Growing conditions along north-facing walls can be colder and darker than other aspects, but luckily there's a range of interesting plants that can take these challenges in their stride
Walls present a wonderful planting opportunity, whatever direction they face. The shade and relative cold offered by north-facing walls (along with the potential for dry soil caused by the wall's 'rain shadow' ) means that it's best to choose your plants carefully.
Fortunately there are lots of gorgeous plants that are up for the job - including this selection of RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) winning shrubs and climbers. The AGM indicates that the plant is widely available, relatively easy to grow and is of good constitution.
Scented spring flowers
Osmanthus delavayi is a dependable evergreen shrub whose foliage, flowers and fragrance are all valuable. Its neat, narrow leaves are an unusual shade of charcoal green and make an ideal backdrop for the clusters of pure white flowers that open in March or April. On top of that there’s the scent, which is noticeable even on chilly days, and on mild sunny days you may even smell it from around a corner! Slow growing, to around 1.2m (4ft). H5*.
So many people have been inspired to grow Itea ilicifolia by seeing the fine specimen at RHS Garden Wisley, that it deserves an accolade even higher than the AGM! Not a flashy plant, the bright and holly-like evergreen foliage clothes a rounded shrub which, in late summer, is festooned in long greenish-white flowers that have a surprising vanilla fragrance. Happy on sunny walls, too. 3m (10ft). H5*.
Scented summer flowers
Two species of Azara have received AGMs, and these evergreen shrubs from South America are very useful on north-facing walls, provided they are not exposed to icy winds. The neat, toothed, bright green leaves of Azara serrata make a good background to the clusters of fluffy yellow, scented summer flowers, and the whole plant develops into a dense shrub that is striking all the year round. The flowers are sometimes followed by white berries. 3m (10ft). H4*.
An everlasting sweet pea
Lathyrus latifolius ‘White Pearl’ is a white-flowered form of the everlasting sweet pea, one of the easiest and loveliest of climbing perennials. Up to a dozen pure white pea-like flowers are carried on long stiff stems in summer and, although not scented, they last very well as cut flowers and in the garden. This vigorous plant clings to wires or trellis with its curling tendrils. The similar ‘Albus’ also has an AGM. 2m (6ft 6in). H7*.
A delicate beauty for the shade
Popular for well over 100 years, 'Madame Alfred Carrière' is a super-scented climbing rose which blooms repeatedly from early summer until early autumn. Its combination of gentle colouring, relatively few thorns and wonderful tea rose fragrance make it a lovely plant to have. By growing it on a north-facing wall or fence, the problem of bright sun bleaching the pale pink flowers is avoided, and the flowering of individual blooms is prolonged. 3m (10ft). H5*.
A self-adhesive climbing hydrangea
Like ivy, Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris is a plant that clings to walls, fences and tree trunks using tiny roots that develop wherever the stems touch another surface. So no need to put up wires or trellis! The bold heart-shaped leaves make an attractive cover, and in summer, the broad white lacecap flowers open and may be as much as 25cm (10in) across. Its deciduous leaves turn buttery yellow in autumn. 2m (6ft 6in) or more. H5*.
Reliable favourite ivy
Ivies are the ultimate evergreen climbers for cold and also shady walls, and they come in a vast variety. There are some very lovely cultivars with plain green leaves, but it’s the many variegated forms that help brighten dark spaces. Hedera helix ‘Ceridwen’, with its yellow, green and greyish patterns and sharply lobed leaves is one of the best and is similar to another AGM form ‘Goldchild’ which is more often seen but much slower to develop. 3m (9ft). H5*.
Two AGM-winning introductions from France, red-berried Pyracantha Saphyr Rouge (‘Cadrou’), and its sister Saphyr Orange (‘Cadange’), are helping make pyracanthas popular again. These tough evergreens resist the diseases (fireblight and scab) that sometimes affect other varieties. 2m (6ft6in). H6*.
Oriental bittersweet - a bolt of autumn colour
Celastrus orbiculatus Hermaphrodite Group is probably the least familiar of these suggestions. It is a deciduous twining plant from China, related to euonymus, that develops small, unremarkable flowers but then in autumn the pods split to reveal a yellow lining surrounding bright red seeds - all set against buttery yellow autumn leaves. It’s vigorous, but easily pruned in spring. Male and female plants are usually needed for fruit, but not with this form. 5m (16ft) or more. H6*.
Dependable evergreen colour
Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ - one of the great things about this ultra-dependable plant is that you’ll find it on sale everywhere: urban florists, markets and country nurseries, and charity plant sales as well as in every garden centre in the country. Its name sums it up, with vivid golden edges to its neat, dark, evergreen leaves which may develop pinkish tinges in winter - it’s always cheerful. When planted on a wall or fence, it doesn’t climb, exactly, but flattens itself against the wall as it grows. 60cm (2ft). H5*.
*Numbers H1 - H7 indicate hardiness ratings.