Isabelle Palmer is a passionate balcony gardener. For years she has grown many beautiful plants on her north London balcony, and she now shares her fabulous taste with other gardeners through her shop, The Balcony Gardener. She’s also kind enough to share the secrets of her success with F&F readers.
It is essential to check with an architect or structural engineer how much weight the roof can take, whether planning permission is needed and also to check whether or not the balcony is waterproof. Ideally place heavy containers near load-bearing walls, or over a load-bearing beam or joist.
Try to incorporate something high impact in a small outdoor space but keep your design simple. Too many plants or ornaments can make a small space seem messy and overcrowded. Pick containers that are going to create focal points – something large or unusual is a good start.
It is better to spend your money on a couple of key large items instead of lots of smaller items. Don’t be afraid to make a bold statement with over-sized pots. Place them in your sight line, such as opposite a seat or outside the kitchen window. Or if you have a balcony like me, use the patio doors as a frame.
Gardening in a small space can be economical. Reuse old cans and wine crate containers if you are doing it on a budget. Just make sure you have a drainage hole at the bottom.
Adding some greenery
Start with evergreen plants such as Buxus and Bay to give you an all-year-round green base. Then add your favourite colours with flowering perennials so they come back next year. Daylilies, violets, purple coneflower, phlox and verbena give a long bloom period. One of my favourites for containers is lavender which lasts throughout the year.
Remember to water daily
Containers have little soil so dry out quickly. The best way to learn what works is trial and error, so don’t be scared to try something new.
If privacy is an issue, add some tall screening plants such as bamboo or laurel which can easily be grown in containers.
Grow your own
Plant a herb garden. It may not be possible to grow an entire vegetable patch on a balcony but start with a small container or window box packed with your favourite herbs or salad leaves. Not only do you get the satisfaction of growing your own produce but they are great for adding to your cooking. Mint, chives, rosemary, parsley and a salad leaf mix are good varieties to start with.
Once you have mastered herbs, move onto more small varieties such as tomatoes, cucumbers, salad onions, carrots, aubergines, beans, beetroots, cabbage, potatoes, radishes, and fruits such as strawberries. They will all thrive on balconies, just remember the amount of sunlight you receive is important too.
Use decorative items such as tea lights, candles and lanterns or vibrant cushions to brighten up your space and create an oasis of your very own. Candles and lanterns also add mood lighting at night, creating an intimate space and an extension of your home.
Create a small alfresco dining area by using folding furniture such as a small bistro table and chairs. They are a great way to maximise your space when not in use as they can be packed away and stored easily in the winter.
Think outside the box and create a mini pond. This can easily be done by using an old tin bath or sealed pot, anything so long as it is watertight. You can use PVC lining to waterproof the container and prevent toxins from seeping into the water.
Water adds a new element to your balcony and you can grow miniature water lilies and other aquatic plants such as iris or water mint, and even introduce fish.
Floating plants such as water lettuce and water hyacinth are another good choice. Allow plenty of room between plants to avoid over-crowding. Natural pond plants need lots of light so build your pond in a sunny spot of the garden.
Adding sculpture or art installations can help to create your own outdoor gallery. Look for heavy sculpture so they can endure the elements and high winds. Look out for large coloured glass balls which can also look pretty and add a splash of colour.
Attract wildlife to your outdoor space. Bird houses, baths and feeders can all be great features on a balcony.