Wishing you had more planting space in your yard? There may be an extra piece of gardening real estate you did not realize you had. Growing food on fences and arbors can enhance privacy and also add to your home harvests.
Each exposure in your yard offers a unique microclimate. It is not uncommon to have three to four distinct areas that might vary in temperature from each other by as much as five degrees Fahrenheit. This may not sound like much of a difference, but it can lead to remarkably distinct growing opportunities throughout our long East Bay growing season. Understanding the character of each zone and working with the forces of nature to create plant groupings that take advantage of those differences can give you the best chance for success.
As the western fence actually faces east, it is the first to receive morning light but also the first to go into shade in the afternoon. These conditions create an opportunity for success with leafy greens. A fence hung with fabric pockets (as in the illustration above) can accommodate smaller greens and herbs like lettuce and cilantro. I like the Smart Pot products for this use. They are made from inert, porous, geotextile fabric, which doesn’t leach chemicals into the plants. (You can use them and still grow certified-organic produce!)
A south fence faces north, so it’s in shade much of the day. This is your place for shade-loving native plants like California barberry (Mahonia pinnata), pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), and bush anemone (Carpenteria californica). The big bonus you get with these plants is that they can provide insectary zones adjacent to your gardens beds. This ensures that your food crops get pollinated regularly. Think of these native flower zones as apartment complexes for beneficial insects. I find it a great joy to return to a garden I have designed and see resident bee populations able to stay in the vicinity due to year-round pollen on site.
The northern property line is often the place with the best sun exposure in your yard, which means it’s good for heat-loving annuals like tomatos and cucumbers or heat-loving perennials like grapevines and plum trees. Taller fruit trees and/or vines planted in this zone won’t be shading out sunlight from the rest of your garden. If you like the idea of grapes, try Concord and Thompson varieties. Kiwi do quite well in the East Bay if they are in full sun, but note that they are dioecious, so you will need a male and a female plant in order to get fruit.
The northern edge of a raised bed is a great place for a trellis. The vertical crop you plant there will break the wind without diminishing the full sun exposure on the bed. If you’re into making beer, you could add a taste of terroir to your homebrew by growing hops on that trellis. Hops can grow up to 15 feet tall in a single season.
The second hottest of your four fence areas will be on the east side, since that faces west. This side will be the last to receive sun in the morning, yet it gets a surge of bonus sunlight in the afternoon. The east fence is a great place for a berry patch. Try planting raspberry or blackberry.
Do you have a chain-link fence?
Climbing plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and beans can turn an eyesore fence into a great trellis capable of holding hundreds of pounds of produce.
Permaculture designer and educator Joshua Burman Thayer is a regular contributor to Edible East Bay. In his monthly Gardener’s Notebook feature in Edible East Bay’s free e-newsletter, he offers lots more advice on how to implement gardening ideas like this one. Sign up for the newsletter here. Josh has also written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. Find him and his work at nativesungardens.com, and follow him on Twitter at @nativesungarden.