How much light do your plants get?

By Tom Seymour | Oct 12, 2018
Photo by: Tom Seymour These poplar trees block light to Tom's gardens.

Maine, the Pine Tree State, ranks as the most heavily forested state east of the Mississippi. And for gardeners and homeowners, that can present a problem.

It’s human nature to view trees as something static and unchanging, more so as trees mature. “It’s big and fully grown now,” we tell ourselves. But in fact, big trees will, if left to grow, become even bigger trees. The difference here is that with small trees, yearly growth is easily discernible. In fact, trees grow like weeds, which in a sense, they are. Once a tree attains any appreciable size, though, we tend not to notice annual growth. And that can be a costly mistake.

“Morning sun is shade; afternoon sun is sun,” goes the old saying. This has a solid basis in truth because morning sun is slanting and therefore weak, while afternoon sun is more direct and thus, stronger. And it is mostly afternoon sun that we count on to help our plants grow. Morning sun doesn’t help much, but on the other hand, it doesn’t hurt. But even if every morning were cloudy and every afternoon bright and sunny, our gardens would still grow well.

For people who have built their house in the middle of what once was a hayfield, and this has become increasingly common as Midcoast Maine becomes more densely settled, the difference between morning and afternoon sunlight is strictly academic, since trees are absent from the scene and therefore do not figure in to how much sunlight a garden will receive.

But the rest of us need to take time to determine how much effect, if any, nearby trees have on the amount of sunlight we enjoy. Here’s a tipoff that trees are blocking needed sunlight. If part of a garden bed produces big, robust flowers and vegetables on one end and stunted plants on the other, the cause may boil down to two factors. Either the end with poor growth is nutrient-deficient or trees are blocking afternoon light from reaching the non-productive area of the bed.

Chances are in most cases, trees, not nutrients, are the culprit. This happened with one of my garden beds last year and it took some head-scratching to ferret out the cause of the problem. Once I determined it must be from trees, since I spread nutrients equally throughout the bed, the situation became a real eye-opener. Huge poplar trees to the south of my lawn and gardens were blocking needed sunlight.

Problems with trees became apparent even before the start of garden problems. As an amateur astronomer, viewing such southerly delights as Sagittarius became ever more difficult. Was it me, or was it something else? Well, it wasn’t me. It was those poplars, the poplars that each year grew just a bit taller. Things are now at the point where my southerly and southwest viewing options are quite limited.

The answer is to cut down the poplars. I’m presently not able to use a chainsaw and have asked a woodcutter friend to come in and drop the offending trees. Once this task is completed, I expect my garden plants to take off like rockets and my nighttime observing to return to what I enjoyed 20 years ago or more.

I should mention that most any tree can serve as firewood, even poplar. This deciduous tree, being far less dense than typical hardwoods, burns hot and fast, perfect for taking the chill off on these cool fall mornings and evenings. So if possible, with the exception of conifers, do try to put the trees you cut down to good use, and in this case, the best use is as fuel in our woodstoves.

Nearby trees can cause other problems, too. Shady sides of buildings are subject to mildew and rot. Does a green, algae-like substance grow on the bottom of shingles or siding? A solution of bleach and water will help the problem, but for a more long-term solution, cutting nearby trees stands as the better option.

Some solutions

While cutting sunlight-blocking trees works best, not everyone has the option to remove trees. In some cases, the problem tree or trees stand on a neighbor’s property. Or perhaps, it’s just too much of a chore to cut and delimb trees. And what to do after a tree is down poses another problem.

In my case, my woodlot abounds in huge poplars and a half-dozen cut, trimmed and left to rot makes little difference in the grand scheme of things. Not everyone has a similar situation. But even so, cutting just one or two trees can often solve the bulk of the problem. So how might we determine which tree needs cutting?

Well, at this point in the calendar year, hours of sunlight are similar to what we experience during the early part of the growing season. To determine if trees present a problem, just go outside sometime after noon and walk around your gardens. Is part of the beds in full sun, while other sections have already sunk into deepening shade? Then look toward (not at) the sun and try to determine which tree is blocking most of the sunlight.

It may well be that by removing only one tree, you might gain years' worth of bright, energy-giving afternoon sunlight. If that is the case, consider yourself fortunate.

If cutting a tree or trees is definitely out of the question, then we must consider alternative options. One solution may be to move garden beds to somewhere with full, daylong sunlight. If moving soil isn’t easy and double-digging certainly isn’t a picnic, at least the end result will be a brand-new, very productive garden space.

If this option seems too busy or too difficult, then maybe shade-loving plants can supplant sun-loving plants in affected areas of the garden. And as for sun-loving plants, perhaps container gardening in whatever brightly light areas remain is the answer. Readers will recall my frequently mentioning EarthBoxes. These easily moved units will grow plants well anyplace where sunlight shines all afternoon.

I might add that despite my often mentioning this fine product, I am not a dealer and am in no way connected with the company. I buy my EarthBoxes from the manufacturer, the same as everyone else. For more information, just visit EarthBox.com. The website has all the answers anyone might ask regarding EarthBoxes.

As for when to go out and check your own sunlight situation, do it now, before leaves fall. If not, then you’ll need to wait until well into next growing season, almost eight months away. So if possible, go out and survey the situation. That way you’ll have ample time to devise a plan based upon your individual situation and needs.

Finally, when you do your sunlight survey, it might help to take some photos of shady parts of the garden. These can be referred to in the future and can help greatly in planning the next step in regaining precious sunlight.

Indoor gardening

For those who enjoy growing a few green things on sunny windowsills, now is the time to begin. I like to use seed saved from the previous season. Most seeds remain viable for at least a few years, so germination shouldn’t be a problem. Potted plants are another option and as of this past week, I notice retail outlets offering potted herbs such as basil and thyme. While I grow and save my own basil, nothing beats fresh-picked basil leaves for fragrance and taste.

More ambitious indoor gardeners can also begin growing greens with the aid of a grow light. These mimic natural sunlight, and with their help, we can grow almost any leafy green vegetable or herb.

For me, life without at least a few growing things around seems bland. Even a few pots of lettuce or basil can lift the spirits.

Here’s something else. A friend has trimmed his geraniums and put some of the cuttings in water, where they have already set roots. But while now is the time when everyone else has begun cutting down on watering in order for their geraniums to enter their winter dormant time, nothing is carved in stone that says we can’t grow geraniums in winter.

And that is exactly what I intend to do. Given enough sunlight and ample water, geraniums will continue to grow and add zest to our lives all winter long. Houseplants are houseplants, and geraniums are really no different. I’ve grown them through the winter in the past and had no problems.

Besides that, raising geraniums from cuttings stands as an easy and inexpensive way to obtain more plants, plants that can go outside next spring to enliven borders and even hanging baskets. The attentive gardener is always thinking ahead, and such planning only increases the enjoyment of gardening.

Tom’s tips

Here’s something that I would never, ever have considered. When I was recently incapacitated, my friend Nancy came by and cleaned my house. Finding some tough stains, she asked if I had any laundry detergent, which I did.

Within minutes, caked-on stains were gone. I use Xtra brand detergent, but Nancy said any detergent will work as well. Anyway, in a flash, my refrigerator and stove were sparkling-white. Even caked-on grease was no match for the laundry detergent treatment.

Just apply a few drops of detergent to a wet cloth and begin cleaning things that were previously untouchable. Try it and see for yourself.

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