Northern-facing and shade-tolerant edibles

I’m currently planning planting for two shady areas: our front balcony and our front porch. Both of them are north-facing, so I’ve been researching north-facing and shade-tolerant edibles which will grow in containers. Most edible plants do prefer full sun; but if you’ve got shade, all is not lost.

Not all shade is created equal. Some people distinguish between open, medium, and deep shade. By that reckoning, I have open shade on the balcony (which is north-facing but very open and with little shade from the front) and medium shade in the porch (north-facing and covered). Another potential distinction is between partial and full shade. I have partial shade on the balcony and full shade in the porch.

Shrubs and climbers

  • Honeyberries look very interesting, are perennial (I like perennials), and apparently prefer partial shade. However, you need 2 plants for pollination. They can be grown in a half-barrel size pot, which is probably no good for my purposes as I’m not sure I want two of those on my balcony.
  • Kiwi vines are moderately famous for being a climber that will do well in partial shade. Again, you need both a male and a female plant, and something for them to grow along.
  • The Oregon Thornless blackberry will apparently also do well in partial shade, although again it needs a trellis to grow up and to be carefully trained. It flowers on one-year-old wood. In theory I accept that blackberries, as woodland plants, should cope well with partial shade but I confess I’m not convinced about how well they’d actually fruit. Your pot needs to be 2′ x 2′ x 2.5′ for this.

Lower/ground cover plants

  • Mint is one of the easiest things to grow in shade. I grew mint in a pot on the windowsill of a full-shade area outside our basement flat about a decade ago, and it did just fine. Mint is best grown in a pot even if you have ground available, as it is famously invasive.
  • New Zealand spinach is a shade-tolerant edible perennial, but needs to be blanched before cooking. Apparently it’s best started from transplant, so if anyone who’s reading has one and might be up for sharing a cutting, please let me know. Though to be honest anything that’s complicated to cook is unlikely to find much use in this household, so it may not be worth it anyway.
  • Apparently, swiss chard, peas, beets, and various leafy greens and salad greens are all shade tolerant too. This does fit with my experience of chard and leafy/salad greens as happy to grow through winter, when they don’t get much direct sun. It occurs to me too that planting in partial shade may inhibit bolting, meaning that we might actually have some salad greens to eat in midsummer. Similarly, I’ve had trouble in recent years with peas suffering in the unusually warm spring weather, so partial shade might help them. These can all be grown in pots, though watch this space for a roundup of which plants need deeper and less deep containers. The only problem for me with growing greens on the balcony is that they’re less harvestable for the kitchen, so cooking greens may not get so much use. Salad greens which can be nibbled while out there might be better.
  • Finally, in the fruit line, Alpine strawberries are shade-tolerant, perennial, and very tasty, and rhubarb is shade-tolerant (indeed, it dislikes full sun) and can be grown in a (large) pot. I have some down the shady end of my garden which I’m hoping will get themselves properly established this year.

Flowers

  • Pansies are tolerant of shade, are perennial, and are one of my favourite flowers (I already have some on the balcony, in fact), but aren’t edible.
  • Violets, on the other hand, are edible, perennial, shade-tolerant, and also lovely.
  • Other woodland flowers are also worth considering as they tend to be shade-tolerant.
  • Another option is plumbago: shade-tolerant, perennial, not edible, but butterflies love it.
  • I think nasturtiums should do reasonably well in partial shade, although probably not in full shade.

Other options

I found a list of other shade-tolerant edibles, which all seem likely to be a bit big for my purposes but might be useful for someone else, especially if you’re not limited to containers. There’s also a more general round-up of shade-tolerant gardening (not edible focused) at The Savvy Gardener. I’m very open to more suggestions if anyone has some, in particular for edibles although I’ll consider some pretty non-edible perennials as well.

Next steps: researching which plants need what depth of container (and in particular what will tolerate shallow containers), gathering my containers together, and constructing a planting plan for the spring.

Gardening and parenting: a note to self

If I intervene with horrified shrieking when Leon plays with dirt and hoicks things up now, he is less likely to be positive about the garden later on, at an age when he can learn the difference between ‘weed’ and ‘not-weed’. It is therefore worth sitting on my hands as dirt and plants go everywhere. (The volunteer broccoli raab from the satsuma tree pot may survive; the rocket certainly won’t but there is plenty of rocket.)

Leon pulling a handful of dirt from a large pot
Scattering dirt is fun!

A corollary: any potentially vulnerable plants that I really seriously care about are going to need some form of defence. I’m thinking in particular of my carefully-nursed autumn olive seedling, the sole survivor from a handful of seeds I stratified last winter and planted out in the spring, currently overwintering on the windowsill.

It was a lovely afternoon to be out in the garden, though. I planted peas by the fence, and Leon ate moss and dirt and threw soil around by the handful. Happy times.

Back garden fruit

Having rearranged the herb garden, I looked at the vast expanse of 6+ foot high, south-west facing fence behind it, and thought “Something should be growing across that. Specifically, a productive climber that produces something tasty…”. So last week I planted a dessert grape vine (Lakemont Golden Seedless Dessert, more info here), which I’m hugely excited about. It’s supposed to do well in this climate if in a sunny spot, so I have high hopes – and grapes are one of my favourite fruits. I need to get some organic tomato fertiliser and apply regularly this season, and read up on pruning next winter. Grapes grow on last year’s vines so nothing will set this year. Lakemont are heavy cropping, self fertile, suitable for outdoor growing, and very sweet, and harvest in London should be late September.


Grape vine hacked back to recommended three buds

Over the other side of the garden, no sign yet of this year’s autumn raspberry canes. My thumbs are crossed that they’ll spring up soon from the canes I brought in from the allotment last summer. If not, I may have to buy some more next winter.

I’ve also been thinking about the farthest end of the garden, where the compost heap and shed are, and where there is a little less sun due to the back fence. There were three major issues on my mind:

  • The compost heap, while a glorious thing in many ways, is not wildly attractive when viewed from the back door.
  • There is a couple of metres at that end of the garden that is currently still paved and underused (occupied, as it was at the time, by paving slab piles).
  • Small gardens benefit from having things to break the line of sight up. Dividing the garden up a little can make it seem bigger.

A bush of some sort in front of the compost heap, just at the limit of the shaded area, seemed the perfect solution. And since I wanted something productive, a blackcurrant bush (Ben Sarek Organic, a small-middling bush which fruits mid-to-late season) was the obvious choice. So I’ve taken up another two paving slabs and planted a tiny stick of a blackcurrant bush there. Hopefully it too will thrive. I’m a little concerned about how much sun it will get; I think it should be just about enough (the tomatoes against the fence there did fine last year) but we shall see.


I always find it difficult to imagine that a twig like this one, barely visible beside its stake, will ever grow into a big fruit bush, but hopefully…


This was previously occupied by a big pile of paving slabs. Clearly I now need to work out what else to do with it. Possibly a bean tipi this year?

One final note: I planted the grape vine in the corner of the oldest of our raised beds, put in 20 months ago when we first moved in. At that point, the soil underneath when we pulled the paving slabs up was heavy, compacted clay, which I shoved a fork into a few times before dumping compost on top. Now, I could dig right down into it with a hand trowel with no trouble, and it’s full of worms and soil life. That’s just from adding compost and green matter on top, and planting in it. An incredibly pleasing change to see!

Replanning the herb garden

I took advantage of a brief sunny period mid-week to go out and rearrange the herb patch.

Sadly I don’t have a very good before photo, but this one from this time last year is a reasonable representation:

Herbs in pots against a fence

This is what it looks like now:

Herbs in pots, in different configuration (see text)

Left to right: strawberry tower (transplanted the strawberries this morning); slab stack with empty pot (for basil), oregano, 2 lavender cuttings, empty pot, another lower empty pot, & a big pot of sage; bay tree at the back; another slab stack with parsley, chives, empty pot, and mint lower down; and a thyme trough at the front.

I moved the concrete slabs very slightly so they’re right back against the fence, and reorientated a couple of lower ones to provide an extra ledge for a plant pot, to make more use of the vertical space. I also repotted the oregano and bay into bigger pots, and the thyme into a shallow trough. I’ve since added a few more empty pots, for a total of 9.

My wanted herb list is:

  • Basil (lots)
  • Oregano (lots — will take a couple of root divisions now it’s in that larger pot, although this is not the ideal time for that)
  • Thyme (want another couple of plants)
  • Sage (will take cutting in the spring to fill up that big pot)
  • Chives
  • Winter savoury
  • Mint — will probably take cuttings for another pot to go at the other side of the patio, as well
  • Parsley (lots, which is fine as it has self-seeded EVERYWHERE)
  • Coriander
  • Dill
  • Strawberries (OK, not actually a herb)
  • Bay
  • Rosemary — over the other side of the garden, in the ground
  • Lavender — also planted on the other side, in the ground

With nine empty pots to fill, I make that: basil x 2, another oregano, possibly another parsley, dill x 1, winter savoury x 2 (it’s hard to buy), coriander x 1, and one spare pot in case something else takes my fancy. I’m tempted to try ginger, although it’s not cold-hardy. Any other culinary herbs you think I’m missing out on?