy green vegetables that can grow with far less light than you might imagine.
- Plant Shade-Tolerant Plants For all the Senses for a North Facing Garden – In a shady north facing garden, sourcing those plants that can provide some bright and cheery splashes of colour is particularly important. You might, for example, have spring bulbs, then rhododendrons providing colour in the spring… then other shade tolerant flowers blooming throughout the rest of the year. But colour is not the only thing to add visual interest. It is also important to consider how texture can also add interest in a shady north facing spot. You should also consider how you can choose plants to provide stimulation for the other senses too – not just sight. Think about planting some fragrant shade tolerant plants, and plenty of foliage to move in the breeze and create an auditory impression.
East Facing Garden
An east facing garden will mostly get morning sun and will be in shade during hottest part of the day, the afternoon and evening. Such a garden should be populated with plants which like partial shade and require shelter from strong sunlight. The shade in the afternoon means that plants will be protected from scorch during the summer months, and the evening shade can enhance the impact of white flowers and attract pollinating moths[iv] and other beneficial wildlife.
Plants for an East Facing Garden
Attractive plants that can cope with the morning sun and cool conditions in an east facing garden include: –
- White flowered plants like Nicotiana sylvestris
Edible crops for an East facing garden include: –
- Distinguish Between Different Types of Shade – Most gardens experience some shade, at least at some point during the day. An east facing garden is no different. But to make the right choices, it is important to distinguish between different types of shade. Some shade is deep, some dappled, some areas may only be in partial shade – or get plenty of sun but only during certain parts of the day. (Usually, as mentioned above, an east facing garden will get most sun during the morning hours.) Determining whether the shady areas of your garden are wet or dry is also important. Working out the characteristics of the site will help you make the best decisions for your own particular garden. Knowing which way your garden faces and when it gets the sun is important – but remember that there are also other factors – such as moisture, climate and soil type – to consider.
- Make the Most of the Morning Light – Whatever type of garden you have and no matter where you live, it is important to embrace the garden you have rather than wishing for something different. One of the great things about an east facing garden is that you can enjoy the lovely morning sunshine. Make sure you have a breakfast spot of coffee haunt outdoors to make the most of the space.
- Choose Plants That Need Protection from Hot Afternoon Sun – Certain plants will appreciate the morning light and shady afternoons and evenings too. Try planting some honeysuckle, for example, or Berberis. Both of these plants will do well with morning sun and cooler afternoon conditions. It’s also worth considering the fact that certain edible crops can also do better when they have some protection from hot summer sun in the afternoons.
South Facing Garden
A south facing garden will be sunny, with less shade than gardens with other aspects. In the absence of other shading factors, a south facing garden will generally have lots of sunshine on the rear of the house. The back area of your garden, furthest from the house, in an enclosed garden, will usually be in shade most of the day. With your back to your house, the right hand boundary will be east-facing, with morning sun, and the left side will be west facing, with afternoon and evening sun.
Plants for a South Facing Garden
For the sunniest areas of a south facing garden, you will want to consider growing plants suited to a warmer, drier spot, such as Mediterranean herbs, and sun-loving flowers such as
- verbena bonariensis
- bearded irises
- warm-climate plants
Edible crops well suited to a south facing garden include: –
- globe artichokes
- peach or apricot trees
- fig trees
- olive trees
- Create a Water-Wise South Facing Garden – The key issue with south facing gardens is that they can tend to dry out more quickly. Due to the high light levels, they can lose water from soil and through plants more speedily than gardens which have shade for more of the day. And while the conditions can be ideal for sun-loving plants, those that prefer moister and shadier conditions will be more of a challenge to grow. In a south facing garden, where there are warm and sunny conditions, it is more important than ever to make sure that you create a water-wise garden. Make sure you collect rainwater to use on your plants. Mulch well around plants in your growing areas to retain soil moisture. And use ground cover plants and cover crops to reduce moisture loss.
- Choose sun-loving plants – As in any garden, the key to gardening in a south-facing garden is choosing the right plants for the right places. Embrace the conditions you have, working with nature rather than fighting it. If you try to grow shade-loving plants in full sun, they will not do as well as plants better suited to the conditions you have.
- Consider Creating Some Shade in Very Dry and Warm South Facing Gardens – If a south facing garden is baked and dried out too much by the summer sun, judiciously creating some shade for some of the space may be a good idea. Shade trees can cast dappled shade and can reduce water loss. The dappled shade they provide can be great for humans looking to enjoy the space, and may also increase the range of plants you are able to grow. In addition to considering fruit and nut trees, you might also consider other ornamental shade trees. A sheltered south facing garden might be the ideal place to consider some more exotic and unusual varieties – such as hardy palms and other trees not usually suitable for our cooler temperate climate. You may even be able to give your garden a tropical feel.
- Consider Alternatives to a Grass Lawn for a South Facing Garden – A south facing garden can be a gardening paradise. But sometimes you may find, if you have a lawn, that it turns brown in very sunny south facing spots in hot summer weather. If you have this problem, think about choosing alternatives to grass if you still want a lawn area. For example, you could consider making a chamomile lawn[v]. Or replacing lawn with low-growing herbs like thyme to create ground cover for areas that do not experience heavy traffic. Sedums and other succulents could also work well as ground cover in a south facing garden. You might even use such plants to make a green roof on south facing garden structures like bin-stores or garden sheds
West Facing Garden
A west facing garden will be mostly in shade during the morning and will get plenty of sun during the afternoon and evening. Plants in a west facing garden must be able to withstand the strong afternoon sun during the summer months and yet also tolerate (or enjoy) the morning shade.
Plants for a West Facing Garden
While you will be able to grow a wide range of edibles in a west-facing garden, you will have to pay attention to the companion planting for shade within the polytunnel over the summer months. Attractive ornamentals for a west facing garden include:
- magnolias and camelias, which enjoy the morning shade
- perennials such as sedums and fuchsias
Great warm-season crops that will make the most of the warm afternoon sun include
- Grow Plenty of Edibles in Your West Facing Garden – Almost any garden can be turned into an edible haven, with plenty of food for you and your family to eat. Since a west facing garden gets the sun for much of the day, it can be an ideal place to position a summer fruit and vegetable garden (or a polytunnel).
- Choose Plants Which Thrive with Morning Shade and Afternoon Sun – You can grow plenty of ornamental plants too. A well planned west facing garden will look great as well as being productive. Even a west facing border shaded all morning long can be put to good effect. You can grow a wide range of trees, shrubs and perennial plants.
- Add Some Shade To Protect Plants Over the Warm Afternoons – In very warm and sheltered west facing gardens, where lawns or plants have a tendency to wilt in the hot afternoon sun, you could consider planting a fruit tree or other suitable shade tree to provide more varied, dappled shade conditions for other plants. Apple, plum or cherry trees can often be great choices. But there are also plenty of native garden trees you could consider.
- Use Mulches To Retain Soil Moisture – Another way to mitigate the impact of the hot afternoon sun in a west facing garden is to minimise water loss from the soil by using suitable mulches around any fruits and vegetables you are growing, and any other plants. By reducing evaporation from the soil, and keeping it cooler, you can protect plant roots and the soil ecosystem. You can conserve water too. Add mulches when the weather warms in late spring or early summer to mitigate the worst effects of the hot summer sun.
BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, 2019. How to grow ferns in dry shade. [Online]
Available at: https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/grow-plants/how-to-grow-ferns-in-dry-shade/
[Accessed 30 September 2020].
BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, 2019. Types of garden shade. [Online]
Available at: https://www.gardenersworld.com/plants/types-of-garden-shade/
[Accessed 30 September 2020].
Butterfly Conservation, n.d. NECTAR PLANTS. [Online]
Available at: http://www.mothscount.org/text/64/nectar_plants.html
[Accessed 30 September 2020].
Grant, A., 2020. Chamomile Lawn Plants: Tips For Growing Chamomile Lawns. [Online]
Available at: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/lawn-care/lawn-substitutes/chamomile-lawn/growing-chamomile-lawns.htm
[Accessed 30 September 2020].
Wambugu, D. M., 2018 . Where Does the Sun Rise and Set?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/why-does-the-sun-rise-in-the-east-and-set-in-the-west.html
[Accessed 30 September 2020].
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.