When designing your balcony, it's important to remember that you don't need an acre of land to create your own piece of paradise.
Container gardening is a fantastic way to experiment, add seasonal impact and create a moveable feast of colour, form and fragrance when you're limited on space.
For the majority of us urban gardeners, space is at a premium, and any square outdoor square-footage is just about our only link to the natural world. Even as part of a more extensive garden, a patio can create an atmosphere all its own.
Here are a few tips on what outdoor plants you can buy to create an exciting, diverse and loveable balcony or patio.
For many urban gardeners - such as myself - a roof terrace or balcony is your salvation after a long week.
Growing plants in containers make it much easier to experiment with contrasting colours, shapes and growth habits.
You can dare to grow plants outdoors that you might not normally consider in a regular garden. So if your hot pink surfinias clash with your orange nemesia, then you aren't stuck looking at them side-by-side all summer!
Even better, as one plant fades, you can replace with another, which means your tiny plot is always brimming with new interest.
Watering and feeding
Containers dry out quicker than garden plants, especially terracotta pots, and more so when they're on a windy balcony or rooftop.
In the summer you may need to water every day. Even if it has rained, sometimes the compost remains dry because of leaf coverage, so worth double-checking.
You'll also need to feed your plants. Always follow the instructions on the package, but as a general rule, feed once a fortnight in spring, increasing to weekly during summer, and then reducing again come autumn.
You may need to water over winter, but feeding is unnecessary.
Succulents lend themselves to summer containers, particularly as they don't need copious watering.
The benefit of growing balcony plants in containers is that come winter they can be moved indoors or to a sheltered corner. Cacti and succulents lend themselves well to this lifestyle and here are some of my favourites:
Here are some other half-hardy exotics you’ll see on offer:
Trailing summer bedding
There are some truly amazing trailing bedding plants out there for taller containers and hanging baskets. Really there are too many to list, but here are a few favourites of mine for colour and reliable flowering:
Winter containers and spring bulb layering
During the colder months, you can use a technique called layering to extend the growing season from September through until May, when your summer bedding will kick-in. Layering involves planting flower bulbs beneath your winter bedding.
- Add your first layer of compost to your pot (you may want to add grit for drainage).
- Then add your first layer of bulbs. This first layer will need to be a larger species, like daffodils or tulips. These will be the last to flower, during April.
- Add another layer of compost and plant your next layer of bulbs. Try dwarf narcissi and earlier-flowering dwarf tulips for March flowering.
- Tuck-in your bulbs under another layer of compost and add another layer. Choose a small bulb such as dwarf iris or crocuses, which will bloom from mid-February.
- As these bulbs will not begin flowering until spring, so create immediate impact by planting winter pansies or violas on top.
In shady situations, busy Lizzies and wax begonias will still flower reliably
A shaded patio or balcony can feel like a curse when you think of all the bright and bubbly colours you're missing out.
But you can still create a sumptuous cosy corner full of lush foliage, mossy crevices and intricate shapes. Best of all; maintenance is easier as you don't have to water as much.
You can also dot your foliage with a few flowering plants.
Now it may seem odd to be talking about climbers when it comes to small spaces, but they are an excellent way to screen off your patio from the rest of the garden or block out nosy neighbours.
I tend to go with annual climbers as I can change them each year according to the theme of my planting. But a perennial evergreen like star jasmine has an enchanting fragrance and is useful if you want some privacy.
Annual climbers, like this Thunbergia, grow rapidly and can give height and a more established feel to the space at a low cost.
Aside from the purely aesthetic appeal of your patio or terrace, you can also make a real difference to your local wildlife community.
You may not be able to create the log piles and wildflower meadows of a country garden, but you can create (or buy!) a little bug hotel or bird feeding station to help during the winter.
Many plants are also on hand to help with the butterflies and bees, but as a responsible gardener, you must avoid the use of pesticides and fungicides:
Growing edible plants needs a whole segment to itself, and many gardeners become obsessed with growing their fruit and veg.
In terms of fruit, many varieties of apple, plum and cherry tree are suitable for container growing, as are blackcurrants and gooseberries.
Fig fruit production benefits from the restricted root system of a container.
Strawberries are incredibly easy to grow using a handing basket or strawberry planter.
Vegetables like Swiss chard, lettuce and radishes readily grow in a trough. And don't forget tomatoes and chillies. You can even grow potatoes in a deep container, like a half barrel or old dustbin!
When it comes to gardening in small spaces sometimes it requires lateral thinking or - in this case - vertical!
Herbs are essential for urban gardeners with restricted space who want to grow something edible.
They require minimal effort for big flavour rewards, unlike fruit and veg, which generally need more maintenance.
Most herbs relish full sun and well-drained conditions to keep their flavours concentrated and sharp. Mint will grow in the shade, but is best treated as an annual in containers. Parsley, oregano and coriander will also tolerate light shade.
When thinking about your perfect space, it's essential to create a multisensory experience. Fragrance has such a potent effect on us, triggering happy memories or merely soothing our minds after a long day.
Lavender, chamomile, lemon verbena and scented geraniums all offer deliciously-scented foliage.
When it comes to scented flowers, the list is endless. You can mix cottage garden favourites like lilies with exotics like angel's trumpet – there are no rules in container gardening!
Even the smallest patio has room for a water feature. A simple half barrel will allow you to grow dwarf waterlily, dwarf reedmace (bulrush) and water forget-me-not.
You could even try growing a sacred lotus, which is becoming more readily available in the UK.
Moving water will add to your multisensory experience and will be a magnet for nature.
Additionally, water can create the illusion of more light and space through its reflection.
Be very selective if considering adding fish in such a small body of water and seek advice from an aquarist.
Lighting is the final touch to a patio, balcony or terrace. It can extend the time you are able to spend in your garden and make it very cosy!