Plants for north facing walls can transform a challenging feature into a vertical highlight. It’s surprising just how many plants will thrive in areas with lower light too. Choices include foliage plants, but also some interesting floral contenders, such as certain roses, clematis and honeysuckle.
North facing walls are likely to have very little direct daily sunshine, particularly in the winter months, but this doesn't mean putting up with a ‘dead space’ in the garden. The trick is to find shade tolerant plants. These are plants which have adapted to surviving in lower light levels, whilst still making enough food to keep them alive.
According to the RHS, 'growing conditions on a north-facing wall can be colder and darker than other aspects, along with the potential for dry soil caused by the wall’s rain shadow. Planting at least 50cm away from the wall can help to counter this problem.'
Although climbers are the obvious choice for cladding everything from structural retaining walls to attractive front garden walls with greenery, there are certain shrubs which can be trained to grow vertically. Most, but not all, of these plants will require something to attach themselves to, so they can climb upwards and out to the side. Wooden trellis, wire trellis or long wires for shoots to cling to can be purchased from garden centers and they are an essential ingredient for successfully transforming a north facing wall into an attractive, interesting feature in your plot.
11 plants for north facing walls to add interest to your garden structure
Looking to give your garden wall ideas an instant boost? Our pick of plants for north facing walls are all suited to shady spots and will thrive in areas of low light.
1. Chocolate vine
- Hardiness: USDA 4-9
- Height: 33ft (10m)
- Spread: 6.6ft (2m)
- Best for: exotic appeal
Proof that plants for north facing walls don’t have to be boring, this one (Akebia quinata) has exotic looking cup-shaped flowers in dark purple which really do smell of chocolate.
This plant will climb everything from stone garden walls to brick walls using its self-twining tendrils, but get it started with something to hold on to (taut wires screwed into the wall work well), and tie in the stems as they start to shoot.
If space is limited, cut back after it has flowered. Otherwise, leave it to romp away.
2. Virginia Creeper
- Hardiness: USDA 3-9
- Height: up to 50ft (15m)
- Spread: up to 16ft (5m)
- Best for: covering a large area
This rapidly growing climber has dense, fresh green foliage during spring and summer, which turns to a show-stopping intense crimson mass in the fall. It is deciduous, so the leaves drop over winter, but it could be teamed with some evergreen English ivy to create all year round coverage.
After about two years, it will need regular pruning to control the growth. It’s perfect for a large wall or for adding some greenery to front garden wall ideas.
3. Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)
- Hardiness: USDA 5-7
- Height: 50ft (15m)
- Spread: 26ft (8m)
- Best for: floral elegance
This wonderful climber has large white flattened lacey flowers on heart-shaped leaves. A true shade loving plant, it might take a while to get established, but once it has settled in, it will cover a wall using tiny roots which sprout when the stems touch another surface, so it will not need wires or a trellis to cling to.
The textured foliage turns a burnished yellow in the fall, and during winter, the dried flower seed heads add lots of interest. Give this large climber plenty of space, or cut it back after it has flowered to contain the size. It prefers moist, rich and well-drained soil types.
4. English ivy
- Hardiness: USDA to zone 4
- Height: 26-39ft (8-12m)
- Spread: 13ft (4m)
- Best for: fast, easy coverage
It has an undeserved bad reputation for taking over in the garden, and potentially damaging masonry with its aerial roots, but it is probably the best plant to quickly and easily cover a shady wall.
If kept under control, ivy makes one of the best plants for garden walls as it will create a brilliant foliage backdrop which will attract plenty of beneficial bugs to your yard.
There are so many to pick from, but a variegated type will introduce color and texture to a gloomy spot. Hedera helix ‘Ceridwen’ has attractive yellow, green and grey colors and larger leaves, while ‘Eva’ and ‘Glacier’ are bright and variegated.
If you need to chop it back to stop it straying into neighboring gardens, for example, then do it in early spring, and don’t be afraid to carry out some hard pruning with sharp secateurs.
It tolerates all kinds of soil, even very poor ones, and thrives in an exposed or a sheltered spot. It may be considered an invasive species in certain US states, so check before planting.
If you're worried about plants causing structural damage to your walls, our guide to retaining wall problems and solutions has lots of useful advice.
5. Euonymus ‘fortunei’
- Hardiness: USDA 4-9
- Height: 1-2ft (30-60cm)
- Spread: 3-4ft (90-120cm)
- Best for: low maintenance coverage
A shrub rather than a climber, this hardy evergreen plant will nevertheless grow vertically against a wall if it is provided with climbing plant support, and it is a tough, hardy choice which is widely available.
The foliage is the star: try ‘Emerald ‘n’ gold’ which has brightly edged leaves against dark green to create pattern and texture which will boost a dark area. Also known as ‘wintercreeper,’ it will grow in all kinds of soil, and needs very little care once established.
6. Fatsia Japonica
- Hardiness: USDA 8-10
- Height: 12ft (4m)
- Spread: 12ft (4m)
- Best for: growing in a pot
Here is a bushy shrub to place against a north facing wall, rather than to train up it. This plant will thrive as part of your container gardening ideas, so it can be used to create a focal point with its large, glossy evergreen leaves which have a lovely sculptural shape.
Also called a castor oil plant, it has clusters of small white flowers around mid-autumn, and little black berries, but it’s the foliage which makes it so special. For extra interest in a dark spot, choose ‘Variegata’ AGM which has white edged leaves.
Plant in a large pot in soil-based compost and remove any dead or brown foliage in spring.
- Hardiness: USDA 4-9
- Height: varies according to species
- Spread: varies according to species
- Best for: creating a cottage garden look
If you've already learned how to grow honeysuckle, then you'll know that not only is it a strong and vigorous climber, but most varieties have sweetly scented flowers all through summer in gorgeous shades of clotted cream, golden yellow, blush pink, scarlet and orange too.
The lonicera species is a hardy choice, and there are many to choose from. ‘Belgica’ is bushy, with scarlet and cream flowers, and grows to 26ft (8m) tall. ‘Goldflame’ has vivid orange and yellow flowers with a strong perfume. ‘Serotina’ has flushed pink and purple tubular blooms with a delicious smell. Glossy red berries come after the flowers have passed.
These twining climbers do need a support, such as wires or a trellis, as the foliage can be top heavy. Honeysuckle is evergreen or semi-deciduous so check the label if you are looking for year-round coverage.
8. Silk-tassel bush (Garrya elliptica)
- Hardiness: USDA 8-10
- Height: 13ft (4m)
- Spread: 13ft (4m)
- Best for: winter interest
This bushy, evergreen shrub with wavy edged greenish gray leaves produces unusual silvery catkins from midwinter to early spring. At around 8in (20cm) long, they shimmer in the breeze and create a stunning seasonal display.
Native to coastal California and southern Oregon, this plant is surprisingly hardy and will tolerate semi-exposed or sheltered conditions if planted in well-drained soil, although very strong winds may scorch it.
Train the foliage on wires against the wall, and cut off any dead or straggly branches in April and May when the catkins have past their best.
9. Climbing and rambling roses
- Hardiness: USDA 4-10, but check the variety as this may vary
- Height: varies according to type
- Spread: varies according to type
- Best for: romantic garden style
According to the rose growing experts at David Austin Roses (opens in new tab) there are some roses which will work in a shady spot against a north facing wall. 'Although in general roses will not thrive in a position where there is too much shade, there are some varieties which will cope with four to five hours of good sun per day,' they says. 'Just avoid areas with low hanging branches and competition from roots or trees and other shrubs.'
Some of the best climbing roses they recommend as being suitable for an open, north facing wall include Claire Austin, Mortimer Sackler and Wollerton Old Hall, which are all climbing roses, and Phyllis Bide, Crimson Shower, Rambling Rector and Wedding Day which are rambling varieties.
Roses do need some special care and attention, including feeding twice a year in April and July, as well as mulching, deadheading and pruning.
10. Clematis ‘Niobe’
- Hardiness: USDA 4-9
- Height: 6-8ft (1.8-2.4m)
- Spread: 1.5-2ft (0.6m)
- Best for: rich color
If you're looking for a plants for north facing walls that will give you lots of intense colour, make sure you add this one to your planting list.
With large, velvety red flowers blooming on dark green leaves through the summer it creates a mass of deep color. It’s not the only clematis which will tolerate a shady spot, but this one is an absolute beauty. The flowers measure six inches (15cm) across.
Despite its exotic looks, it only requires a light trim in the late winter or early spring time. If you prefer a lighter, brighter flower to lift the spot, clematis ‘Nelly Moser’ has pretty white and candy pink striped blooms, and it will grow in shade.
There's more tips on how to grow clematis in our dedicated guide.
11. Fatshedera Lizei (Fat-Headed Lizzie)
- Hardiness: USDA 7-10
- Height: 4.9-8.2ft (1.5-2.5m)
- Spread: 4.9-8.2ft (1.5-2.5m)
- Best for: a stylish courtyard solution
A cross between an ivy and a fatsia (a climber and a shrub), this architectural evergreen is a stylish way to clad a north facing wall with green. It has shiny, leathery leaves and subtle small greenish white flowers.
It can be grown in a pot or in the ground in moist well drained soil, but it does require training up a vertical structure. Keep tying it in and clipping it into shape and it will soon reward you with dense, tidy foliage.
It prefers a sheltered spot, so a courtyard garden would be a perfect situation.
Can you use climbing plants on north facing walls?
According to the experts at Squires Garden Centres (opens in new tab) you will not be limited for choice when it comes to climbing plants for north facing walls. 'When choosing climbers for shade, you want to consider the hows and whys that go into constructing an impactful display,' they say. 'For instance, you don’t want too many dark greens on the wall in an already shaded area, because it will make them look even gloomier. Use them instead as background and texture.'
How do I plant against a north facing wall?
For best results when using plants for north facing walls, it's important to get the planting position correct.
'If you are planting in the ground, make sure your plants are 20in (50cm) away from any walls so they are not in a rain shadow and can receive rain,' says Susanna Grant, author of a new book called Shade (Bloom/Frances Lincoln). 'You also need to give them adequate support.' This could mean attaching wooden trellis or trellis wire and tying in the plant as it grows.
Above all, she says, 'embracing the shadows rather than fighting them is key to creating a garden in shade.'
An experienced freelance journalist, editor and columnist writing for national magazines and websites, Fiona now specialises in gardens. She enjoys finding and writing about all kinds, from the tiniest town plots to impressively designed ones in grand country houses.