NFN full masthead 2008

August 2008

Events News Archive Home Page About Us Advertising Info Community Page

Sundials: Old timepiece revived for modern minds

By Ted Schaaf
Gardens on Spring Creek

Back to Gardening Articles List

In today's complex digital world, the sundial has become a forgotten timepiece.

The sundial dates back to the Egyptian period, around 1500 B.C. In central Europe it was used even after the mechanical clock was developed in the 14th century because the pendulum clocks were far from accurate. Sundials were actually used to check and adjust the time on mechanical clocks until the late 19th century.

Sundials allow us to tell time by looking at the shadow cast by the sun as it shines on the pointer of a sundial. A sundial works by casting a shadow in different positions at different times of the day.

Types of sundials

The sundial used most often in the garden is the horizontal sundial. This type of sundial adds a focal point to the garden, especially if it is displayed on a pedestal. When located at the end of a pathway, the horizontal sundial leads garden visitors toward it.

The vertical sundial needs to be mounted on a south-facing wall. In the past, these sundials were most often hung on church towers and used to correct the unreliable public clocks. The principle of a vertical sundial is much the same as for other sundials; however it only occupies a semicircular area.

The pocket sundial, or shepherd's dial, is a small hand held sundial. The first portable clock, if you will, it was used to tell time out in the fields. George Washington owned a pocket sundial because, at that time, pocket watches were also unreliable.

The human sundial has been used in public botanical gardens as well as in schoolyards. This interactive sundial, as shown here at the Gardens on Spring Creek, requires a person to use their hands to cast the shadow that tells the time of day. The Gardens' sundial is laid out so that noon is due north, with 8 a.m. facing west and 8 p.m. facing east.

Sundial plants

Of course, it's up the individual gardener to decide what plant material they wish to use to highlight their sundial. I have great fun using sunflowers, especially the small dwarf types. My new favorite is a sunflower called Sunny Smile. It bears an endless supply of flowers due to its nonpollen trait that inhibits seed production. Sunflowers are unique in that, at the bud stage, the flower follows the sun as it moves from east to west. The flower bud returns to the east position as evening begins.

For a bold accent, try using the Four-o'clocks that do their own telling of time. As the name suggests, these flowers open each day at four o'clock and remain open all evening. Many of them add fragrance to the nighttime garden. The Four-o'clock is one of the few garden plants that produce different colored flowers on the same plant.

Since herbs are some of our oldest cultivated plants, they are at home next to garden timepieces. In my opinion, one of the best herbs to use is English lavender. For a groundcover consider Mother of Thyme. Both plants add wonderful fragrance to the garden. Place potted, scented geraniums nearby where they can release their heavenly fragrance.

Hedges can help define space around your sundial. The perennial used most often for this purpose is Lavender Cotton. This plant takes well to a light shearing. Remember to keep the plants around your sundial short so they won't block out the sunlight.

Bring your family over to explore the interactive sundial at the Gardens on Spring Creek.

Happy gardening!

Ted Schaaf is the horticulturist for Fort Collins' Gardens on Spring Creek, located off Centre Avenue about a half mile south of Prospect Road.

Do you have a news tip? Do you have questions about a news story? Please contact our staff by phone (970-221-0213) or e-mail

Events News Archive Home Page About Us Advertising Info Community Page

© North Forty News 2008
Send your comments and questions to
Web site by S. Virginia De Herdt, Freelance Writer
Send your comments and questions about this web site to
Page updated 7/30/2008