Time in a garden is my favorite way to enjoy the day. Yet how do I know how many hours have flown by as I continue wandering down the garden path? Happily, I discover a sundial, often surrounded by herbs, centered as a focal point in a sunny patch of the garden. I’ve always checked the time on a sundial. Just looking at one makes me think my garden isn’t complete without a sundial.
Once, Rich came up behind me as I was gazing with desire at the bronze decoration and he could tell I was about to again suggest we needed one in our garden. He said, “Ok tell me what time it is.” I looked thoughtfully at the shadow, hesitating just a bit, and replied, “About 10 after 2.” He looked at his watch and was surprised to see I had nailed it on the dot. Little did he know that just a minute before he walked up I had looked at my watch. Since then it has been a game for us, finding sundials and judging the time.
The oldest known sundial found in Egypt dates back to 1500 BCE, and was a significant solar scientific accomplishment. I was surprised to learn sundials were still in use after mechanical clocks were invented, to set the time if clocks ran down.
I see so many sundials in gardens I’m unsure just what style I would add to my landscape. A horizontal sundial is the most common. Usually in a small bronze casting sitting atop a pedestal so it is easy to read. Sundials were a must have in the Victorian age as a proper beaux arts garden identifies a sundial as one of the required seven elements* to complete a garden.
Large horizontal sundials place their base on the ground with a large shadow arm (a Gnomon) standing high. I’ve seen many floral sundials forming the
hours circle. This one is at the Desert Botanical Garden with a nearly 10’ diameter hours line.
Carefree, AZ, in the Valley of the Sun, has possibly the largest sundial in the US. Made with copper clad metal, it has a 62-foot shadow arm and a 90 feet diameter hour line with mosaic numbers. Surrounded by Desert Cactus Garden it is a focal point you cannot miss. I stood in the shadow of the arm on the summer solstice at noon this year.
A vertical sundial attached to a sunny south facing side of a building with bold elements proportioned for viewing from far away makes an otherwise plain wall quite fascinating. Even here careful pruning of surrounding trees is essential to keep the sundial functional.
In Druid Park in Baltimore MD, outside the Rawlings Conservatory, is an international sundial which is a mathematical marvel. Equatorial and polar times are shown with vertical plates.
The sundial records the times for Baltimore, Cape Cod, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Pitcairn Island, Sitka, Honolulu, Jeddo (Tokyo), Calcutta, Cape Town, Jerusalem, Fernando Po, and London. Perhaps Peter Hamilton, who created this multi-faceted wonder in the late 1800’s, would have no problem with a Rubik’s Cube today. The sundial was designed for solar time. “The time recorded on the dial is not in sync with today’s clocks. Before standard time was enacted in 1884, people used solar time. This meant that noon on Cape Cod arrived earlier than noon in Baltimore. Today, especially during daylight savings time, the dial can be off by as much as an hour and 45 minutes.” (Rawlings Conservatory) Originally the sundial was carved in granite but has been redone in bronze.
Certainly some people are up to the challenge of designing a sundial to keep correct time, Engineer Victor E. Edwards created a sundial with a curved shadow arm and two pointers, one for daylight savings time and the other for standard time. He gave it to the Santa Barbara, CA Botanical Garden in 1920.
The positioning of a sundial requires a flat space in a sunny location. For accuracy, the location should be set on one of the following dates April 15, June 15, Sept 1, & Dec. 24 as these are the four days of the year when sun time and clock time agree.(Weekend Gardener) The Gnomon (shadow arm) is to be pointed toward celestial north. The shadow should align at noon. You might need to chat with a physicist to find true celestial north, as “The north and south celestial poles are the two imaginary points in the sky where the Earth’s axis of rotation, indefinitely extended, intersects the celestial sphere.” (Wikipedia) or use that compass app on your phone to find magnetic north. This is why I still don’t have a sundial in my garden.
Today the very idea of a sundial can be one of nostalgia or rebuked as nonsense. In the Ladew Topiary Garden in MD, I found a small horizontal sundial surrounded by nine engraved stepping stones with the following witticism:
I am A
The interest in sundials continues with sundial societies members exploring the artistic and mathematical possibilities of sundials. Though the usefulness of a sundial for serious time keeping is no longer needed, for me it stands as a symbol of the passing hours of our lives and draws us close for a moment as we look for a shadow. I continue to be amazed at what the exploration of gardens offers to visitors. I hope your summer plans include time in a garden.
*Elements of a Beaux Arts Garden
- A Sundial
- Some philosophy
- A set of “rooms”
- A birdhouse
- A surprise
- An orchard
- A water element