How to turn your balcony garden into a green oasis
With a growing number of us switching to apartment living, the concept of gardening is changing. Think indoor jungles, lush green walls and rooftop gardens filled to the brim with edible plants.
All ranges of gardens are being used to green up our urban spaces.
If you’re an apartment dweller, the balcony is a great place to start. A balcony oasis will give you the benefits of a more traditional garden, without the upkeep required for a bigger space.
When talking to people about balcony gardens, I like to describe them as unique micro-environments. Balconies are exposed to the elements with wind, heat and light all interacting in different ways. So, there are a few things to think about when greening up your space.
Firstly, balconies can be very windy environments. Wind has a parching effect on plants and soil. Strong gusts of wind can knock plants over, or cause damage to leaves and branches.
There are a number of ways to combat these conditions when building your garden. Choose plants that are tough, like succulents or hardy herbs. Match them with containers that are evenly balanced and won’t blow over. Larger pots are one solution and have the added benefit of retaining moisture for longer. Applying mulch around your plants will also help to hold in moisture.
A wind-break is also useful to reduce windy conditions. This can be structural, such as a wrap-around enclosure. If you use a few larger plants to form a green barrier, this can also become part of the garden itself – and it can be good for privacy, too.
Hard surfaces, such as tiles, pavers and concrete, absorb and radiate heat. In the micro-climate of a balcony, this means things are likely to heat up quicker, particularly in summer. During winter, the temperatures on your balcony will drop. So, opt for hardy plants and monitor moisture levels on a regular basis.
Succulents, cycads and yuccas are all up to the task of dealing with tough conditions. They also come in attractive colours, shapes and forms to add visual impact to your space.
Try a few containers with rosemary if you’re after edible options out on the balcony. Rosemary is useful for home cooking throughout the year and has a natural aroma that reminds me of Mediterranean holidays – never a bad thing!
Balconies are often exposed to full sun throughout the day. If you have too much sun, think about introducing a shade structure, or working with tall plants, such as bamboo, to help create some shade.
You can also select plants that thrive in exposed conditions, such as classic geraniums or hebe shrubs in containers.
If your balcony has a southerly aspect (facing away from the sun) or is overshadowed by a neighbouring building, the challenge may be too much shade. In this case, you can consider painting exterior walls a light colour or using mirrors to bounce light back into the space. Also choose plants that tolerate low light conditions.
Sansevieria (snake plants) are so robust so they’ll do equally well in shady conditions and in exposed positions.
Weight is an important consideration when setting up a balcony garden. Potted plants can become very heavy, very quickly – particularly when you’re working with large plants, big pots and lots of soil.
To reduce weight, you can use lightweight pots and planters. Plastic pots come in a range of colours and don’t need to be ugly. Felt planters, or grow bags, are a great choice for herbs.
Combine lightweight pots with a lighter soil mix. The addition of perlite to your potting mix will lighten the soil and assist with drainage.
With a bit of planning, anyone can create a thriving balcony oasis. To make the most of the space you have available, think about the layout of your plants. Place them in spots that are easily accessible for watering and allow free flow of movement.
If there isn’t much floor space, use wall space instead by creating a vertical garden.
Old ladders or plant shelves can help to increase height and maximise greenery without the need for tall or established plants.
However, always be mindful of safety when you’re installing a balcony garden. Think about how plants and water drainage might impact your neighbours and even pedestrians on footpaths down below.
Build your garden bit by bit, experiment with what works in your space, and enjoy time spent relaxing in your balcony oasis.
Here are some of my favourite balcony plants:
Geraniums are classic balcony plants. You can see them adding colour to windowsills and terraces all over Italy. They’re easy to grow from cuttings and are low maintenance once established. Geraniums thrive in sunny, dry spots, making them ideal for people who forget to water their plants.
Rosemary has to be one of the toughest edible plants, making it a perfect candidate for balcony gardens. These plants will tolerate wind, heat and dry conditions and grow well in containers. You can encourage growth by regularly cutting a sprig or two for use in the kitchen.
Hebe is an under-rated evergreen shrub. There are a vast number of cultivars and hybrids available, ranging from small bushes to large shrubs. I like them for their versatility and screening potential. They have pretty flowers, too, making them good for attracting bees.
No balcony garden is complete without a few succulents. Go for a small cluster of potted plants if you’re short on space, or some bigger examples to add shape and form to your balcony. Just remember: Less is more when it comes to watering these plants!
Cycads are drought-resistant, sculptural plants. Because they’re evergreen, you’ll always have the benefit of foliage when using them in a balcony setting. They have minimal water requirements, and are great for pots.