One in eight households in Great Britain has no access to a private or shared garden, according to analysis of Ordinance Survey Maps data last year by the Office for National Statistics. This rises to more than one in five households in London, while 10% of UK householders have a balcony, yard or patio but no garden.
If you are an apartment dweller looking for a smart way to embrace nature, then balcony gardening is the way to go. And remember it has two advantages over a traditional garden – there are no lawns to mow or weeds and slugs to control.
The last thing you’ll want to do is to put yourself or anyone else in danger by overloading your balcony with heavy planting, so it makes sense to check how much weight it can take. If you are not sure of how or when it was constructed, consider hiring a structural engineer to carry out a load-bearing evaluation. In new-build homes, this will already have been done so ask the developer for more information.
Whatever your balcony’s size and age, avoid using heavy concrete or terracotta pots, opting for lightweight plastic, resin, wood or metal containers. Place the heaviest containers near load-bearing walls rather than in the centre of the balcony. Also look out for specially formulated lightweight composts.
Make sure that all pots are secured against strong winds, so there is no chance that they can fall.
Plan around home and weather
Before you shop for plants and containers, consider how your balcony planting design will blend in with the room it leads off.
Isabella Palmer, garden designer and founder of The Balcony Gardener, says: “Approach balcony gardening as you would decorate any other room. First of all, think how you want to use it. How much space do you need for a table and chairs? Look to see whether there is anything you need to screen off – you can hide unsightly views with trellis or screening plants.
“Then decide whether you prefer a particular style – for example, something quite countrified with wildflowers or a very low-maintenance garden that is evergreen all year round.”
Choose containers that blend in with the room’s colour scheme and style, so if you have a neutral living area, then buy planters in subtle tones such as stone, cream or grey in contemporary materials like zinc or fibreglass. For a more country style, you could pick a colour from a painted wall or cushion to create a seamless outdoor room.
If you’re short of space, consider vertical planters you can fix on to walls or railings, so you can create a living wall of foliage.
Guy Barter, chief horticulturist at the Royal Horticultural Society, says: “Balconies offer concentrated areas of ‘garden’ with pots, tubs and troughs filled with lightweight potting medium and planted with plants suited to the windy, exposed conditions of many balconies.
“Bear in mind that south-facing balconies can be scorching in summer and north-facing ones have little light but are too windy for shade-loving forest plants that are the basis of shade gardening in Britain. Trellis or screens can keep off the worst of the breeze.”
Start choosing the plants
It is always best to start with just a few plants and containers and gradually build up your design.
“I generally suggest that people choose bold evergreens: bay trees or pittosporum for sun, conifers or choisya for partial sun and euonymus or elaeagnus for shade, for example,” says Guy.
“As you won’t need many plants for a balcony, it is worth spending freely to get good ‘architectural’ specimens that will look good all year. These can be clipped and formed to shapes if preferred.”
Then you can easily add extra colour in spring and summer.
“I plant smaller pots and especially troughs with spring bulbs and flowers, such as pansies and primroses, and summer flowers, such as petunias, salvias and pelargoniums,” he adds.
“Troughs can be attached to windowsills, walls and railings. Plants for shade are more limited for summer although bulbs, pansies and primroses will do well enough in late spring, while there are choice begonias, impatiens or fuchsias plus ferns for foliage. Also, houseplants appreciate a summer holiday on a sheltered balcony.”
Isabella advises against blowing your plant budget at the start of the project. She says: “I would always start off frugally and build up your confidence. You only need one missed weekend of watering in the height of summer and then it’s all over. Err on the side of caution and start with a low-maintenance plants and then add more.
“If you are out at work most of the day, low-maintenance plants, such as succulents, cacti, ornamental grasses, pelargoniums, begonia and bougainvillea, and herbs such as lavender, oregano and rosemary work well.”
Making seasonal changes
If you’re not sticking to a complete evergreen scheme with plants such as box, ivy, heucheras or ferns, then you could add or remove plants every few months.
Isabella suggests changing your balcony planting three times a year. “You could choose plants like hellebores, winter pansies and cyclamen in the winter to tide you over until spring – when you can plant a few bulbs,” she says.
“Jasmine can trail over the balcony railings or Mexican orange blossom (choisya) with its heavily scented with white flowers. Once they are over, you can move on to your summer planting.
“Dwarf plants are suited to container gardening on balconies so it’s worth looking for the dwarf varieties of plants that usually grow quite large.”
There is no reason why you can’t grow fruit and vegetables on your balcony, but some produce is more suited to container gardening.
Dwarf apple trees are a good choice for balconies, while strawberries will be fun for kids to grow. Potatoes grow well in containers as do carrots, celery, spring onions, tomatoes and French beans, as well as herbs such as chives, lavender, rosemary and thyme.
Isabella recommends Amaryllis French beans, with their red scented flowers, but says avoid cucumbers, which spread too rapidly.
Don’t forget watering
Balcony plants will need watering more often as only a limited amount of rainwater will reach them. Containers should be large enough to allow the plant’s roots to grow and have good drainage.
Choose containers with drainage holes but add broken pots of styrofoam to the base of the pot to stop soil from leaking on to the balcony floor.
Consider investing in self-watering containers, which have a built-in reservoir to store water and release it to a plant’s roots as and when it is needed – you also won’t have to worry about water dripping on to the balcony below.
Alternatively, you could install an automatic irrigation system that will drip-feed water to your plants – but choose a design that is hidden from view.
You could scatter Hydroleca around the top of balcony plants as these clay granules help to absorb water and release it slowly or add chippings or pebbles for a similar effect.
Putting water-retaining crystals in the soil can also help.
And if lugging a heavy watering can back and forth seems too much like hard work, you can fit a hose to your kitchen tap if it’s not too far away.
Last but not least, remember that planting and watering a garden, however small, is thirsty work. Be sure to leave enough space for a comfy chair and a bistro table or folding table that fits snugly on to balcony railings. Then you can sit back with a cup of tea or glass of wine and admire the fruits of your labour.