How to Determine the Amount of Sunlight Your Garden Gets

Posted on Jan 25 2012 - 1:02am by Mike Lieberman

What can I grow?

That’s the most common question that I get asked.

First, you’ll have to decide on the location of your urban garden.

Then you’ll have to determine how much sunlight your garden space gets.

There are four main categories of sunlight:

  • Full sun. 6+ hours of direct sunlight.
  • Partial sun. 4-5 hours of direct sunlight.
  • Partial shade. 2-4 hours of direct sunlight.
  • Shade Less than 1 hour of direct sunlight.

Since we are living in urban environments, we have other structures that we are dealing with as well. Those can be adjacent buildings, over hangs and walls.

I would assume that most of us fall into the partial sun category and below.

Easily figure out how much sunlight you get

A simple way to figure out how much sunlight your space gets is to monitor it throughout the day.

All you have to do is pop outside for less than a minute every few hours and take some quick notes.

Start off with a quick sketch of your garden space. Section it off as the day progresses because the surrounding structures will cast shade in certain areas.

Here is a video of what the process looks like from my balcony garden:

[vimeo clip_id=”35606437″ title=”0″ byline=”0″ portrait=”0″ width=”525″ height=”393″]

Once you know how much sunlight your garden gets, the list of what you can grow has been narrowed down for you.

My balcony gets only three hours of direct sunlight. Based on that my selection is limited down to certain herbs and vegetables. This is why I’m growing a lot of greens.

Now you can repeat the same process and leave a comment below to let me know how much sunlight your urban garden gets.

42 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Karen January 25, 2012 at 5:13 am -

    Good idea!  I’ve paid attention to the sun before but never kept track on a piece of paper so I always forget what I’ve seen.  I’ll definitely give that a go.  

  2. Sandy Barton January 25, 2012 at 5:31 am -

    Just remember that this changes through the year. Our plot is sunnier earlier in the season than it is later. The path of the sun as the summer progresses makes the house cast a shadow that isn’t there when we plant. Also, trees fill out and cause  shade. it may take more than a year to get a good idea of how much sun your spot gets.

  3. Mike Lieberman January 25, 2012 at 7:47 am -

    I need to do this for my new space.

  4. Mike Lieberman January 25, 2012 at 7:48 am -

    Yes it does change. If you wanna get started, you need to know what it is now. 

  5. kat January 27, 2012 at 9:32 am -

    Can you direct me to a list of what grows best in …
    type of sunlight
    time of year
    just found your site… so glad to have this resource and realize that I can start growing my own food even in my teeny tiny apartment!

  6. Angela January 27, 2012 at 11:23 am -

    I “Pinned” this on Pinterest so other people can learn from you! 🙂

  7. Bret January 27, 2012 at 11:36 am -

    I get just around 4 hours on direct sunlight. The system I use is unique, it is called the garden master’s bucket garden. You can google it to see pics.  Happy Gardening!

  8. Mike Lieberman January 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm -

    I don’t have that readily available and am actually working on compiling it. Especially for containers.

    Great that you are getting started. Gonna be doing some indoor growing myself.

  9. Susan Mulledy-DeFrank January 28, 2012 at 11:03 am -

    I am helping out with a little Children’s garden at my Church.   Last Spring there was success with Tomatoes in one of the square foot style boxes and in the other box they grew some herbs, onions and some carrots.    In November I planted many different types of leaf lettuce where the herbs, carrots and onions were and have left the tomato box fallow .   I am now cleaning it out and was thinking of planting some snow peas and beets.    Neither of these boxes gets more than four hours of sun at this  time of year.   Do you think these two vegi’s would do well in the limited amount of sun available?

    Thanks Susan.

  10. Anonymous January 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm -

    I haven’t done any of the survey work yet on my balcony, but want to say how much appreciate your mentoring process!  Thank you for putting this site together!

  11. Mike Lieberman January 29, 2012 at 5:13 pm -

    My pleasure. Now get to surveying that balcony 😉

  12. Mike Lieberman January 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm -

    Great stuff Susan. Thanks for introducing this to the kids. 4-5 hours of sun should be good for peas and beets. Keep me updated!

  13. Mike Lieberman January 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm -

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Mike Lieberman January 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm -

    Thanks Angela!

  15. Kelly March 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm -

    I have a back porch in an apartment complex that’s pretty shady! We get morning sun for about an hour and half, and even that is filtered a bit through the forest behind the house. It’s a very lush view from the porch once the bushes and leaves grow back in the spring, but I’m worried about starting my own patio-garden for fear that it doesn’t get enough sun… I would love to hear your thoughts! 

  16. Mike Lieberman March 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm -

    My thoughts are push the fear aside and start growing some greens!

  17. Marcus Riedner April 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm -

     Spinach, Chard, Lettuces, Beets, Radish, Green Onion, most brassicas ( Cabbage, Broccoli, Mini-Broccoli ) do all right in shade, you have to extend the growing time appropriately.

    I’ve only found spinach, beets, and chard a bit tricky – the tend to bolt in my shady areas. The radish do all right, you just have to pick them a bit smaller in a shady area, otherwise they tend to get very woody. Up side is the smaller ones tend to be more peppery. ( The radish greens are delicious as well ).

  18. Mike Lieberman April 1, 2012 at 6:02 pm -

    Thanks for the info.

  19. Paige April 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm -

    My patio gets full sun in most areas… and I’ve noticed that my plants (green beans, tomato, hibiscus) are burning even though I water once a day. What should I do?

  20. Mike Lieberman April 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm -

    Move or shade them?!?

  21. anna April 20, 2012 at 10:02 pm -

    I have a northeast facing balcony and during Spring it gets only part sun (around 5 hours) and then from late spring to late summer it gets about 6-7 hours.  So I get a slow start in vegetable production.  Most of my plants are just sort of hanging out during the spring and come early June they start producing.

    This year I want to grow beans and peas, although I have no idea how to go about trailing the vines on a teensy balcony.  Any good ideas?

  22. Mike Lieberman April 23, 2012 at 6:10 am -

    Those are both great ideas.

  23. jason April 24, 2012 at 1:03 pm -

    Any info on how to take in account into the seasons and how the sun shifts up or down? Never really could grasp that.

  24. Mike Lieberman April 24, 2012 at 3:14 pm -

    Just check at the beginning of each season. I forget too.

  25. Mike Lieberman April 30, 2012 at 5:37 am -

    Thanks for the hookup.

  26. Ashlyw89 May 12, 2012 at 6:40 pm -

    you can just use twine to trail the vines sense they are so little. At the bottom tie the twine to a board at the roots and trail them up. at the top tie the twine to the ceiling with some nails or hooks.

  27. Megan A Smith May 15, 2012 at 8:29 am -

    I am lucky and live in a house with a wide open backyard so am growing tomatoes, peppers, herbs and trying my hand at carrots (my local seeds are 4x more successful than the packaged ones!). Moving soon to a place with an entirely shaded property and will have to change it up there but am hoping to grow spinach, kale, lettuces, broccoli and other shade-loving plants… which I know about thanks to you! As always, loving the site. I’ll share pics when I get my first tomato! 🙂

  28. Meg May 15, 2012 at 8:56 am -

     Anna, there are a lot of wild bamboo stands around my area. My friend stakes small bamboo she cut and strings construction tape between them. If you want something that stands out less, I’m sure regular string or rope would work as well. This way you can structure your vines to go wherever you want them to/have space for them. You can look on CraigsList to see if anyone in your area is trying to get rid of bamboo. If you’re not in that type of area, you could use small dowels from Lowes/HD.

  29. Mike Lieberman May 15, 2012 at 1:09 pm -

    Lookin forward to it.

  30. Littlemissmutch May 28, 2012 at 1:53 pm -

    Thanks for the instructions. Your balcony is so big. Mine also has solid metal walls so that shades 80% on its own 🙁 oh well! Something will grow!!

  31. Mike Lieberman May 28, 2012 at 9:31 pm -

    Exactly. Something will.

  32. Ldalemar2 June 13, 2012 at 9:46 am -

    Curious as to what other vegetables/herbs you are growing other than the mentioned ‘greens’. 🙂

  33. Mike Lieberman June 13, 2012 at 11:05 am -

    I grow mostly greens because I eat a lot of them and that’s what does best in my location.

  34. Georgina R. July 8, 2012 at 10:08 am -

    Just found this site and i’ve already learned some great tips. I just moved from a house with a huge yard and a garden where I got my first tomato. Now I’m in an apartment with a balcony that has the sun passing almost directly overhead with about a foot of the balcony getting direct sun for 5 hrs. I know I can get some select plants doing pretty well in this area however, just to clarify I have a question.
    The only thing I can grow outside of the foot that gets the direct sunlight are shade plants right? It seems like an obvious question but there is no direct sun in this area.
    Thanks and keep up the great work!

  35. Henrietta Jones August 3, 2012 at 9:10 am -

    Fortunately my terrace faces south, and it is on the penultimate floor of the building (a high-rise). None of the other buildings are as  tall as this one, so it’s safe to say we get full sun. I get to grow tomatoes; yay! 🙂 I can’t imagine having to deal with spot that received partial shade or all shade as that limits your growing options.

  36. jc November 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm -

    hanging baskets! 🙂

  37. David January 21, 2013 at 2:31 pm -

    I am not sure what i get to be honest i have 4 huge trees in the backyard and it is now winter so i will have to wait and see

  38. Jacqueline May 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm -

    I have a porch which is shady except for one area where I get less than 2 hours of sun – I have a window box there but have trouble choosing plants for it – I would like some color. What would you recommend? We live in charleston, sc.

  39. Amy Beaird November 16, 2013 at 6:32 am -

    I am renting a duplex. I can use planting boxes, but i can’t dig up the ground. I want fruits and vegetables, and my back patio gets full sun, my front gets almost no sun. I’d like to grow green beans, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, blueberries, strawberries, and any other fruit that doesn’t grow on trees. I have no clue how to do this, I’m really glad i found your website.

  40. Elizia January 21, 2015 at 7:30 am -

    Do Vegetables Taste Better Grown Outside or Inside in a Grow Tent? I live in an apartment and I am trying to figure out whether it is better to grow my plants in a grow tent with an HID light or outside on my balcony. I want to make sure that growing inside of a grow tent with a sun lamp and potting soil mixture does not change the flavor of my vegetables. My balconies are very shady and I’m trying to get the best quality and taste from my crops.

  41. Nathaniel Roland Stickley January 9, 2017 at 4:48 pm -

    I have been working on a Python module that can be used to compute Sun exposure maps (maps of direct sun exposure time and maps of the radiant exposure). For people familiar with Python, this might be useful.

    It’s missing some features, but I’ll probably have time to improve it over the next few months.

  42. Molly Rosen March 20, 2017 at 1:23 pm -

    Define “beginning.” Keep in mind, I live in Minnesota. Thanks!

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