Densely populated city centers aren’t an obvious place to seek gardening inspiration, but it’s here you’ll find the most ingenious gardeners. The coming together of big ambitions and tiny spaces makes for some very interesting results, demonstrated best in balcony gardens.
On my occasional daytrips to London by train it’s always fascinating to spot these little green oases perched way up in the sky. Their owners have created a verdant escape from the urban jungle, a place of beauty, calm, and even productivity. To sit within a well thought out balcony garden is to be in a different world – a slice of paradise right outside the door.
If you only have a balcony to grow on, don’t let it stop you from indulging your horticultural desires. Here are some tips and ideas to maximize the space you’ve got and enjoy gardening as much as anyone.
Practical Considerations for Your Balcony Garden
Rules: Some landlords or housing associations have specific rules about what you can and can’t grow on your balcony, so check before you begin. There’s little point creating a beautiful garden only for it to be removed.
Weight: Clusters of containers can get heavy. Consider how much weight your balcony can support and err on the side of caution. If in doubt choose lighter plastic pots over heavier terracotta or stone alternatives. Position the heaviest pots closer to load-bearing walls or over supporting joists.
Wind: The higher up your balcony, the windier it’s likely to be. Not all plants thrive in exposed, windy conditions, so choose accordingly. Windbreaks like netting or reed screens are very effective at filtering the wind and will also create an attractive backdrop. Or you could use wind-tolerant plants like most grasses and bamboo to create a natural windbreak for sensitive plants.
Light: Like any garden it’s essential to consider how much direct sunshine your balcony gets. It is easy to overestimate this, so take the time to record exactly where sunlight falls and at what time of day. Even predominantly shady balconies have options: try salad leaves, spinach, kale, carrots and well-behaved soft fruits such as strawberries or compact varieties of raspberry.
Exposure: Cold can be an issue on exposed balconies, while on the flipside, sun-warmed walls will slowly release their heat over night to create something of a protective microclimate. However, it’s safest to work on the assumption that a balcony will be a few degrees colder than ground level. Ensure good drainage so pots don’t become waterlogged then freeze solid.
Water: Conversely, be on hand to water regularly in hot, dry weather. The combination of sun and wind can dry out pots with alarming speed. If you haven’t the time to water, install a drip irrigation system.
Edible Balcony Garden Ideas
You haven’t got a lot of it, so make the most of your space. Turn the garden on its side by planting up vertical spaces instead. This could be as simple as training climbing beans or cucumbers up trellis, or securing window boxes to railings.
Walls are a blessing. Use them to mount planters to create a wall of green, or set up any number of wall-mounted or stackable modular planters aimed at the urban gardener. You could also use shelving to create a ‘plant theater’ of herbs or strawberries. Make sure to fix the shelving securely to the wall so it can’t blow over.
Don’t forget hanging baskets and other suspended planters at head level. With plants growing up from below and trailing down from above, it’s possible to create the illusion of a lush, bountiful garden far bigger than the modest footprint of your balcony.
You will want to sit back and admire your handiwork from time to time, so don’t sacrifice somewhere to unwind at the expense of squeezing in yet more plants. A small patio table and chair set offers somewhere outside to do the crossword, enjoy breakfast or sip a sundowner.
Best Balcony Garden Plants
Hardy aromatic herbs tolerate the exposed conditions of a balcony, so incorporate the likes of rosemary, lavender and thyme. In fact, all herbs are a wise choice given their high value and their low space requirements, and they will give you something to pick almost every day of the year.
Containers supporting edibles such as salad leaves, cherry tomatoes and miniature varieties of vegetables including beets and compact summer squashes are fun to grow and deeply rewarding. Opt for quick-to-mature crops and there’s no reason you can’t get two, three or even four harvests from the same pots each year. And don't forget to include some flowers to help draw in pollinators and keep pests under control.
Above all a balcony garden should be a refuge – a bolthole to commune with passing nature and decompress after a long day. Get creative, be ingenious and you can grow your very own garden in the sky.