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Out of the Shadows and Into the Light

The winter solstice that occurred Tuesday is when the sun is its lowest on the horizon and shadows are their longest. If you stand in the garden today, at noon, your shadow will stretch about 10 feet in front of you if you are six feet tall. Compare this to summer, when your noontime shadow is but a circle at your feet.

Likewise the shadows of trees and buildings stretch across the garden, and this is something to take note of, because it often affects what you can plant, and where. You might even want to make a sketch of your garden--a plan view as seen from above--and note where the shadows are, which is what I plan to do this weekend--in between the assembling of bikes, buying the batteries I forgot to include and other day-after duties.

This sketch should prove very useful next fall when it is time to plant winter’s flowers because I will know where the sun shines and where it does not. I have already discovered that my front lawn, normally bathed in sunlight, is now trying to grow in the shade of the large magnolias that are clear across the street. I have also discovered that in late September, I planted pansies in a bed that is now completely shady and that they are a trifle floppy as a result.

Growing in the Shadows

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I have also noted that several roses are now growing in the shadow cast by the house, but this makes no difference because they are dormant. Several spots beneath trees that are normally shady are now quite sunny, and yet I neglected to plant anything there, thinking it would be shady all year. So it works both ways. Some parts of the garden get more shade, some less.

Those places just under the trees might be the perfect place for tulips, so if you haven’t already planted those tulip bulbs that have been cooling in the refrigerator, this is a spot to investigate. George de Gennaro, who grows the best tulips in town, tells me that he always tries to plant them where they get some shade when they are in flower, so they are safe from any spring hot spells.

He says that the stems are taller and that the flowers last longer in some shade. He grows his under deciduous trees that leaf out just in time to protect the tulips from the hot sun.

Planted just under a tree that does not cast too much shade even in summer, the tulips would grow in sun in winter as they sprout leaves and then, as the sun climbed in the sky, they would get less and less and would most likely bloom in some shade.

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Complicated Watering

Winter’s shadows can also complicate watering.

For instance, my back lawn normally grows in full sun and the sprinklers are all on one valve, so if I water, I wet the whole thing. Unfortunately, at this time of the year, only half of it grows in the sun and the half in the shade doesn’t need much water. In fact, if it needs anything, it needs to dry out a bit to discourage the moss that’s beginning to grow there.

If I had made this little midwinter sketch a few years ago, I would have known this and I would have designed the sprinkler system in two parts, so in winter I could water only the half growing in the sun and avoid drowning the half in the shade.

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Instead, what I have to do, and what I recommend to those in a similar situation, is to water in winter with portable sprinklers so you only water what needs it and avoid those shady places that seldom dry out. This year, though, the weather has given me a break and I have yet to water anything but the container-bound plants in the garden.

The map I am making of where the shadows are will also help with planning the vegetable garden, because it is wedged between trees, and it’s difficult to figure out in the fall where the sunniest spots will be in winter. Vegetables need the sunniest spot you can provide.

What I plan to do, and have done in summer when the sun is at its highest, is to walk around the garden at 9 a.m., at noon, and at 3 p.m., using a different-colored pencil to note where the shadows are at each of these times of day. I will simply color in the shaded areas--I will draw the shadows as they lie. Wherever these shadows overlap will be the shadiest parts of the garden, where the sun never shines. I suspect I will also discover some places that get sun in the morning, or afternoon, enough sun to grow many plants that only need a part-day of sunshine.

I figure that when this little weekend project is complete, I will have a valuable planning and planting tool that will help me avoid any midwinter surprises, sun-wise.

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