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.
- 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.
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.
The next stage in the balcony planning is a little research on plants that will do well in north-facing areas. Given my other requirements, I'm most interested in edibles, and perennials or self-seekers (for minimal ongoing maintenance).
It's a good idea to remember the difference between different types of shade: 'open', 'medium', and 'deep' shade. I have open shade (north-facing, but nothing much overshadowing it) which makes life a little easier.
In a small space it's even more important than usual to consider height as wel as ground space, and I have a small area of wall and a railing available. Here's a few potential plants:
Climbers and shrubs
- Oregon Thornless blackberry: can be grown in a pot (2' square x 2.5' deep, ideally) and carefully trained up a trellis. It would need regular maintenance not to overrun next door's balcony. But I do like blackberries, and in a pot it would be less of a menace than they are in the ground. It flowers on one-year-old wood.
- Kiwi vines: will fruit in the shade, and could grow along the railing. I'd need a male and female plant, so one at each end. However, they would block the view through the railings onto the river, which is really valuable to me.
- Honeyberry: prefers partial shade, so in that sense ideal. However, you need two plants (male and female), and they grow to 5' so need a half barrel sized pot per plant. I think it's either this or the blackberry.
Plumbago: perennial, butterflies love it, but not edible.
- Violet: edible, perennial, one of my favourites anyway.
Herbs, greens, etc
- Mint: that old favourite for shady areas. I don't actually use it much in cooking, but mint tea is nice, and mint, apple juice, vodka and ice is a lovely summer cocktail. Smells great on the balcony, too. I have a plant in the garden so would be easy to propagate.
- New Zealand spinach: a new one on me. Perennial, best started from transplant, and needs blanching before cooking so realistically probably wouldn't get used.
- Chard, beets, other leafy greens: if they're on the balcony, they won't be readily harvestable for the kitchen, so we're unlikely to use them.
- Peas: in theory the above would also apply, except that raw peas fresh from the pod taste fantastic, so could be eaten on the spot.
- Salad greens: could be eaten on the spot, so might be worth it, especially as the baby gets bigger and might be in and out of there more. Planting in partial north-facing shade might give some resistance to bolting and mean we get a midsummer crop, which is not possible in the south-facing and very warm back garden. I have plenty of salad green seeds so may try this out.
- Alpine strawberries: very very tasty. Definitely try these next year.
- Rhubarb: shade-tolerant, can be grown in a pot, but we already have it in the garden and it is quite large.
I did also find a list of some other shade-tolerant edibles, but they all seem a bit big for my purposes.
Now I have the list, the next step is to construct a plan. Watch this space...
Tip o' the hat to: the Savvy Gardener on gardening in the shade, and Life on the Balcony on shade-tolerant fruit.
I'm planning planting for our balcony, and in my last post on this wrote up the surveying. The next step is to do the analysis: some possible approaches are to consider zones, sectors, and input/output.
For this project zones aren't particularly useful. In theory it's all zone 1 (close by house, for high-maintenance plants), but in fact due to the low foot traffic (see below) I may treat it as edging towards zone 2 (lower maintenance perennials).
- Sun: direct sunlight only during summer evenings, otherwise shady but bright. Need shade-tolerant plants.
- Wind: comes off the river. Some protection, but plants need to be quite robust.
- People: space not very well-used. Focus planting on area visible from indoors, being careful not to block view of river through door! Minimal maintenance as not heavily used.
- Water: edges get some rain, but assume water needs to be carried up. Plants should be drought-tolerant if possible but not drought-requiring.
Input/output: required inputs are soil/compost, containers, water, fertiliser, plants or seeds. Outputs are vegetable matter for compost, perhaps some food, beauty (!), perhaps seeds or potential cuttings. The compost heap in the back garden can help link some outputs to some inputs, and I can also use seeds and cuttings from there and from my parents' garden. It may be worth considering a water butt.
Anything else I'm missing?
Next post in this series: plants, locations, and solutions that might work.
This year, for the first time, I actually bothered to harden off my tomatoes before migrating them full-time from the windowsill into their final home on the balcony. In theory, this should mean that they don't get a nasty shock from their first night outside, and therefore that they fruit a little earlier. In practice, the fact that I forgot to take any notes on the timing and performance of last year's tomatoes means that I won't know either way. (I suppose I could have left one or two un-hardened to compare, but I was far too proud of myself for remembering to do it at all this year to risk one of them.)
In a similar manner, I found myself having to water the incredibly dry allotment from the last couple of weeks in April. It seemed ridiculously early to be doing that; but whilst I think I remember similarly hot Aprils and Mays in the last couple of years, I haven't actually got anything written down on how the allotment was doing.
The obvious solution is an allotment/balcony journal. In fact, I have one of these already; I just never remember to write in it. And I have no idea how to fix this problem.
I could just put more effort into telling myself to remember, but the evidence to date is that as a strategy, that's a failure. Apparently, something about the "allotment journal" structure doesn't lend itself to my remembering it. So instead of trying to fix my brain, I want to fix the structure, and create something that does support my remembering.
So far, I have no ideas, other than a vague belief that if it were more fun and less of a chore, it might be more likely to happen. Do any of you have any suggestions as to a method of keeping track that might work better?
 'Hardening off' is when you move your baby plants from inside to outside gradually, leaving them outside for a couple of hours longer each day before you leave them out overnight for the first time.
Having harvested a handful of new potatoes from the balcony the other week (and then having to deal with the ants' nest thereby uncovered), I then noticed that I still have a couple of seed potatoes left from earlier in the season, which whilst a little wrinkled look basically still sound. Then, I came across a blog post talking about planting potatoes entirely out of season for a Christmas harvest.
This fits nicely with my beliefs about experimental gardening, so I'm off this afternoon to dump the earth back in the potato-box, and see what happens. I will report back.
In other balcony-gardening news: the red arrow-head lettuce appears to be flowering and setting seed (much to my pleasure), as is the dill (which pretty much just bolted the moment it was a real plant). I shall try planting some more of both.
The cherry tomatoes are doing well (2--4 to harvest daily, which isn't bad at this time of year), and are still busily setting more of themselves. I am tempted to try planting seeds from the earliest-growing one (a Peace Vine Cherry), to see if I can get a second batch of plants to provide a late harvest. It might, of course, just be a late harvest of green tomatoes; but this would suit me fine, as I very much like green tomato chutney and I've just eaten the last of last year's.
It may already be the end of July, but it's not too late to plant a few salad leaves for this season. Unlike a lot of vegetables, which really do need the whole of the summer to produce a reasonable crop, loose salad leaves are sufficiently fast-cropping to be worth planting in July or even August.
Rocket germinates very fast and is worth planting at nearly any time of year. Throw a few rocket seeds into a pot or into the ground, cover lightly with soil and water in well, and you should start to see seedlings within a week or two. Rocket is actually better started either well after midsummer (so, about now) or well before it (early spring), as around June it will bolt (run to seed) much faster.
Leaf lettuces (lettuces that grow lots of single leaves rather than forming a 'head') are a better bet than headed lettuces for late planting, as you can start picking leaves as soon as there are a handful of true leaves on the plant. Lollo rosso is one popular option; as is royal oakleaf. Real Seeds sell 'Bronze Arrowhead' oakleaf lettuce seeds. I've had great success growing these lettuces at all times of year, and they taste great; however, they do take a while to germinate.
Most lettuces, helpfully, are at least a bit frost-hardy, so you can expect them to keep cropping well into the autumn. You can extend this further by building a cold frame. Last year I had rocket and bronze arrowhead lettuce growing throughout the winter, even when it snowed. The plants outside the cold frame survived, but didn't grow any new leaves until the spring.
Finally, if you have any pea seeds left over, or can get hold of some, they're also worth planting late. Some mange tout may yet produce a proper crop (experiment!), but at the very least, you can harvest and eat the pea tops as salad.
I posted before about eco-friendly ways to deal with ants in the garden. Today I dug up the small box of potatoes I was growing (harvest small but hopefully tasty!), to discover an ants' nest, or at least a lot of ant eggs, in the bottom of the box.
This was especially irritating as I'd seen fewer ants around of late, and was hopeful that the cinnamon was doing the trick.
On this occasion, I did decide to try the boiling water, primarily aimed at getting rid of the eggs. As the potatoes were out of the box, it wasn't going to destroy any plants; and despite my reluctance to kill them, I am really not up for hosting an ants' nest on my 5m x 1.5m balcony.
After the boiling water (a kettle-full over the couple of buckets that the compost had been transferred into), I chucked a watering-can full of cold tap water in as well, in the hope of drowning or scaring away any remaining ants. Or at least convincing them to take their nest elsewhere.
Watch this space for results... [sigh] Unfortunately I think it's going to be hard to get rid of them altogether, since I have a lot of plant-pots that I'm loathe to dig out altogether; so there's always somewhere else for them to go.
We have ants on the balcony. We also have ants on the allotment (farming the aphids, mostly, which is both impressive and really, really annoying, leading as it does to the death of the broad beans). I have, therefore, been seeking ways to get rid of ants.
The executive summary seems to be: you can't; learn to live with them. I have been trying this for some time, but the depredations are getting to be just a bit much. (Especially as they seem to have killed off the worms in the wormery as well.) So I've tried a few things.
I'm not prepared to do boiling water; plus it would take ages to boil enough with the storm kettle on the allotment, and on the balcony, it would kill whatever plant was in the relevant pot as well.
On the allotment, the best solution without a doubt has been ant nematodes. The compost heap was absolutely swarming with the damn things before I applied these, as was the paving by the pear tree; both are now clear. I also tried it on the balcony, but with less conclusive effect; the satsuma tree (which seemed to be the worst affected pot) looks to be mostly clear now, but they've just moved to the potato box.
Flooding out is one option (if they've built their nest in a pot where the plant won't mind that). After emptying most of a watering-can into the potato box, I very soon saw lots of frantic ants carrying away eggs. But where to? I fear I may need to excavate the Area Under The Herb Table. I'll repeat the treatment on the potatoes again shortly (and the potatoes should do well for it, as well).
Another suggestion I've seen a lot is cinnamon. So last night I went out and sprinkled cinnamon in copious quantities all over the balcony. Curiously, I couldn't actually see as many ants anyway as I had before, so maybe the drenching has sent them off to find a nest somewhere that isn't my balcony. I'll report back on the cinnamon in a couple of weeks.
And therefore it is time to start on the planting.
In the last couple of weeks on the allotment, I've planted chard, parsnips, peas, carrots, and beetroot. The overwintered peas and beans from the balcony have gone out to join the beans that overwintered in the allotment (the peas appear to have expired somewhere along the way). I'm not sure how well the beans are actually doing, but we'll see. What I am sure of is that I should have planted many more of them to get anything like a crop. Ah well; a thing to remember for next year.
On the balcony, things are also getting moving. I've started my tomato, pepper, and chilli seedlings on the windowsill, and planted some carrots in a pot. The tomatoes appear a little reluctant to germinate; but I have 5 seedlings up and about now. (The chillis are known for taking ages to germinate and need it to be really warm.) Some of the overwintered peas have gone into balcony pots rather than to the allotment, and the cold-frames have been partway taken apart (they will be fully taken apart when there's more storage room).
The sage and mint cuttings I made over the winter have both taken, and the mint is now growing furiously; the thyme (which died back a little over the winter) is reinvigorating itself; and the chives are back up again (always one of my favourite parts of spring).
Very excitingly, I had a look at the worms in the wormery yesterday and they have produced actual compost! They also looked a little sorry for themselves; I have added a little water (the balcony got quite warm in the recent sunshine, and I'll need to bear that in mind over the summer) and some more food, so hopefully they'll perk up.
I'm feeling a little unfocussed about a lot of things right at the moment. For the food-growing, at least, one solution to this is to make a list of what I need to do before the end of November.
- broad beans, meteor pea, early dwarf pea. Probably one lot of each this week, and another lot in a fortnight.
- more kale and mustard greens; the germination rate for the last lot was a little low. In fact I may start these off inside, then move to the balcony, then plant out in the cold frame on the allotment.
- more raspberries!
- dig up the rest of the damn potatoes.
- sweetcorn and squashes.
- Tidying up:
- finish cutting back the blackberry.
- cut back the autumn rasps, once they're actually finished (still going at the moment!).
- check for any seed that can be saved.
- build the cold frame for the mustard greens and kale. I want to at least start this this weekend.
- get more planks down for the raised beds.
- finish deconstructing the pallets so they're out of the way.
- dig over the compost heap, incorporating some of the blackberry cuttings.
- amalgamate the extra compost heap (mostly consisting of blackberry cuttings...) into one location.
- go out to collect leaves from the park for mulching down (needs to happen soon; easiest way to do this would be to use one of my old compost bags & take it round the park when I go round with the dog!).
- keep reading the Permaculture Book and actually take some notes.
- ? another batch of salad veg? Don't have any more room in the cold frame though!
- maybe some meteor peas.
- keep eating the salad leaves.
- dig up the potatoes.
- Tidying up:
- sort out all the old pots and work out where they should go.
- work out where to put the salad veg cold frame that isn't "on top of the wormery".
- bring the basil inside.
- take up the dead peas.
- the best thing I could do this month, I think, is establish a routine of checking up on the balcony daily.
- decide what to do about the wormery - the answer probably is "dig some worms out of the allotment compost heap and relocate them".
Ha, turns out that that's quite a lot of things to be going on with.