Out of the ShadowsBackyard sundials are becoming a popular trend as the rich history of this beautiful, ancient invention comes to light – just in time for planning your fall garden.

By Cheryl Withrow

{mosimage}Designing a new garden or revamping an existing one can be a challenge. With so many choices in plants, water elements and statuary, just deciding on an appropriate focal point is in itself mind-boggling. But a new trend in exterior design includes incorporating one of the oldest known devices for measuring time – the sundial.

The sundial concept is based on an object’s shadow moving from one side to the other as the sun moves from east to west in the sky. And although today, the most accurate way of telling time is by the trusty atomic clock, the sundial remain a curiosity as well as an object of beauty.

Yes, a sundial works only when it is sunny. It would be difficult to keep that 2 p.m. sales meeting if the sun were obliterated by some of those afternoon cumulus clouds that are so prevalent in the Panhandle. However, adding a sundial to your garden can prove to be an interesting project while providing a unique exterior feature.

The Land Before Timepieces

The earliest form of sundial was a shadow stick. The time of day was determined by measuring the length and position of the stick’s shadow. In fact, some Asian nomads still use this primitive form of time measurement.

The Egyptians began using shadow sticks around 3500 B.C. The shadow cast by the tapering, four-sided obelisk not only measured time but separated the day into divisions and told the ancients what days were the longest and shortest of the year.

Today’s sundials are mass-produced and come in an enormous variety of garden-pleasing forms. In local garden centers you will find horizontal, vertical and equatorial dials. There also are polar, analemmatic, reflected-ceiling and portable sundials.  There are even digital sundials for the techno-gardener.

When considering your sundial purchase, think about where it will be located – and of course, remember that you need the sun if you want it to be functional. A birdbath sundial, readily available in local garden centers and on specialty Internet sites, can serve a dual purpose. Not only will the sundial tell time for you and decorate your garden, the birds will appreciate your consideration of their needs.

There also are sundials that lie flat on the ground or on pedestals. And sundials come in all sorts of metals, from brass to aluminum. You also might want to choose a sundial with an inscription. Maybe something such as “Quod petis umbra est” (“Thou pursuest a shadow”) or “I count the bright hours only,” borrowed from Scotland’s Cawdor Castle sundial.

Amanda Best, a Northwest Florida resident, enjoys her armillary sundial, which resembles a skeletal celestial sphere with a model of the earth in the center. She purchased her unique brass piece, which serves as the focal point of her garden, through the Internet.

“They had a wide variety of sizes and shapes,” she said, “and I was able to find exactly what I was looking for.”

Surrounded by gargantuan elephant ears and delicate calla lilies, Best’s sundial is perched on a pedestal near a koi pond in the lush natural landscape.

The Science Behind the Sundial

To make a sundial work properly, a lesson in equatorial sundial science is in order.

The first step is to determine the latitude at your home, which will be the number of degrees north in this hemisphere. Most basic roadmaps or a quick scan on the Internet can get you started. But for the most accurate measurement, visit the U.S. Census Bureau at census.gov/cgi-bin/gazetteer.

{mosimage}After you have determined the latitude, measure the angle of the gnomon, which casts the shadow, with a protractor. Use a wedge to bring the gnomon parallel to the Earth’s axis at your location.

Next, aim the gnomon in the direction of the North Pole, compensating for the difference between geographic, or true north, and magnetic north, which is where your compass needle points. The difference is called magnetic declination.

Probably the easiest way to determine true north is to go out at night and look for the North Star. Mark an arrow on the ground pointing toward it. Then, the next morning, position your sundial gnomon in the same direction you marked the previous evening.

Always remember: The result is solar time, which is not standard time. When using solar time, it is noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. Since the sun always is moving across the wild blue yonder, noon in Fort Walton Beach is slightly different from noon in Parker.

Until 1883, sunlight regulated our measurement of time. Each community kept its own time by basing it on the sun’s position in the sky. For the sake of railroad schedules, the United States adopted what now is referred to as standard time, and our present time zones – Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific – were established.

So if your sundial is set up in the middle of a time zone, and it is not Daylight Saving Time, your device will be fairly close to standard time. However, it can differ from your watch by as much as 40 minutes in say, Mexico Beach, which is located at the eastern edge of the Central time zone and the western edge of the Eastern time zone.

And don’t forget to consider the seasons. In order to be even close to precise, your sundial must be repositioned to compensate for the differing length of shadows associated with the equinoxes.

Needless to say, sundial science is far from accurate; however, discovering how and why these ancient devices work can be a fun and educational experience for all members of the family.

Time and Time Again

My parents, who live in Portland, Ore., have a large, horizontal sundial in the middle of their rose garden. My mother says watching the sundial’s shadow march across the base somehow slows down time for her. Their sundial has developed a natural patina because the metal, when exposed to sun and rain, gradually has changed color, which adds to the piece’s natural charm.

During a trip to Walt Disney World several years ago, my parents were photographed in front of a large, horizontal sundial at high noon. With azure skies enveloping Cinderella’s castle behind them, and the dial surrounded by red and white petunias in the foreground, it was the inspiration for their smaller version on the West Coast. Dad said they had the picture made just because of the huge bronze timepiece. He added that it reminded him of the motto Queen Alexandra chose for the sundial at Sandringham House, the Norfolk retreat for the British royal family: “Let others tell of storms and showers, I’ll count only your sunny hours.”

The interest in sundials is increasing beyond history buffs to suburban gardeners, introducing this beautiful device to back yards beyond museums and estates. And with the increase of information about sundials becoming a new garden accent, particularly through the Internet, buying and using one never has been easier.

One of the premier sundial associations is the British Sundial Society (sundialsoc.org.uk), which was formed in 1989 and boasts of 500 members. Its purpose is to advance the knowledge of all types of sundials. In addition, the society is actively cataloging and advising on the restoration of sundials that still exist in the British Isles. It also has an active research wing that publishes historical statistics and recent “finds” in a club bulletin.