The Balcony Project: plants for north-facing spaces

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.

Flowers: permaculture and beauty

Permaculture isn’t only about the practical; or rather, “practical” covers more than you might think. Permaculture is all about sustainability, and that includes creating environments which are sustainable for humans in respect to all their needs.

A garden needn’t just be about food to be practical, sustaining, and sustainable; it can also be about beauty, or fun, or rest. Of course, food plants can also be beautiful (rainbow chard is one excellent example; or the little blue flowers that appeared on my rosemary bush in early spring). But the beauty in non-edible plants means that they’re also a worthwhile addition to the garden, simply for the joy of looking at them. And a garden you want to spend time in is invariably a more productive garden.

Which is to say that I have a bunch of flowers in our garden now, along the western fence by the rosemary and the raspberries. The first to go in, last autumn, were winter pansies. Pansies are my favourite flower, and their January blooms cheered me up no end. More recently I put in some forget-me-nots, which are very practical flowers in that they are self-seeding, but easy to pull out, so low maintenance in both directions. As mentioned in the peas and beans post, there are also now a few pots of sweet peas to make the patio smell lovely when they flower. And finally, a few evening primroses in with the pansies, because my Mum had some spares and it would have been a shame to waste them. (Actually, all the flowers were spares from my Mum. Thank you!).

Winter pansies and raspberries against a wooden fence
Pansies and raspberries (and some purple wild flowers that I don’t know the name of) earlier in the spring

Peas and beans

I planted most of my broad beans last November/December, in two of the raised beds. One lot were planted in the polyculture winter veg bed, and the second lot in the bed next to it as a block on their own. Both sets, particularly the larger block, are doing very well now, and the flowers are starting to turn into small beans. A few more beans, planted at the same time in a polystyrene box, are a bit less vigorous — perhaps because their roots are more shallow? I’ve also planted a second batch in early March in another polystyrene box and those have just begun to emerge. With luck I’ll get a second later crop from them.

Broad beans taking up half of a raised bed, in front of a fence
The broad bean jungle

In further legume news, I planted some snow peas at the back of the broad bean block, thinking that they could use the beans as a support to grow up and around. However, the beans are so jungly that I can’t see much of the peas, so that may not have been such a smart move. On the other hand, I may find lots of happy peas when I finally get to them. I’ll venture into the bean jungle to investigate when I start harvesting beans.

Hopefully the spring pea plantings, in two more polystyrene boxes (one by the west fence, one south of the raised beds), will be more straightforwardly successful. So far they’re looking good, and I’ll soon need to find some sticks and/or string for them to grow up.

Finally, I have some sweet pea seedlings from my mum in pots on the patio, which may not be food-productive, but will hopefully make it even nicer to sit there once they get going (and if we ever see the sun again…).