The High Life
by Flo Whitaker
So often just a dumping ground for junk, balconies are seriously under-utilised spaces with great gardening potential, argues Flo Whitaker
There’s nothing sadder than the sight of an abandoned balcony; empty, apart from a rusted clothes airer and a forgotten bicycle. In this hectic world, the benefits of a soothing outdoor space cannot be over-emphasised. If you have a balcony, however small, you can create your own little oasis of calm.
Firstly, make sure there are no restrictions to prevent you from making a garden. This applies regardless of whether you rent, or are an owner-occupier, live in a single dwelling or a multi-occupancy building. Consult your lease, rental agreement or property deeds. If in doubt, seek advice from the property management company or a solicitor. If your plans are modest; for instance, a few pots and simple garden furniture, then weight loading is unlikely to be an issue. More ambitious schemes may require advice from a structural engineer, (never, ever underestimate the weight of soil!).
Next, think about barrier/screening plants. Balconies can be windy places. Faced with a tall, impenetrable barrier, even the lightest breeze will create turbulence as it seeks an escape route around a building. A windbreak made from living plants or trellis panels will filter the air and reduce wind speed. Windbreak plants can be grown in individual pots, but, if possible, construct a wooden trough to the length required and make it approximately 30 x 30cms in width and height. This will give a good depth of soil for plants to thrive. A trellis or woven wicker panel screwed to the back of the trough is an excellent idea as it will serve as a windbreak and privacy screen. Yew and box are classic evergreen hedging plants that, once established, require minimal care. An annual trim and feed will keep them happy. In open ground, hornbeam and hawthorn make large hedging plants. However, container planting will restrict their vigour, allowing them to be kept to a manageable size. Small, young plants establish faster than mature specimens – and they’re cheaper too! If the area is really breezy, protect plants with windbreak netting for the first year.
A few permanent shrubs will give year-round colour and interest. Viburnums are tough and reliable – many varieties produce scented flowers from autumn to spring. Cornus is virtually indestructible and has good-looking foliage in summer and vivid, colourful bare stems in winter. Unless you can offer sheltered, cool conditions, forget about acers as their delicate foliage is quickly damaged by sun and wind. Resilient sambucus has acer-like leaves and will cope where acers won’t.
A trellis panel, firmly secured to a wall, gives scope for vertical gardening. Walls absorb heat during the day and slowly release it at night, so use this to your advantage. Climbing summer annuals such as rhodochiton, cobaea and ipomoea will quickly cover a wall, giving an exotic feel. Bulbs and bedding plants give blasts of colour for little effort. Summer bedding plants mostly prefer a sunny outlook, but violas, impatiens, nicotiana and many spring bulbs enjoy light shade. Experiment to see what works in your space and don’t be disheartened by the occasional disaster.
If the site is sheltered, it’s possible to grow a few vegetables too. Use a large pot for climbing beans as they do better with a deeper root run. Tomatoes will enjoy the reflected heat from a wall. ‘Cut-and-come-again’ lettuce takes moments to sow and will keep on producing fresh leaves for months. Baby carrots, spring onions and radishes are perfect for containers. Sun-loving thyme, basil, sage and rosemary do well in pots. Some herbs are cooler customers. Parsley and chives quickly run to seed in hot locations – a lightly shaded spot will extend their lifespan. Mint comes in many different varieties. All types have aromatic, ornamental foliage and most will thrive in dappled shade.
Garden furniture is an expensive outlay so think carefully before you buy. Balcony furniture has to remain in situ all year round, so a good-looking design is imperative. How do you envisage using your balcony space – just for recreational sitting out, or are you planning some serious gardening too? If the latter, choose a table that will be large enough to also use as a work surface. A protective table cover costs a few pounds and will transform a dining table into a potting bench within moments. The best modular-type furniture combines contemporary styling with clever space-saving features, with seating that stows neatly underneath the table when not required. Some garden benches have lift-off seats, providing useful storage underneath and lightweight folding furniture is ideal where space is limited. An exterior power supply gives scope for permanent outdoor lighting that will increase the year-round usability of a balcony. A small, electrically-powered water feature will provide a relaxing backdrop and increase humidity – something your plants will appreciate, especially in hot weather. Water adds an exciting element to any garden – birds may even stop off to drink and bathe.
Balconies come with challenging gardening conditions but there are plus points too. Marauding foxes and badgers won’t dig up your flowerbeds. Many aphids are low-level fliers who avoid venturing above a few metres. Pests and diseases are easier to control. Harmful moulds and mildews lurking in my neighbour’s garden today will invariably turn up in my garden tomorrow, but this scarcely troubles the balcony owner, who can smugly gaze down upon the hapless terra-firma gardener wrestling with potato blight. Balcony gardens are uniquely special places – personal little Eden’s suspended in the sky.