Full sun to part shade. Really?

Shade plant image courtesy of Shutterstock
Shade plant image courtesy of Shutterstock

Plant labels tend to be prosaic. They are not—to my knowledge—as carefully scrutinized by federal agencies as food labels are, but nonetheless, the big growers seem to reliably police themselves, offering botanical names, reasonably truthful dimensions, and helpful planting and care information.  Except, sadly, when it comes to light requirements. This goes for catalog descriptions as well, but I think it’s more of a problem with labels in stores, as more gardeners buy from nurseries than via mail order.

The shade gardener is—by far—most often the victim of optimistic light specs on plant labels. If the brutal truth was absolutely required, probably over two thirds (three quarters?) of the plants in any given garden center would be irrelevant for those gardeners who get less than five hours of sun in the beds they’re trying to plant up. It’s been said  that many so-called “shade” plants actually just tolerate shade, but do even better in full sun. Maybe that’s the reason for the plethora of “full sun to part shade” labels that seem to dominate the perennial kingdom.

Just what that term means has become plain to many gardeners who work in real half-and-half sun/shade situations. Having tried such “half shade” plants as monarda and echinacea, just to name two really common varieties (this is Bluestone, but the half shade designation is quite common), I’ve given up. Four-five hours of sun are not enough for either of these plants and many others so designated. The labels should really be “full sun to full sun minus 90 minutes.”

I’ve found I do much better using potted tropicals, tough annuals,  and bulbs where I have shade, and want more variety. In other areas, I’ve resigned myself to growing more hostas and Solomon’s Seal than anyone should have to grow. And don’t talk to me about heuchera.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. It can go the other way, too. A lot of “full sun” labelled plants can’t take full sun in the South. Or the desert.

    It’s right up there with “plant as soon as soil can be worked,” which apparently refers to locations where the soil freezes solid. Or “plant after all danger of frost has passed” on labels for frost tolerant species.

  2. One of my favorite tough perennials for shade is epimedium. There seem to be hundreds of varieties, some with showy blooms, others that hold their tiny blooms shyly under the leaves, some that emerge in spring with bright purple or reddish leaves that later change to green. They all have beautiful leaves, hung on delicate stems like ornaments dangling from thin wires. And the ones I’ve tried all excel at thriving in dry shade. Calling them groundcover doesn’t do justice to their beauty.

  3. Obviously, retailers have an incentive to sell plants to the widest possible market of gardeners; some descriptions probably border on dishonest or at least overly optimistic, but others may be based in actual experience growing plants in less than full sun. Many plants will undoubtedly do OK in half sun, (although coneflowers and echinacea seem like they’d be most happy with full sun, like on the prairies they came from), but that doesn’t mean they’ll thrive and flower bounteously in half shade. And “part” shade seems pretty vague — what part are talking about, 1/2 shade, 1/4 shade, summer deciduous shade? There are many kinds and amounts of shade, which, combined with differences in soil, water, heat, humidity, etc., could mean some plants can do well enough in “part shade,” and others will sulk and never bloom, yet still technically grow. Experience and advice from others who grow under your conditions are probably the best way to figure out what will do well in your part-shade garden. But I agree, labels can be maddening.

  4. Come on, Elizabeth – like so many other things (in this country, at least) it’s just CYA stuff. A broad range covers a multitude of sins and takes the grower off the hook in terms of the gardener’s results. But to play devil’s advocate, every garden has so many microclimates and in general, exceptions to the rules that it could be nearly impossible to lay down any hard-and-fast guidelines. Trial and error is really all we have, in the end. And by the way, I totally agree with Deborah B – if you haven’t tried epimediums, get some. That genus is one of the most helpful for problem areas that I’ve ever tried. I have them in totally dry total shade, more moist partial shade – they do well nearly everywhere, except in a bed that I made around a Douglas fir. Apparently, even epimediums will only tolerate so much dryness.

  5. I have come to believe that label information should be considered “suggestions.” If you like something, plant it and see how it goes.

  6. I agree with you partially. It is true that light specifications could be very complex and most of the time beyond the simple categorization of full sun, shade and on (which could really prove misleading sometimes). However, I think it’s up to every gardener to do the research himself and learn how to plant a flower and what are the in depth specifications. With the Internet obtaining such knowledge is far easier nowadays.

  7. Yes, plant labels tend to be full of misinformation. However, for shady areas I recommend you try things like native wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus), black cohosh (Actea racemosa), creeping woodland phlox (P. divaricata ), Hellebores, yellow waxy bells (Kirengeshoma palmata ), mayapple, astilbe, woodland sedges, wild gingers, green and gold ((Chrysogonum virginiana), native violets, and various jack in the pulpits.

    • Thanks, Diane. I grow (or have tried) most of those. The only ones I can really get behind are hellebores, aruncus, and maybe a couple of the sedges. and I guess it’s time for my “shade plants that suck” post!

  8. Elizabeth, maybe you should have your soil tested by your Ag extension. I’m also wondering if you have something nearby like a black walnut, Norway maple, hemlock or pine that might be effecting the growing conditions. Dry shade is harder to work with than moist shade, but even dry gardens can have a full range of plants that like those conditions. I’m garden designer and plant propagator by trade and all my shade gardens are lush and diverse. I find the best way to get plants to grow is to give them the conditions they have evolved to thrive in and then they naturally take off and require very little in the way of care. I would also stay alway from cultivars and stick to straight species for best results.

  9. I agree that plant labels can be less than useful. That is one reason that local advice is useful – dare I say local garden columns like mine – or blogs that are in the region. And some sun is good for most plants. Something to remember when looking at those shade labels.

  10. I have some lovely Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (Golden Japanese forest grass) in a narrow garden strip nestled between a fence and my house. It gets perhaps one hour daily of sun at high noon. I have a dogwood there that seems to be doing OK, although the leaves are rather brown around the edges by the end of summer. Too little water, too much wind, too much sun? The vinca minor seems happy. Luckily, I *like heuchera.

    Have you tried brunnera macrophyla? A thriving ‘jack frost’ is in my garden under the neighbor’s willow overhang and only gets an hour or two of direct sun early in the morning.

  11. Oh, I hear ya’! My front (east-facing, zone 5) yard is quite shady, the problem isn’t the dappled shade from sunrise onward, or the denser shade cast by the house as the sun moves across the sky… it’s the 3.5 hours of BLAZING hot mid-Summer sunshine I get from 11ish – 2pm every day! So, shade plants cook, and sun plants languish… oddly, heuchera does decently well; if only it didn’t make my hair hurt to plant it (alongside eleven billion daylilies). I’m moving more toward natives for our area and fingers are crossed.

  12. Great article and really great responses. Part of the issue is regional. You wrote regarding Monarda and coneflower that “Four-five hours of sun are not enough for either of these plants and many others so designated.” In Georgia, 4-5 hours of sun are plenty for these species. I am not disagreeing with your point, but imagine your statement is a plant label…does it apply to all areas of the U.S.? This is an issue that is tough on grower and gardener alike.

    Local knowledge trumps a small plastic label every time and most of what I’ve learned has been trial and error (mostly error).

  13. Seems like a big part of this labeling problem is because people want flowers where and when there usually aren’t many: in the shade, in the summer. Practical shade garden advice so often tells people to experiment with foliage color and texture, but there are color-lovers who just want their flowers. So, the commercial growers stretch the truth, as another commenter pointed out, in order to reach the broadest segment of the population, and take advantage of naive, optimistic newbies who think “well, it gets some light, so it should do fine, right?” The result is that you put coneflowers in a spot that realistically only gets four hours of sunlight a day, and they get tall and leggy, and flop.

    And who makes the decisions on these labels, anyway? The same little stick tags are used across a broad base of grower-distributors. Is there a database somewhere that’s used to generate the growing information?

  14. Caladiums-
    Love shade and tolerate sun very well – all of todays caladiums are commercially grown under full sun in central Florida. Too much sunlight and you may see some brown burn spots, but they do surprisingly well under a lot of shade or sun and hold the foliage all season long.

  15. Funny post but sadly so true. I love your line “often the victim of optimistic light specs”. Heuchera… at least their colors are getting more exciting… don’t talk to me about hostas! haha Solomon’s Seal, now there’s one I haven’t tried yet. It grows wild in our woods, may give it a go. Nice post. – Jaime

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