Climbers for North Facing Walls
The thing about gardening is that people always talk about the necessity for 'well-drained soil', 'well rotted manure', 'a sunny spot' without really ever specifying how well, or how sunny and it can induce gloom in a gardener with a shady garden devoid of friable (another of those words), rich soil and suggest that they may as well give up then and there.
But Beth Chatto, the doyenne of drought and gravel gardening also had a mantra of 'right plant, right place'. You will find that in fact even that bete noire, The North Wall, can be a right place for many wonderful climbers with the caveat that some do as well (sometimes better) on an East facing wall too.
The reason why "The North Wall" causes such anxiety is that it only gets a few hours of sun a day and that only in mid-summer. This disadvantage will often combine with dryness depending on the direction of the rain-bringing prevailing wind and this double whammy creates a pretty inhospitable environment for many plants. Consequently, they will certainly need a little coaxing early on with extra rations and monitoring of moisture levels a must, but to point you in the right direction it is worth turning to what solution nature might provide in similar situations.
Honeysuckles grow in woodland and are accustomed to having to escape the shade of a tree and climb to the light. They frame a door on a North facing wall beautifully and fragrantly although you will sacrifice some fragrance and flowers compared to one grown in full sun. One of the best for this situation is the evergreen Lonicera japonica halliana. The creamy Graham Thomas and late-flowering reddish- trumpeted Lonicera periclymenum Serotina also work well but perhaps the toughest and most striking is the golden orange Lonicera x tellmanniana, although it lacks scent. And not all trees can be in the perfect place so even some fruit trees have evolved so that they can happily be trained on a north wall.
The blue plum Czar is one such, as are the apples Early Victoria, a heavy cropping cooker and the piquant Keswick Codlin. But the standout candidate for this treatment is the Morello cherry, a cherry which prefers a northerly wall to produce its fantastic sour cherries. The blossom looks wonderful in spring and then, once firmly established, the branches can be used as a support for other climbers.
Climbers are so special because they link the ground with the sky and produce flowers at eye-level for close scrutiny. Clematis must be the queens of climbers and love having their feet in the shade and their nose in the air and would gladly clothe your fruity framework with flowers when the fruit blossom is over: RHS AGM nodding blue C. alpina 'Frances Rivis' or the pale pink C.a. 'Willy' fit the bill as do the stripy, rose coloured C. Nelly Moser's, C. Carnaby's and C. Barbara Jackman's.
Flowers fade in the sun so they prosper on a North wall given sufficient moisture at their roots. C. Hagley Hybrid is a compact, mauve-rose colour which would scramble along the branches as would any Clematis macropetala: Propertius is a stunning new cerise pink, double clematis which boasts fluffy seedheads late into the year, Markham's Pink has an RHS AGM and is a particularly lovely granny pink colour while Blue Bird is as pretty as the name suggests. The rather larger C. armandii and Clematis montanas would swamp any fruit tree but rejoice on any North wall if given some tethering points; the mauve Tetrarose being particularly good as it thrives in shade.
Clematis need something to hang onto to climb effectively but there are some climbers that just cling on to a wall. With a little support from a cane at the very start of their tenure, they then learn to adhere themselves.
Cling-ons include the variegated ivies Hedera helix Glacier and the large leaved Gloire de Marengo and the creepers Virginia and Parthenocissus Veitchii. The latter's autumn show is a little subdued when grown in deep shade but the summer green cover is worth it nonetheless. The showy,white Hydrangea anomala sub petiolaris with its large, lacy white flowers shining from the shade and from its deep evergreen foliage is another cling-on and is often viewed as the go-to choice for a north wall along with Pileostegia viburnoides. These flowers last late into the winter just as the acid yellow Jasmine nudiflorum gets going. Unexpectedly Trachelospermum jasminoides will also cope with a North wall as long as it is sheltered from cold winds. And what, you may be asking, about roses?
Vita Sackville-West deployed the double white Madame Alfred Carriere as her silver bullet for her massive North facing wall at Sissinghurst to spectacular effect. The following list is not exhaustive but represents the wide range of colours and styles of rose that you could use too.
- Alberic Barbier: a rambler with double creamy lemon flowers with practically evergreen foliage
- Albertine: a rambler with salmon pink clusters of double flowers growing on reddish stems
- Madame Alfred Carriere: warm double white flowers that can take on a soft pink blush
- Climbing Iceberg : ice white flowers that do repeat all season
- New Dawn: climber with cupped double pearl-pink flowers
- Danse de Feu: climber with scarlet clusters of double flowers with abundant glossy foliage
- Golden Showers: a climber with pointed double yellow flowers that open in rosettes
- The Pilgrim: a climber with golden, ruffled flowers
- Shropshire lad: climber with palest pink, quartered scented roses that repeat
- Mme Gregoire Staechelin: climber with sweet pea scent and double, deep pink flowers
- Graham Thomas: the climbing form has golden yellow double reliable repeating roses
- Zepherine Drouhin: cerise pink climbing rose - attach wires away from the wall to allow air circulation
- Claire Austin: stunning double white repeating rose with lovely fragrance
- Gloire de Dijon: old climbing rose with large, creamy pink-orange flowers and a rich scent.
- Maigold: blazing orange flowers.
If what has been suggested so far is sounding a bit flower heavy, there are some good shrubs that can be trained to 'climb' a North wall. Pyracantha Orange glow is excellent, while Photinia Red Robin, Cotoneaster simonsii or Cotoneaster horizontalis would at least get you to base camp even if they would not quite cover the Eiger. And for those who are now suffering from the dearth of a North wall with all of these possibilities, you could always go and build one...