Turn a balcony into a garden
by Rhiannon James
© iStockphoto / Jerry Moorman
A balcony may be small but it’s precious. It’s an effortless escape to the great outdoors; an urban eyrie; our own private piece of sky. Balconies are now considered so vital to the wellbeing of people living in cities in fact, that almost every new flat built in London will soon have to include one (if it doesn’t come with a garden).
They offer all sorts of possibilities: create an outdoor lounge or dining room; plant a garden; grow food; make a wildlife haven – the only no-no is to leave them empty and ignored.
These are our top tips for creating a brilliant balcony garden:
Before you get started . . .
. . . it’s worth considering a few practicalities. Weight is always an issue on balconies, so do make sure that your space can take the strain. “Generally if you can carry an item comfortably, it will be fine, but if you are in any doubt (and especially for larger schemes and roof terraces) consult a structural engineer,” garden designer Kate Gould (www.kategouldgardens.com) advises.
Plants on balconies need regular watering because pots dry out quickly in the sun and wind. An outdoor tap will make much life much easier (you could even install an automatic irrigation system). Otherwise, you’ll have to fill watering cans or run a hosepipe from the nearest sink – in which case, drought-tolerant plants will be the best choice for your pots. Once irrigation is organised, drainage is the next thing to think about. Water pouring out of plant pots on to the balcony below won’t endear you to your neighbours, so if you don’t have a proper downpipe set up, Kate advises putting saucers under containers to collect the excess (just don’t leave your plants sitting in water or the roots’ll rot).
A strong, simple design will work better in the confines of a balcony than lots of small pots. “Less is always more on balconies,” says Kate. “It’s natural to want to clutter up the space but you’ve got to be brave and pare the design down to almost nothing.” On the other hand, there’s no need to limit your imagination. “Balconies are one of those places where you can experiment quite a lot because it’s an artificial environment. In a normal garden you might try to mimic nature a bit more,” says garden designer Adolfo Harrison (www.templemanharrison.com).
Balconies are often an extension of a room so it’s worth paying as much attention to how they’ll look from inside as out. Using the same colours and materials in both places will create the sense of a single space, making both the room and the balcony feel bigger, and will help to bring the great outdoors into the house.
Division of roles
You can’t do everything on a balcony so give it a distinct role – ideally one that complements rather than competes with that of the room it adjoins. “Often you’ll have a sofa or a dining table right by the window so you wouldn’t want the same thing outside,” Kate says.
Hold a view
One big bonus of balconies is often the spectacular view so try to pick plants and furniture that won’t get in the way. “There’s lots of lightweight modern furniture, that’s either woven very lightly or made of extruded plastic, and is almost see-through, and this works well, certainly in sheltered spaces,” Kate says.
Fixes for floors
A new floor can completely transform a balcony and even if you don’t want to make any major changes, there are quick ways to cover up ugly slabs or grotty old timber.
Decking is the classic choice for balconies because it’s lightweight, warm underfoot and drains well but you could also consider outdoor tiles, a coat of exterior floor paint or, to really create the room outdoors, one of the new breed of rugs designed to withstand the elements – try Paola Lenti, Dedon or the Vieques design by Patricia Urquiola from Kettal (£1,609 each).
Artificial grass, on the other hand, is great if you want the look of a lush, high-rise garden. Easigrass, for example, has just launched a product called Easi-Chelsea (from £24.99 per m2 plus VAT) that’s super-soft underfoot and so especially suited to balconies. Grass can be laid on top of the existing surface – you can either fit it yourself or use a professional installation service for bigger jobs. If you’re renting, grass is still an option, but instead of gluing it down, it’ll have to be held in place by your furniture and pots.
If you can’t make any permanent changes to your balcony or you’re looking for a quick and cost-effective fix, outdoor floor tiles are also an option – they sit on top of the existing surface and can be taken with you when you move. Try Platta decking from IKEA (£16.99 for a pack of nine) or the Snap & Go range which includes acacia wood; composite decking; astro turf; white pebble; mosaic pattern and marble designs and is currently being trialled in ten Homebase stores (from £19.99 for a pack of four).
The smaller the outdoor space, the more prominent the walls, so it’s worth giving balcony boundaries the beauty treatment. A quick lick of paint can make all the difference but you could also consider getting creative. Investing in some outdoor art is one option: Deborah Sommers’ vibrant banners, for example, would give instant drama to dreary walls. Alternatively, you could try some DIY design, safe in the knowledge there’s only a limited space to decorate. Bottle top mosaics, murals and even handmade outdoor wallpaper (designer Tracy Kendall uses a water-resistant material called Tyvek) are all crafty possibilities.
When there’s not much room to manoeuvre, it helps to find furniture that’s a perfect fit – in form and function.
Actor Denny and film director Abigail Bess, the owners of this balcony in New York, commissioned local craftsman Tristan Fitch (www.tfcustom.com) to design and build the furniture for their space. The individual pieces, which are made from pine and coated with a strong outdoor varnish, can be pushed together to make a single unit: this increases the size of the table top and saves space. The table is also a storage place, as are the free-standing boxes which can be used as extra tables or seating. “It was very satisfying to know that the finished product would be exactly what we envisioned and would be carefully designed to fit the dimensions of the space. Our balcony, or ‘Sky Lounge’ as it has affectionately become known, enables us to watch a New York sunset at cocktail hour in the comfort of our own home. Now what could be better than that?” says Denny and Abigail.
If you’re struggling to find a cabinet maker, there are a number of social enterprises popping up around the country which collect waste wood and are happy to turn it into bespoke furniture – visit the National Community Wood Recycling Project (http://www.communitywoodrecycling.org.uk) to find your nearest service.
Gone with the wind
Wind is one of the biggest problems on high-in-the-sky balconies – it can dry plants to a crisp and make sitting outside pretty uncomfortable too. “Use the biggest containers you can and choose plants that grow on coastal cliffs,” garden designer Declan Buckley (www.buckleydesignassociates.com) advises. You can also make conditions much more pleasant, and create more privacy at the same time, by adding a windbreak. “You wouldn’t want to use a solid screen because it creates eddies but you can use robust plants or trellis to slow down the wind,” says Adolfo.
Using light-coloured and reflective materials will help a small balcony look bigger. “Often, and certainly in London where the weather is kinder, you can also use silver-leaved Mediterranean plants rather than the dark green topiary you might normally go for,” says Kate.
Keep the floor free and let plants clamber up walls or hang from railings instead. Vertical growing systems are a good way to wrap the garden in green, or grow clinging and scrambling plants in pots. “A good climber is Muehlenbeckia complexa – it grows on the coast in New Zealand and can take all the wind that’s thrown at it,” Declan says. “Trachelospermum jasminoides is also happy in a pot and you’ll open the door to your balcony and get this wonderful waft of scent coming in,” he says.
Bringing railings into bloom is all about the creative use of containers. Sustainable gardeners Earth to London (www.earthtolondon.co.uk) made these planters from recycled wood for a couple whose kitchen opens out on to their balcony. The two planters are full of herbs and other edibles, with everything from chamomile and mint for tea to cut-and-come-again lettuce, rocket and basil for an instant salad.
The balcony below, designed by Templeman Harrison, on the raised ground floor of a west London house, makes the most of every boundary. “The clients wanted to be able to have lots of people out there so space was a primary concern,” says Adolfo. Custom-made planters filled with lavender and alliums are fitted to the outside of the balcony’s front wall to create a floating flower bed; quince trees are trained around the frames of the adjoining conservatory while wall-mounted pots are filled with colourful Pelargonium zonale. “The pots, inspired by places like Andalucia, allowed us to bring a certain rhythm to the walls, they were just a boring white before. In London, these pelargoniums just last forever – you can treat them really badly and they keep on coming back,” he says.
Adolfo also suggests using shelves to create more planting space. “I’ve used them on my balcony so I can have as many pots as possible – it’s a bit like a green wall. The thing about balconies is that pots are usually accumulated over time so you’ve got a real opportunity to collect odd items like teapots, mugs, even cases – all sorts of weird things, and then you can use succulents to showcase this bizarre collection of found objects.”
Bigger containers are better on balconies because they retain more moisture. To keep weight down, Adolfo fills planters up to a third full with ceramic ‘pebbles’ called Hydroleca. “They work very well because, while they hold on to moisture and only release it when things dry out, they’re also very light,” he says. It’s also worth picking the container material carefully says Kate. “Although they look contemporary and are much loved by gardeners, chic metal planters heat up dramatically in the glare of the sun and can in effect ‘cook’ a plant’s roots so these, along with terracotta, which dries out very quickly, should be avoided if you want a low-maintenance scheme. Plastic and fibreglass are far kinder to plants in full sun and lining them with a plastic membrane will help to retain moisture for longer.”
Balconies are often very visible from at least one room so evergreen plants are essential. For a formal look, Declan recommends Phillyrea latifolia, Prunus lusitanica (Portuguese laurel), olive or bay, which can all be clipped. “Phillyrea latifolia has been around a long time but it’s very rarely used. It’s a bit like box, it has a very small leaf, and it grows into a little tree or you can buy it as a semi-standard,” he says. All four plants come from the Mediterranean so you could continue the theme with Convolvulus cneorum and lavender. For a lush look, he suggests Phormium cookianum, Fatsia ,Sasa palmata and Libertia grandiflora. “The Libertia has loads and loads of white flowers in early summer followed by nice seed pods and it’s a really good structural perennial,” he says.
Loud and proud
Colour blocking isn’t just for fashion. Isabelle Palmer, owner of online shop The Balcony Gardener and author of a book of the same name, suggests filling balcony containers with bold expanses of a single colour. Pick up on the accent colours in adjoining rooms and you’ll amp up the impact even further.
With flavour, fragrance, pretty bee-friendly flowers and sometimes all-year-round foliage too, it’s not surprising that herbs are often top of the list when it comes to choosing plants for balcony gardens. But they’re certainly not the only edibles that can prosper in high places: climbing vegetables such as beans and squashes; leafy greens; tumbling tomatoes and soft fruit bushes are all possibilities. “Wall-trained fruit is a good space-saving solution,” says Adolfo. “Figs like being in pots and even grapevines will be very happy against warm walls.” Check out this balcony in north London to see just how many goodies you can grow.
Colour blocking image reproduced from the balcony gardener by Isabelle Palmer; publisher CICO Books; photographers Amanda Darcy and Keiko Oikawa.