The low angle of the sun makes things tricky in a small garden.

Getting to Growing #2 Sunlight

Last week, I started this series of posts on getting a garden started in Winter. That was the introduction. Click here if you missed that. This is the start of the meaty bit.


Follow the Sun

It’s a grey day as I type this and I’ve been thinking about the first gardening tip for new gardeners. That leads me, unsurprisingly to sunlight. 

As this is a guide to starting gardens right now, I’ll address the garden’s Winter needs, starting with sunlight. Of course, we’re looking at small urban or suburban gardens and the examples will mostly be taken from here at Ligaya Garden. If you have a big plot, then sunlight won’t be as much of an issue. The general advice will help, though.

In Australia, are blessed with plenty of it at the right time of year. Enough, in fact to power all of our industries and endeavours, forever. Its just that, for a small garden, there can be in a bit of a short supply in Winter.

Sunlight is one of the key ‘nutrients’ for plants. Without it, they couldn’t convert all of the other things plants rely on into energy and biomass (read ‘food for us’). Plants without enough light grow tall or long and spindly with more distance between the leaves as the plant puts all of its energy into trying to push its leaves further out and into areas where there is more light. That’s energy that could have gone to providing the tasty bits that you planted your garden to provide in the first place. Plants that don’t receive enough light also produce smaller heads, you can see that especially in Cabbages and Broccoli and that means smaller harvests or more plants.  Kale is a plant that does particularly well in lower light conditions and may become a staple in your kitchen over Winter.

In Winter, our part of the Earth is at less of an angle to the Sun and less sunlight reaches down under. What this means is that, at this time of year, we have to work that little bit harder to clear away any obstructions that are between our plants and the Sun and to try to maximise their exposure to its life giving rays. It’s fortunate that a lot of trees help us out at this time of year by dropping their leaves and letting more light reach the ground.

The low angle of the sun makes things tricky in a small garden.
The low angle of the sun makes things tricky in a small garden.

Positioning your garden bed.

If you haven’t made a growing bed, think of the following things before you commit shovel to soil.

The Sun moves across the sky from East to West and lower to the horizon than in Summer.  You need to make sure that your bed is, ideally, positioned with one of its long sides facing North. That way the Sun will shine on it for the longest time possible.

The Sun’s rays come in at a lower angle, so position the bed away from large objects and fences that can cast shadows across it as the Sun sinks in the afternoon. This is especially true of objects to the North of your bed.

Maximising light and gaining heat.

To maximise the light when planting, space your plants a little further apart than advice on the punnet says. That will make sure that they don’t shade each other. Also, place your potentially taller plants to the Southern side of the bed. That will ensure they don’t shade out shorter plants when they grow.

With Sun comes heat. That is a good thing, as soil temperatures start to drop with the advent of the cold weather. If you’re planting seeds, they generally like a little warmth when they germinate, so this is the best time to get them in. Keeping the spacing of seedlings open lets more sunlight get to both them and the soil, so they are happier and a touch warmer. A bit of sunlight also keeps mold and other nasties down too. 

Raised beds can absorb heat or reflect it.
Raised beds can absorb heat or reflect it.

Raised beds, positioned with one of their long sides facing North can capture heat from the Sun during the day and keep the roots of the plants in it warmer, stimulating growth. At night, it will release this heat slowly and keep the air around it a touch warmer. That’s great for the plants and can also reduce damage from the extremes of cold later in the season. The technical name for this is ‘thermal mass’. Well placed thermal masses in the garden can help keep night time temperatures a touch higher and stop frost. We have a few half pickle barrels as planters, filled with compost and plants that do just that.

If, like us, you choose a light colour for the walls of the containers of your raised beds, these can reflect a bit of light onto nearby plants while generally brightening up the place.

Large reflective surfaces help.
Large reflective surfaces help. to reflect sunlight into the garden.

You can think of planting near to large, reflective objects such as rain tanks and fences on other sides of your property than the North. These can bounce light onto your plants and, in the case of rain tanks and really big pots, absorb heat during the day to release at night. I have a friend who always plants their favourite veggies in a strip along their driveway at this time of year. The concrete keeps the ground warmer and his white car reflects light and heat onto his plants.

Large black pots can absorb and radiate heat.
Large black pots can absorb and radiate heat later.

One of my favourite tricks is to plant light coloured plants between darker coloured ones. The lighter a leaf surface a plant has, the less light it seems to need and the more it reflects away for other nearby plants to use. This is a great excuse to plant some ornamentals in between your food plants. I love to use white Pansies. They have another use that we’ll look at when we talk about pest control.

Just soaking up the Sun against a wall.
Just soaking up the Sun against a wall.

Summary.

We can see, then, that the ideal situation is a bed with its longest side facing North, plants widely spaced and with the taller ones on the Southern side. Plants with light coloured foliage can interspace other plants. The bed is ideally near to large and/or or highly reflective objects that are to its Southern side.

A family with a garden near Gawler where we experiment with sustainability.

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