The year 2020 made everyone dust off a bit of open space to create a small sanctuary garden. Balcony gardens were no exception. As the year came to a close, we all came out the other side a bit wiser on small space designs. In this first instalment on garden design, we explore the many possibilities when starting, upgrading or doing a complete seasonal overhaul on your own space.
You can use your balcony in so many ways. It does not have to stay the same year on year. What you do need to keep in mind is what you would like to use it for, perhaps a place to sit and enjoy the view, or space for the flowers you've always wanted to grow.
What is your goal?
- Small vegetable garden
- Flower garden
- Hanging garden
- Reading space
- Tea garden
- Outdoor workspace
Using furnishings such as bistro sets will allow you more room for a lush garden scape. You can also forgo furnishings in favour of plants, should you feel so inclined.
Photo by Fons Heijnsbroek. CC 1.0
What type of balcony do I have?
There are roughly three balcony designs. The type of balcony may dictate the load or weight it can handle and is a way to get to know your space.
The three most common designs include:
- Stacked balcony: This is a balcony supported at the base by pillars or walls under what you would consider being the balcony’s floor. Many apartment buildings will have stacked balconies with walls on either side and a ‘window’ of open air.
- Projecting balcony: A projecting or cantilever balcony can be a slab that is built into the building and supported by a cantilever. This means it does not rest on a pillar. They can often take a lesser load than stacked.
- Hung balcony: Can be misidentified as a projecting balcony sometimes. They have cables that tie them to the building. These cables may or may not be easy to identify.
Projecting and hung balconies can be on the smaller side and are often exposed on more than one side. This is important to know because it means you will have access to more light and, unfortunately, more wind. Stacked balconies can be completely open or closed on all sides. They can handle a fair bit of weight and larger containers. Now that you know what you have let us get to designing!
Container plants should be able to grow in the conditions you provide. Succulents can take long days of heavy sun and wind exposure.
One thing balconies are not is spacious. In this day and age, the solution to floorspace is by building up. On a balcony, this is not always possible because you have to contend with harsher climates. To stop the heartache that too much sun and wind can bring, we will give you some hints on ways to get around it.
Tip | Cellphone apps that allow you to track the sun’s position or a digital compass that give you the direction your balcony faces will prove invaluable in knowing where to place windscreens and plants.
If you have an enclosed stacked balcony, you will be less exposed but will have to contend with lower light. Ideal for a tropical wall, but not ideal for growing tomatoes. The reverse is also true. So there are two ways to go about this process.
- Pick your style or goal.
- Decide on the hard furnishings.
- Place all the furnishings and plant boxes.
- Decide on the plants and pick plant boxes according to your plant's needs.
- Plant in a lightweight soil medium where possible.
We have discussed step 1, but steps 2 to 4 are equally important. Buying or constructing wooden furnishings that will have to contend with sun, wind and rain take some consideration. Building a seating area that will only last a year is easy, but it is good to know it has a limited lifespan from the get-go.
If you want to build your own trellises or your docking up the cash for it, make sure to get something that will serve your purpose. Hardwood will last far longer than soft or untreated wood and buying galvanised or hot-dipped nails will help you avoid rust.
Regular nails will rust quickly, proving hazardous down the road. Select galvanised or hot-dipped nails for outdoor structures.
Use space wisely
Balcony spaces are small, but they can be reworked to give you a sense of infinite space. There are many renter-friendly options out there to help you decide on the design you are looking for. You can use vertical installations under railings or on walls if you are allowed to affix a few screws. If not, trellises offer great options in terms of privacy screening, growing climbing vegetables or blooming vines. Whichever style you decide on, make sure to select your growing containers to fit in the spaces you have.
A few questions to consider when buying containers:
- How deep are they?
Root vegetables need space and so do palms or trees.
Dig into the article below to learn more about container gardening.
- Can I make do with shallower containers by picking a different type of plant?
- What are they made of?
Wood without a liner will degrade quickly and dry out as fast as clay containers. High winds will make the containers dry out quicker than normal.
- How heavy are they? Will my balcony hold the weight?
You get all shapes and sizes with brackets that allow you to hang them on railings or move them into a corner. Equally important is wall space. It gives you a sturdy backdrop to work off and can be used for vertical or living walls.
When selecting your plants make sure to check if they can tolerate full sun or partial shade.vMint is shade tolerant and good for enclosed balconies.
Shopping for plants
By the time you walk into the nursery, you need an idea of the conditions you have. Buying carrots for a small container might mean you need a dwarf carrot variety. If you have a windy balcony, vining tomatoes will need support or you might need to opt for an enclosure or cold frame of sorts.
Things to ask your garden centre for:
- Plants that can fit smaller containers.
- Plants that can handle wind (or build a windbreak).
- Plants suited to full sun/ east/west/north facing balcony.
- How big do these plants get and can I prune them?
You can do anything if you set your mind to it. It might not be wise to grow trailing plants and maples in high winds, but it does not mean there are not people who have gone to the extremes to make it happen. Having guidelines like these will make the process easier for you, but feel free to experiment. One should not get disheartened by a failing plant as it shows you what is possible in your space. Have fun!