Friday, 03 May 2013 10:13

Learning About Your Most Important Landscaping Tool: The Compass

By Peter Bowden | Home & Garden

Before you set foot in a nursery to select plants for your landscape, you need to understand conditions in your yard. I call this “Learning Your Yard.” Gardening success starts with knowing how much light a plant needs and where conditions in your yard match up with the plant’s requirements. I’ve spent a lot of time helping folks select plants.

The first question I must ask so I can make logical recommendations is, “What direction does your house face?” More often than you’d believe, the answer I get is “the road.” Obviously, this isn’t what I’m really asking. I’m simply trying to deduce how much sunlight the site will potentially receive. The largest factor influencing conditions in your yard is the house. Each wall faces a different direction, and each of these directions have different qualities of light and exposure that will determine which plants will grow and thrive there and which would be best placed elsewhere.

Let’s examine the qualities of walls facing the four cardinal compass points:

The East-Facing Wall

The east wall faces the sunrise, so it will get morning sun until about noon and then shade for the rest of the day. That means this side of the house will get about six hours of direct sun a day during the growing season. This morning sun is considered the most “balanced” light of the day. It lacks the hot, infrared quality of afternoon sun. This means plants that require shady conditions may be able to tolerate three or four hours of eastern exposure, whereas the same amount of western or afternoon sun would be too “hot” for shade-loving plants. The east-facing wall is also the most sheltered area in the yard. The house acts as a windbreak, protecting this area from the cold, dry prevailing wind that blows from the north and west in winter. This dry winter wind is the worst enemy of rhododendron, azaleas, holly and other broadleaf evergreens. The east-facing wall is the location of choice for this family of plants. When choosing plants for the east wall, look for tags that say “shade to part sun.”

The South-Facing Wall

The south-facing wall of the house provides the sunniest exposure possible. It will get 12 or more hours of direct sun per day. All this sun makes this the perfect location for most flowering shrubs, as well as sun-loving annuals and perennials. Plants that require full sun will want at least seven hours of direct sun per day, and the south wall of the house will provide all that and more. Plants that require shade will suffer when planted on the south side of the house since all those hours of sun will overheat them. The south-facing wall is blocked from the cold, dry north wind but does have exposure to the west. People who love flower gardening are always thrilled to have full southern exposure. Flowering requires lots of energy and the full sun of southern exposure provides plenty. When choosing plant for the south wall, look for tags that say “full sun.”

The West-Facing Wall

The west-facing wall gets the second half of the day’s sun from noon until sunset. Afternoon sun is much hotter and infrared than its morning counterpart. This makes it possible for many plants that require full sun to do well even though they will only get a half a day of sun when planted against a west-facing wall. Shade plants that can thrive in the morning sun will find the west-facing wall too hot. The west-facing wall is also exposed to prevailing wind that blows from the west and northwest, so even though light conditions might be appropriate for broadleaf evergreens, winter wind will make this a tough location for them. When choosing plants for the west wall, look for tags that say “full sun to part shade.”

The North-Facing Wall

The north-facing wall gets less direct sunlight (in fact none) than any other location against the house. This and the fact that it is directly exposed to drying north winds in winter make this one of the most challenging areas to plant. Lack of direct sun makes it impossible to grow most flowering shrubs and roses will never do well against a north-facing wall. Naturally, the north wind will make it impossible for broadleaf evergreens like azaleas and rhododendron to thrive in this location. There are some junipers and other durable evergreens that can live here. The greener the better, since gold or blue evergreens need more sun than a north-facing wall will provide to maintain their color. Shade-loving perennials and annuals are good choices to brighten up this difficult wall. For the north wall, look for tags that say “full shade.”

Not An Ideal World

Of course, few houses face exactly south, north, east or west. If your house faces southeast, for instance, it will have a combination of east and south wall qualities. Then there are the other factors that will influence the “micro-climates” within your yard. There may be a large shade tree in the yard on the south side of the house so, instead of getting full sun all day, that side of the house may only get direct sun for a couple of hours. There may be a fence or evergreen hedge to the west of your yard that blocks the wind from that direction, making it possible to plant rhododendrons there. These are the variables that you’ll need to learn to make logical plant selections and take best advantage of your garden spaces. Thanks for the read. 

Peter Bowden has been providing gardeners with tips and advice for over 35 years. With decades of garden center management experience and thousands of hours of conversations with customers, Peter is well equipped to answer any gardening question that comes his way. His knack for practical and concise explanations has served him well during his 20-year tenure as WRGB’s garden guy. Peter’s tips air each weekend morning on CBS 6 News.

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