This article was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.
When I think of balcony gardens, the first thing that comes to mind is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Flowers, vegetables, and herbs cascading over railings softening hard angles and providing food to both the gardener and bees. This is how the mind of a gardener works. Dismissing the minor obstacle of space or aspect, a gardener can envision and create a beautiful space with selected plants and a bit of dirt.
The balcony garden can be as big or as small as the mind of the gardener, or the size the space permits. It can range from a few railing baskets to multiple pots and vertical gardens covering every inch of wall space. If you share the gardener’s creative mind but are new to the concept, the following steps will ensure a great start to beautifying your space.
What's your aspect?
Does your balcony face the shady north, the hot south, or the rising and setting sun of the east or the west? The aspect of the sun is the most important factor to consider when beginning your project. All plants require their own unique amount of sunshine, so it’s important to choose varieties that coincide with what the balcony has to offer. Full sun is considered to be at least six hours of sunlight a day but for many vegetables, this is the low end of the spectrum. Vegetable gardens ideally require 8-10 hours. If your balcony receives less than 6 hours, it is considered partial shade and anything less than three hours is considered full shade. If this is the scenario for you, don’t despair. There are still many varieties to choose from.
Can any balcony have a garden?
Yes! But don’t rush to get it done without some investigation. Wet soil and terra cotta pots are very heavy, so you want to ensure you know the weight restrictions of the balcony before you choose pot materials. Speak with your building manager or a builder to establish the weights you can work with, especially if you have a small balcony.
The type of construction material will also determine where the water will go when pots overflow. The neighbours below may not appreciate the rain shower as you water each morning, so consider this issue before a complaint by providing catchment or diversion systems for the containers.
Designing gardens for balconies
Once you have determined the sun aspect and weight limits, you can begin to design your balcony micro-scape. Be creative with the small space by using the wealth of container options different suppliers will have to offer, or by testing the boundaries with your own creative ideas. Design a kitchen garden to grow a portion of your produce or a herb garden for the epicurean.
By combining edibles and flowers correctly, you can get the best of both worlds. In your designing stage consider the “thriller, spiller and filler” technique of planting, which incorporates multiple varieties in one pot—the thriller being the focal upright, the spiller to cascade over the pot, and the filler to take up the spaces in between. This design tip uses the beauty of the small garden to add to your exterior home decor.
Tomatoes, peppers, rosemary, snapdragons
Strawberries, squash, lobelia, bacopa, nasturtiums
Parsley, carrots, basil, amaranth, violets, geraniums
Consider your containers
Planters and pots
If weight is not an issue, large planters and pots made of wood or terra cotta are very attractive and offer ample space for all types of growing. Keep in mind that terra cotta usually dries out quickly, however. Resin and plastic pots offer a lightweight alternative in the greatest number of sizes, shapes, and self-watering options.
With large pots and planters, the gardener has the opportunity to grow individual small shrubs, perennials, or a wide variety of traditional garden vegetables. Smaller pots and planters are great for planting kitchen herbs, perennials, and annuals. They can be used in combination with vertical gardening.
Vertical gardens are a space saving concept to the home gardener because they employ the vertical walls of your balcony. There are many creative ways to use this method: using pallets filled with soil and affixed to the wall, attaching pots to a trellis, hanging gutters from a chain, or terracing on planter stairs. On the downside, the vertical garden can have a splash factor that can dirty the walls from overhead watering and dripping from a height. Drip irrigation works well to avoid this problem combined with a catchment system at the bottom.
Railing or hanging baskets
Railing baskets, window boxes, or hanging baskets are the easiest choices for the tiny balcony. Made of wood, steel, or plastic, these containers are built to hang off the balcony railing or from the eaves. Usually shallow in nature and more prone to dry out, these types of baskets are suitable for drought-resistant plants or those smaller in size. Succulents, annuals, strawberries, herbs, and lettuce can be successfully grown in a railing or hanging basket. Both of these container options should be secured using zap straps, screws, or brackets to prevent the container from being knocked off by wind or an accidental bump.
As a gardener, you are the artist and have the creative licence to explore a variety of containers. To add your own personal flair to the balcony landscape, transform household items into a plant container by adding sufficient holes for water drainage. Up-cycling colourful rubber boots, old yogurt containers, mugs, jugs, baskets or any other vessel is one way to reduce your garbage and also save you money.
|Type of Container||Plant Varieties Suitable|
|Planters and large pots||Boxwood, small conifers, dwarf fruit trees, squash, carrots, rosemary, onions, garlic, citrus, datura, banana, bamboo, Japanese maples, bay laurel, pampas grass, aloe, sensevieria.|
|Vertical gardens||Lettuce, strawberries, spinach, basil, parsley, trailing annuals, beans, peas, clematis, honeysuckle, melons, ferns, spider plants.|
|Railing baskets||Hens and chicks, sedum, stonecrop, strawberries, lettuce, marigolds, pansies, petunias, geraniums, basil, parsley, cilantro, thyme.|
Soil and food
Soil is the bed for your plant, and like people, some plants want a firm bed while others like it soft. Soil mixes are the foundation on which the plants depend to grow; they are the source of moisture and oxygen to the root system. By addressing soil structure at the onset you will save water and time in the future.
Vegetables and fruits prefer a richer soil with a large amount of water retaining compost and organic matter in combination with good drainage, while Mediterranean herbs prefer a drier soil that is coarse with sand. Keep in mind that porous pot material like terra cotta dries out faster so will need more compost or water retaining medium.
A general combination of a 1:1:1 ratio of compost, peat and perlite or sand is a standard mix. For long-term feeding, prepare the soil with a slow release organic fertilizer and top feed twice a week with compost tea.
The pitfalls you might encounter on a balcony are different than the traditional garden landscape. Prevent these challenges before you start by reducing the risk of hazards.
High winds that occur on tall buildings will knock small pots over or railing pots off and will also increase dehydration. Secure all vessels by fastening to a stable structure and use a thick mulch to reduce the evaporation of water.
Excess water from overflow when watering your plants can cause rot on wood balconies or flow down to the neighbour’s deck or onto unsuspecting people on the sidewalk. Include large trays for all pots or catchment system for planters. Be mindful of what’s below when watering pots.
Birds and wildlife
Pigeons and other wildlife can be as attracted to your plants as you are. They feed on developing fruit, use structures or railings as roosts, or in the case of rodents, burrow into the soil. Deter these creatures by limiting the room they can roost upon or by covering exposed soil with fine chicken wire.
Winter preparation is necessary for those gardeners located in sub-zero locales. Ceramic pots should have soil removed to prevent freezing and cracking of the pot. Plants intended for year-round display should be placed closer together and pots wrapped with burlap to assist with insulating the roots.
Beautiful balcony gardening
Don’t let the task of building a balcony garden intimidate you. One weekend of collecting supplies and potting up plants can have your balcony on its way to Babylon, creating a peaceful spot where you can sit and contemplate the nature you have brought into your space. Over time you’ll recognize the unique personality of your micro-scape and the growing of your garden will become easier and easier.
Do you have any balcony gardening tips or garden ideas to share? Let us know in the comments below!