Balcony plants: suggestions for every style
by Rhiannon James
© iStockphoto / Hasan Kursad Ergan
A balcony often only needs a chair to be a pleasant place to enjoy the outside air, but add some plants and it suddenly becomes a secret garden in the sky. Even a small space can be made surprisingly lush, not to mention colourful, wildlife-friendly, productive or filled with scent. We asked the experts what sort of garden they’d create in a high-rise 2 metre x 1.5 metre space.
A Contemporary Balcony
“Balconies offer a valuable outdoor breathing space for high-rise dwellers and, if they’re lucky, a great view to enjoy. Space can be tight and conditions dry and windy so planting has to suit the environment. Strong sun or prolonged shade can also be problematic.
Try using ground cover plants in large but low containers. Thymes work well and you can use them to create a tapestry of colour, offering perfume and a bee feast. Try Thymus serpyllum ‘Magic Carpet’ for darker flowers and foliage alongside T. pulegioides ‘Bertram Anderson’. You could create the same sort of effect but with more texture with sedums and sempervivums; look for Sempervivum ‘Red Ace’ and S. tectorum. Sedum spurium could accompany this association.
Lavender is a winner for sunny balconies – Lavandula ‘Hidcote’ is relatively compact. Salvia ‘Caradonna’ will give prolonged and much deeper purple-blue vertical flowers over the summer although without a significant scent. If you can afford the space, continue the blue theme with Agapanthus africanus. It is not completely hardy in the UK but its large blue-purple flower heads will thrill.
For shadier spaces, consider grasses such as Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’ or the elegant and shimmering Molinia ‘Transparent’. Interplanting the latter with Verbena bonariensis will create an airy but dramatic combination. Team the deschampsia with the tiny, hovering flowers of Sanguisorba officinalis.”
Andrew Wilson, garden designer, author and chief assessor for the Royal Horticultural Society (www.wmstudio.co.uk)
A Wildlife Balcony
“You can transform your balcony into an attractive wildlife haven by growing bee and butterfly plants in containers. Aim for wildlife plants that are attractive throughout the year, fragrant or edible such as variegated deadnettle, sedum, lavender, night-scented stock or herbs. Choose plants to suit the conditions too: try bugle, hardy geranium (such as Geranium phaeum) and lungwort for shade and lambs’ ears and daisies such as helenium and echinacea for sun. Choose single rather than double flowers and group the same type of plants together if possible – this makes it easier for bees to forage. Hang troughs off railings (great for clifftop plants such as thrift and thyme) and train ornamental ivy (such as ‘Goldheart’), honeysuckle or dwarf wisteria up walls.
Many balconies are sunny, meaning that plant pots dry out quickly. Retain water by using deep planters, adding water-retaining granules to the soil and mulching. Shrubs in tubs can be underplanted with a living mulch of golden oregano or mind-your-own-business. Recycled toilet cisterns make great planters – they look contemporary, keep roots cool and fit flush (excuse the pun!) to the wall, saving space and making them ideal for climbing plants. Catering-size oil tins and wine boxes also make interesting recycled containers.
A wormery or bokashi bin is a space-saving way to transform your kitchen waste into compost. Never buy peat-based composts as peat use threatens important wildlife habitats and contributes to climate change.”
Helen Wallis, garden worker at Culpeper Community Garden (www.culpeper.org.uk)
A Mediterranean Balcony
“A sunny balcony warrants a Mediterranean planting palette. In a 2 metre x 1.5 metre space, two generous pots with a silver Olea europaea (olive) in one and a bright red Callistemon citrinus (bottlebrush) in the other will make a good statement, add some dappled shade and (as both plants are evergreen) create interest all year. Both plants also cope with and diffuse drying winds that can be a problem the higher up you garden.
It is tempting to fill a small space with lots of different things but generally the less complex the palette, the more successful the scheme, so a pot or two each side of your statement plants would be enough. Using one side for herbs, perhaps under the olive, will make your balcony not only pretty but productive too. The other side, under the callistemon, could be planted with Sempervivum tectorum (houseleeks) which require virtually no water. For something a little more unusual, try Zaluzianskya ovata which requires a free-draining soil and will reward with highly-scented white flowers in summer. It is very easy to raise from seed should a cold snap knock it back in the winter.
A lightweight balcony or roof terrace compost usually suits Mediterranean plants. Combine it with a slow-release organic feed and your plants will thrive in their elevated home.”
Kate Gould, garden designer (www.kategouldgardens.com)
An Oriental Balcony
When you have a tiny space like a balcony to work with, you can really go to town on the theme or look. A balcony is usually a little vista that can be seen from indoors so look to your décor and use that as inspiration.
We’ve just created a rural idyll on the revamped terrace outside Babylon at The Roof Gardens. It’s a rooftop meadow but in the very contemporary style of the restaurant. To add a sculptural element we have included a life-sized cow.
While this might be possible on a balcony, ours is just a view – it wouldn’t look great if you were walking on it every day.
So for a very different feel, I am suggesting an ‘oriental’ look. This can be added to or simplified according to the amount of gardening you want to do. But let’s face it, when you only have 1.5 metres x 2 metres there’s not a lot of gardening to be done anyway.
For this scheme, I have used architectural plants but left a few smaller pots where impulse buys at the garden centre can be added.
The architectural plants are Phyllostachys aurea (golden bamboo), Acer palmatum and Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ (Japanese maples). For the acers, there’s a danger of wind burn but at The Roof Gardens, which is 35 metres up, we have a 75-year-old tree and a five-year-old tree and as long as they’re in ericaceous compost, they are both very happy.
The other plants in this plan are phormium, Iris germanica, Pinus mugo and, in the water feature, Equisetum hyemale (rough horsetail).
A few brightly-coloured pots and white pebbles on the floor will really give you the feeling of being in a garden.
David Lewis, Head Gardener at Kensington Roof Gardens (www.roofgardens.virgin.com)
An Edible Balcony
“I would make the most of your sunniest wall. Place a deep trough, the biggest you can manage, by the wall and then add a trellis for climbers above it. This can then be home to climbing beans, peas and my favourites – mouse melons, a tiny fruit related to the cucumber that has a lovely hint of lemon. Mix flowers in with your planting elsewhere, especially trailing nasturtiums to dangle over the sides of the balcony. You can eat both the leaves and the flowers.”
Tom Moggach, gardening teacher and author of The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing and Cooking in the City (www.cityleaf.co.uk)
A Scented Balcony
“A favourite of bees, Thymus caespititius is a ground-hugging plant that’s covered by a mass of light purple flowers in summer. It will grow in containers as shallow as 10cm on a balcony – use free-draining compost but remember to water before any stress shows. A native of Spain, Portugal and the Azores, it appreciates heat and the scent from the thymol contained within the foliage and flowers is released on warm days. Alternatively, let your hand brush over it and breathe in the aroma that is released into the air.”
Tony Garn, garden supervisor at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (www.rbge.org.uk)