In late April 2015, I completed my Permaculture Design Certificate course with Geoff Lawton.
From that day till now, I often have ah-ha moments when certain aspects of our Permaculture design here at home reveal themselves to be less than optimal.
One of the most significant moments for me was the proper understanding of sun angles, or sun mapping, as it is also known. We (my wife and I) retrofitted an existing yard with a design that we (I ) “thought” was suitable for the block, and time has revealed a significant flaw in this process.
We had far too much shade, and being in the tropics, we understood it to be a desirable asset.
It is desirable in the summer but not so much in the winter when we have a small window to plant and grow things more suited to the Temperate / sub-tropical zones.
The design made no allowance for this opportunity to any worthwhile sized area.
This post is about the process of discovering the benefits of mapping the sun/shade dynamics across the yard over the yearly seasonal changes.
The profound benefits we have harnessed with such a simple bit of understanding have allowed us to move to the next level of self-sufficiency in the food supply. This article is part of a series we are working on that lists some recommended skills that will stand you in good stead with a self-sufficient food garden. The complete list is “23 skills for self-sufficient living “.
Mapping The Sun Where You Live.
Thanks to technology, this task is made relatively straightforward.
All you need is a general address of a property and a program to work out the sun’s daily movement for any particular month or season. Summer and Winter solstices will give you the extremes in sun elevation for that specific location.
Here are a couple of programs worth investigating.
- Suncalc.org (free, can be hard to wrap your head around if not tech-minded) link
- app.shadowmap.org (requires signup ) link
- findmyshadow.com (free and quite detailed. Allows for some structures for shade analysis) link
I have no connection to any of these, and I have no opinion to offer on which is the better of them for your situation. What is relevant is the information gleaned once you work out each program’s quirks.
I did use suncalc for my PDC assignment and found it very useful. What took time was me connecting the block where we live and the opportunities the shade took away during the winter months.
Once I understood how much the winter shade was holding back our garden production, the trees became mulch and compost, and metal raised garden beds now sit where trees once stood.
The funny thing about those trees is that they provided little shade for our garden in the hot summer months because they stood on our northern boundary and cast a shadow on the north side away from our block. Our summer sun is to our south, so the shade was outside our yard and unavailable to us.
Several new raised beds are shaded by buildings during summer and get a full day’s sun in winter. Trees recently occupied this area.
This design change has given us a level of reliability with the vegetable harvest that we have never had before and has given us better food security and the chance to feel confident that it is sustainable and achievable.
We are discovering incremental benefits with the beds that enhance production and extend seasons through vertical growing techniques.
That is enough of the benefits for the moment, I can now show you how to map your block, so you have a working example to follow.
This program can help describe the idea of mapping your yard for sun and shade.
The image above shows the page as you will find it with a random set of coordinates in the top left lat/long fields, or instead, below that, you can enter your location and zoom in to display.
You can set the date to the future or past, and the time zone is also changeable. Once you have entered your details, you can scroll down the page to find the section shown in the image below.
The sun-shade behavior on the grid should represent the sun-shade activity where you are.
Details to note above are the height of the darker blocks that represent structures like buildings.
The bottom set of controls on the app allows for a change in height and block size in the grid area. The taller the structure, the longer the shadow will be. Play with it, and you will get the idea.
You can rotate the structure location to suit your situation regarding true north. Doing this will give you the most accurate depiction of your case without physically logging the sun/shade movement each day for a year.
The more time you spend mapping your yard with the existing structures already in place, the better the results in the garden department.
All plants have sun requirements, and matching the plants to the available seasonal sun opportunities will allow you to maximize the yield for any given area. When you are relying on your garden to feed you, every bit helps.
Do you need to sun map your yard to grow food?
While it is not entirely necessary, we strongly recommend you map the sun and shade for your property where food will be grown.
Self-sufficiency is about self-reliance and resilience, and you cannot separate them. Growing food, be it fruit, vegetables, or nuts, is a significant component of self-sufficiency, so you must obtain a yield when you plant.
Sun mapping allows you to plan the garden in multiple dimensions in length, width, and height. One thing to be aware of if the garden will include metal raised garden beds is the potential for the soil to become quite hot in certain conditions, and we address this very topic in “Does the soil get hot in metal raised garden beds?“
We recommend you read that for information on the orientation of the garden beds relative to sun mapping. This article titled “Raised garden beds: does it matter what direction they face?” explains it in more detail.
Knowing your sun/shade areas allows you to use the garden vertically without blocking other plants if it fits your design.
Sun mapping also allows you to create micro-climates for certain plants with a shaded area produced by a taller plant or structure.
Within a planting season, if you have mapped the yard for sun and shade, you can also get a head start on the next season’s plantings if you know that the garden bed in question will be sunny next month so that you can sow those seeds with confidence.
If the plants in a bed are coming to an end, you can get a head start on the next crop if you know what the sun will be doing.
It comes down to maximizing every square inch of the garden all year round so you can have plenty of food choices. You can plan for larger harvests of staple crops that can be preserved and stored for extended shelf life.
The image above is just a sample of the outcome of sun mapping and knowing the gardens with the best lighting for a given plant group are located for the season. We turned this collection of vegetables into kimchi.
The image above is more fruit than veg but was also the result of sun mapping. The passionfruit and chokos share a pergola that shades a pathway.
The pathway used to be a heat sink. It was exposed to the sun for much of the day. The path is now a lovely shaded area with plants above that give us food security, shade, and looks. There is not one downside.
The shade cast by this pergola in the hot summer months allows softer-leaved plants to thrive on the area’s outer edge. This area is also home to papaya, coffee, basil, chilies, ginger, turmeric, and dwarf bananas.
In closing, I cannot recommend sun and shade mapping strongly enough. It is the deal maker or deal breaker for a productive garden no matter where you live on the planet.
Article by Tim Blanch for TheTropicalHomestead.com. He is a qualified Permaculture designer.