Create a human sundial, and tell time with your shadow in this DIY guide to planting a sundial garden.
Once, it was easy for Michelle Byrne Walsh to lose track of time while tending her flowers. Then she planted a sundial garden. “I first saw one in a local university extension demo garden,” says Michelle, an Illinois Master Gardener from Lake in the Hills. She wasted no time in plotting out her own sundial flower bed in her backyard.
The round bed, 12 feet across, is well away from shade trees or buildings. To read the time, Michelle stands on a center pad and raises her right hand overhead. The shadow falls on paver stones lining part of the circle, each marked with a different hour.
To position the pavers and center pad for this old-fashioned timepiece, Michelle and husband Larry, an astronomy buff, downloaded software from the North American Sundial Society (sundials.org) to make their calculations. “If you position your stones carefully, the sundial will keep fairly accurate time, no batteries needed,” she says.
The Shadow Knows
There’s an easy way to “set” a sundial garden that involves no tricky calculations, Michelle says: First, mark the center of the garden, then place the noon stone at the top of the sundial, facing north. Then mark 6 a.m. to the east of the center pad and 6 p.m. to the west.
Next, stand in the center of the sundial at the top of each hour (1 p.m., 2 p.m., etc.) and place the remaining paver stones where your head’s shadow falls. The stones should be evenly spaced, about 15 degrees apart.
To form the paver stones, Michelle used hypertufa, a mix of cement, sand and peat moss, which she molded in old 8-inch cake pans sprayed with WD-40.
“We needed 16 to mark the hours from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” she says. Michelle made extra pavers leading to the center of the garden and inscribed them with Latin phrases like tempus fugit (time flies).
“The best part of making our sundial garden was picking out plants to fit the theme,” Michelle says. She chose some, like Sun Goddess vinca, based on their names, and others, such as four o’clocks, that open and close with changes in sunlight and temperature. All plants are low growing, no higher than 2 feet, to avoid throwing shadows that might interfere with reading the sundial.
Get instructions for crafting your own decorative garden pavers.
Here’s a timely list of plants Michelle suggests for your sundial garden:
Sundance Bicolor gaillardia
Star White zinnia
Teddy Bear sunflower
Sunset Giants marigold
Sun Goddess vinca
Cosmic Orange cosmos
Daybreak Pink gazania
May Night salvia
Tequila Sunrise coreopsis
Sundial Fun Facts
- The first sundial may have been used as early as 5000 B.C.; it likely was a stick stuck into the ground to measure the day by the shadows it cast.
- The part of the sundial that casts a shadow is called the gnomon, ancient Greek for “one who knows.”
- Before clocks were invented, people used the term “sunwise” instead of clockwise.
- Around 2500 B.C., Babylonian and Egyptian obelisks—tall, four-sided stone pillars—functioned as sundials.
Photography by Michelle Byrne Walsh and Larry Walsh.