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.

Self-fertile apple trees for small gardens

I’m keen to have a fruit tree in our garden, and my mind turned to what’s really the default UK fruit tree: the apple. The thing with apple trees, though (and in fact many fruit trees), is that if you want to get actual fruit, the tree needs to be fertilised. For the vast majority of apple varieties, that means having at least one other apple tree, of the right pollen group and which blossoms at the right time, planted somewhere fairly nearby. In an orchard, a big garden, or even in an allotment where you can count on other allotmenters also having apple trees, that’s fine. If, on the other hand, you have a tiny garden like mine, one tree is going to be pretty much all you can fit in.

Happily, in this modern age, you can get self-fertile apple trees; that is, trees which will pollinate themselves. Even so, they’ll do better (crop more heavily) if pollinated by another nearby tree, but you’ll get a crop anyway. For my purposes, all I want is a few eating apples, and a tree to sit under, so that’ll work fine for me.

The choice, though, is a bit limited — here’s one list*, although note that some of those (the starred ones) are only partly self-fertile, so best to avoid if you don’t want to rely on having another tree in the vicinity. In my case, it’s limited further by the fact that the apples best-liked in our household are the Cox/Russet kind of axis. I couldn’t find any self-fertile russet types, but here is my list of self-fertile Cox-types:

For me, I think it’s a toss-up between Red Windsor and Winston, with a probable bias towards Winston. I shall consult the rest of the household.

A quick note as well on rootstocks. M27 will give you a very small tree (up to 2m), but unless you’re seriously space-limited or growing in a pot, you’re probably better going for M9 (full height up to 2.5m), which is a little bigger and significantly more productive. Both M9 and M27 require permanent staking. If you have the space, M26 is bigger still, and MM106 a decent standard size, growing to 2.5-4.5m. For my 40m2 garden, I’ll be choosing M9 as a good compromise between size and productivity.

* I have noticed some disagreement between different lists on whether or not particular apples are self-fertile. I recommend cross-checking a couple of sources before buying.