For some reason I found it really hard to get to grips with a plan for the balcony. Perhaps because it’s a space that at the moment we really don’t use (since it overlooks the road, although it also overlooks the river, and which I’m aware has no nearby water source.*
I’ve already done a survey, a sector/zone analysis, and some research on north-facing plants** but I’m still not feeling hugely inspired. However… planting season is coming up, and I’d like to put something out there.
As a result, I’ve constructed an interim plan, with nothing permanent and no huge time, money, or effort investment at this point. It’s a fairly small space, long and narrow. The plan looks like this:
- A couple of pots (at least 9″ deep) of peas at each end, against the fence dividing our balcony from next door on each side. I’m not sure how well these will do, as it may be a bit too shady, but I have loads of pea seeds so may as well give it a go.
- A collection of pots/troughs/containers along the railing, with a mix of salad greens (rocket and lettuce), nasturtiums, marigolds, alpine strawberries, violets, plumbago, and pansies (the pansies are already there). Perhaps also some poppies as I have some seeds from last year.
- A big pot of mint (transplants from the back garden).
- Chuck in a few seed bombs — I have some from EAT 2011 and some from a Christmas present exchange.
I’m considering mini kiwis for next year, but I’ll see how this year goes first. I don’t want anything too tall or too vigorous to grow along the railing as it would get in the way of the view of the river from the sofa.
This is my task list, then:
Move all the big pots up to the balcony.
- Fill all the containers with compost.
- Throw in my existing seeds (rocket, lettuce, nasturtiums, marigolds, poppies, seed bombs).
- Order some violets (plants here; apparently it’s the wrong time of year for seeds), plumbago (blue or white), and alpine strawberries (plants or seeds).
- Transplant some mint into a big pot, possibly amidst some of the seed mix.
I’ll update once everything’s planted…
* There’s a drainpipe at one side, which I could put a diverter into for a small water-butt, but I think I’d need to talk to the neighbours on that side about it, and we never really see them.
** It turns out that I already wrote a version of this up last summer, which goes to show what’s happened to my memory of late.
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.