Q: I am hoping to start a container garden on my back patio, but it faces west ... is this a lost cause? ~Jenna O'Brien
Actually, you are totally in luck! A west facing patio or balcony is the perfect spot for a container garden, especially an edible one, because they get plenty of afternoon sun. All plants require a certain amount of sunlight to properly photosynthesize. Tomatoes, basil, and many popular annual flowers like superbells need full sun—at least 6 hours of bright, direct sunlight each day. Plants that need partial sun or partial shade, including alpine strawberries and hydrangeas, like between 4 and 6 hours of sunlight and plants that prefer full shade, like hostas, survive in less than 4 hours of sunlight.
You will have a huge plant palette to choose from since a west facing patio typically gets hot, direct sun for at least half the day (unless it is shaded by a building or trees). Your patio's direction is especially good news if you want to grow vegetables, because almost all vegetables, herbs, and fruit grow best in full sun. And some of the most interesting plants for containers, including bold, textural plants like cannas, hardy banana, and sedges and grasses, as well as architectural plants like New Zealand flax and succulents, prefer full sun.
The one drawback is that containers located in full sun often dry out very quickly during the summer. You'll need to water them every morning and check on them every evening. Container watering systems, which will water your pots automatically, are a great way to go, but they can be a bit spendy.
If you need some container design inspiration, check out Succulents Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin, The Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Edible Flowers by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey, and Container Gardening: 250 Design Ideas and Step-by-Step Techniques by Fine Gardening Magazine.
Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Kitchen Gardening will be published in January 2012.