I did not grow up thinking about the cardinal directions.
Although I was a Brownie (translation, “pre-Girl Scout”) for about one season as a child, all I remember from that experience is singing Kumbaya during a camping trip, and the mime that once came to entertain our troop.
I didn’t use a map to get around in my car before moving to Europe, I just learned how to go places by memory, so honestly I had no clue how my hometown was laid out in terms of what was north, or what was south.
It wasn’t until I moved to Paris, France, where the weather is mostly dreary, and I was engaging in the highly competitive sport known there as apartment hunting that “full south orientation” moved on to my radar.
This was suddenly important to me because on the rare occasion that the sun would come out, “full south” meant you’d actually get the best possible dose of much needed sunshine through the window – provided your apartment building was high enough.
This is just to let you know that if you don’t have a clue about which direction is which, don’t feel bad, I’ve been there myself.
Why You Need to Know
Knowing east from west and north from south is an essential skill if you want to recreate outdoors without getting too terribly lost. But even at home it’s important to know which way is which.
Luckily for me, knowing that (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) “full south” was the direction that the sun shone for most of the day in the summer gave me a good head start when I decided to launch myself into gardening.
Cardinal Directions for Gardening
You can garden without knowing north from south, but I’m willing to bet my favorite seed packets that you can not garden well without this knowledge.
Why? Plants have different sun requirements. If you ignore which way the sun is coming from you may very likely put your squash, kale, or berry bushes in the wrong spot.
You may have figured these out without putting names to the directions – you may very well know where the sunny and shady spots in your garden are without knowing which direction is south.
Still, cardinal direction is such a frequent part of communication about plants from growers and seed catalogs that it really is worthwhile to get it straight in your head.
And for beginning gardeners, it’s essential. If you put in a garden on the north side of your house, it’s not going to do well, there won’t be enough light.
Houseplants are (usually) just plants that grow outdoors in more exotic locations. Some may come from tropical rain forests, some from deserts.
The origin of each plant will determine how much sunlight it needs inside your home. If you don’t know east from west you can end up burning your orchids in the afternoon heat.
If houseplants aren’t your thing but you want to grow microgreens to feed yourself during the winter without using grow lights, ya still gotta know which way is south.
Using Passive Solar Heating and Cooling
If you are interested in reducing your reliance on fossil fuels through the mastery of passive solar heating and cooling, again, you’re going to need to know where the sun will be throughout the day.
In the winter, when you will want to harness the sun’s power for passive solar heating, the sun is low in the sky to the south. Which part of your house faces south? Let’s find out.
How to Learn the Cardinal Directions
Chad told me he had a few mnemonic devices that he used in order to teach boy scouts the cardinal directions. One of them is Never Eat Soggy Waffles.
So…that is N-E-S-W, north, east, south, west. If you look at a compass rose, north starts at the top, and then the other directions swing around clockwise from there.
Look at the compass rose. The sun rises in the east, swings around to the south, and then sets in the west.
Some of you out there may be rolling your eyes at how elementary this is, but, hey, we all have to learn everything we know, and we don’t all learn the same things. So, no scorn here.
I have met some very intelligent individuals who weren’t sure of their cardinal directions, probably because this is a skill that they don’t often use, or don’t realize that they use.
So, I’ll give you an example to use to think about this, my own home, which is shaped more or less like a rectangle.
We see the sun come up through the side door (which faces east). During the day it shines in through the front door and windows on the front of the house (which face south). When the sun sets in the evening, we can see it through the window on the west side of our house.
So, what you need to know:
- The sun rises in the east.
- During the day moves along the south.
- In the evening, the sun sets in the west.
- If you’re in a building, the sun never shines in through windows on the north side, unless you are at a very high latitude, such as the arctic circle.
Alright, now that you know where the sun comes up, and where it goes down, you can start making observations in your own home. I recommend drawing an outline of your home, as seen from the sky. Then when you figure out which way is east, mark it down on your drawing. Same with south, west, and north.
This drawing can be used to help you plan out your landscaping. If you sketch in the trees and other large structures – you’ll be halfway to creating your own permaculture design!
If you want to get a very exact location as to where east and west are in relation to your home, do this on the spring or autumn equinox.
In winter, depending on your latitude, the sun makes a smaller arc through the sky, and will rise and set more southeast and southwest than true east and west.
In summer, on the other hand (also depending on how far you are from the equator), the sun makes a wider arc through the sky.
For us here in northeast Utah, in summer, the sun rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest. This latter results in some pretty spectacular sunsets that light up the whole north part of the sky.
Putting It into Practice
I hope you made your little drawing and have a good sense of the directions for your home now. Knowing north, south, east, and west will make your indoor and outdoor gardening ventures more successful, and open up many possibilities for increasing your sustainability and survivability in your home.
And once you get a grip on directions from your own home, it will be much easier for you to have a good sense of directions when you are traveling in an unknown location, and when you are recreating in the outdoors.
If you are trying to figure out your cardinal directions but have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comments.