Sundials

Time to garden

Sundials are the world's most ancient clocks - they've been around for thousands of years. It's said that these timepieces tell the most accurate time. If your watch stops, your sundial, if properly set up, can give you a more exact time than the local downtown clock.

But you don't have to buy a sundial just for its functionality. They can also be purely decorative, and make beautiful additions to your garden decor, bringing back memories of sweet English gardens and wonderfully sunny days.

A sundial is a solar clock with a round face, mostly mounted on a pillar, which has a raised arm called a gnomon that casts a shadow on numbers that circle the disk. As the sun moves across the sky throughout the day, the gnomon's shadow moves with it and marks off what time it is extremely accurately. The sundial tells time by the sun's noon position in the sky, if it's positioned properly.

Sundials were first seen in Egypt, where they were mounted on obelisks. Since then, many cultures over thousands of years have used sundials to tell the time, and bigger ones would accurately predict days and months. A good example of one such sundial is Stonehenge, in Salisbury, England. It was set up so accurately that it is able to still mark the days and months correctly.

We don't use sundials as the sole method of marking time anymore, but they still remain the sun's timekeepers and are there for us when the power goes out, our watches and clocks get fried or the batteries die. However, they must be set up properly or the time will be off. The gnomon should point towards the celestial pole, or the Pole Star, which some say is at a 45 degree angle. The sun can be "faster" or "slower" at different times of the year, but several sites on the internet explain how to compensate for this and still remain accurate. There are entire museums, websites and books devoted to sundials and how they work.

Sundials are a minor art form in themselves - there are many different styles and sizes of sundials. You can find horizontal, vertical and wall sundials; even sundials as a part of bird baths or water fountains. A sundial always includes a motto written on the disk. Normally, this motto has to do with time, but can be anything from a few words to a verse of poetry. If you want to personalize a plain sundial, you can use any one of these popular mottos or make up your own:

  • Moved by the light
  • On this moment hangs eternity
  • Look at me and pass on
  • The clock the time may wrongly tell; I never if the sun shines well
  • Let others tell of storms and showers; I tell only sunny hours
  • Tempus fugit (Time flies)
  • Time passes as a shadow

A sundial should be made for the place that it will be installed in, in order to adhere to the laws of latitude and longitude. If you don't really care about accuracy and are just getting a sundial as a lawn ornament, then you can set it up anywhere.

Get moved by the light and add a sundial to your garden - you can get one that's a facsimile of a real historical sundial for around $20 to $40 at any garden store.

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