Gardening on a Balcony

Tracy Wilson assesses the high life

21st August 2006

I recently had a request from a reader in Pwllheli to recommend vegetables to grow on a balcony overlooking the bay, and had to rack my brains to think of some that were actually going to not so much enjoy the conditions (because I don’t think anything would come into that category!) as to ‘cope' with the conditions. This made me think that there are an awful lot of people who do have to garden in those sorts of situations, they don’t have the luxury of a ground level attached plot or half-acre or whatever it is you might happen to be blessed with. From our point of view, we’re here to help people in all sorts of situations coping with any coast. A lot of people do have quite small houses or apartments because obviously land is at a premium along the coast, as so many people want to live there for various reasons. So balcony gardening is certainly not unusual in this situation (although this request for advice about vegetables was slightly unusual). A lot of people just want to be able to have somewhere to sit outside on something that’s more than just a bit of tiling, two chairs and a view – they’d like to have something with a bit of character up there and feel that they’re sitting in amongst their plants with a bit more sense of privacy and because they still like to do some gardening.

So I was trying to think of plants that I could happily recommend and some ideas and hints on how to get the best out of that sort of situation on a balcony – well, we’ll call it a garden, albeit that you’re gardening in pots. I suppose in honesty that is where you have to start – with the containers. One lady in Fowey, whom I recently had to help with a major gardening problem, has a very nice house overlooking the mouth of the bay. But her house is on three storeys which means she has three balconies and all of them are only accessible through her house, up varying flights of steps. So whatever you want to put on your balcony very often has to come through the house (unless you happen to have a freelance crane hanging around outside your house). So you’ve got to bear in mind that pots can be very heavy if they are beautiful stone, clay – terracotta – whatever you want to go for. But there are some fantastic substitutes out there now which would be well-worth looking at. Depending on how your balcony is contstucted, you many not wish to put more weight on it than is strictly necessary, unless you want to find the front of your building gently leaning forward... One particular brand of pot which I like are the ones made of a material called Fibreclay. This is a mixture of fibreglass and clay: they look extremely realistic, you can get lead-effect ones, terracotta effect ones and there is also a sort of grungy-green one which is supposed to look like the verdigris effect on copper or lead. But I think the plain grey and the terracotta ones look best. They’re light and they’re frostproof (not that frost is a major issue on the coast, but it can occasionally affect them). All you then have to worry about is carrying your compost in, so it does reduce the burden quite considerably. Also, when it comes to re-potting your plants it’s a helluva lot easier as well. So it’s well worth considering what you’re going to put your plants into, before you actually start. I’ve actually been doing some container planting myself this weekend in my new garden, and it’s fine for me because I can drive my car to the end of the garden and – OK, it’s a small hernia lugging a great big terracotta pot up the path – but I haven’t got to worry about trudging up through the house with it. I also don’t have to worry quite so much about passers by underneath if the pot descends on them! You do have to practical about this!

Similarly, with the compost. Ideally, for a long-term planting in a container I would normally recommend a John Innes No 3 because it’s soil-based, it doesn’t dry out so quickly and it drains well in the winter. But it’s heavy. So what you might want to consider is a 50/50 mix. It’s still going to mean you're lugging bags of compost in the house – there’s not really much you can do about that, unfortunately – but if you do a 50/50 mix with a John Innes Compost and a normal or peat-free multi-purpose compost, mix that up and use it for your plants, then again it’s a lighter mix with the best of both worlds. Don’t forget to put crocks in the bottom: it doesn’t matter whether you’re on a balcony or groundlevel or wherever you are, your pots need to drain. Ideally, get them up off the ground as well so that they can drain as freely as possible and don’t get waterlogged.

Once you’ve considered the container, then you can get down to the fun bit, which has to be the plants. It depends, really, whether you want to ‘go edible’ or whether you want to ‘go ornamental’. I must admit, my bent is always towards ornamental, but there’s nothing quite as nice as picking your own fresh vegetables but, like the lady that I was talking to last week by email – unless you happen to be really fond of leathery lettuce – you may need to consider growing fruit and vegetables on a balcony very carefully! One of the things you need to look at is what shelter you can give your plants. You might have a very nice wrought-iron frame at the front of your balcony, and you might think ‘well I don’t actually want to lose the view’: you can put clear Perspex up against that not lose anything of your view but dramatically increase the protection that you get on your balcony: it might even be beneficial to you when we get our nice, gentle, zephyr-like breezes that ghost around the English coast in a nice typical summer (not like this one) and any shelter would be beneficial. Whatever plants you’re going to put up there, you’re putting them in a very unnatural environment: you’re raising them up, you’re putting them in a windswept situation and if you add salt into the equation, it’s not nice for plants. So anything that you do, is going to help.So think about the protection that you can give them, and then don’t just put one thing in a pot (I don’t mean that you’ve got to get lots of things in one pot!), have lots of pots together. Group things together because they’ll hold each other’s hand. I know this sounds silly, but different plants will all support each other and create a little micro-climate: everybody’s happier, generally the pots stay moister, the plants grow happily together and they look much better. Looking out on what I’ve just done this weekend, I’ve planted up ten pots which are sitting on the patio. I could have spaced them all round the patio and very pretty too, but I’ve got them just in two groups of five and they look much better, much more effective by being used that way. There’s a central, key plant and you’ve got tier-ing down all around the group of the other ones. The pots are similar grouped together, so you can group them together for colour or for effect – whatever it is you want to do. Don’t put just one lonely little plant on its own in a pot and expect it to be a happy bunny, because it won’t. It’d be like sticking you on a beach in the middle of a winter’s day, on your own, no-one to talk to and no food: you’re not going to be happy for long. So give it some friends. But as far as the plants are concerned, you’ll be looking for the same sort of plants that you would be considering for any coastal garden. Anything will grow in a pot – for a limited period of time, I’m not going to say that it would be happy there for ever – but it will happily grow in there for a certain amount of time. So again, looking at things I’ve done, I’ve been putting grasses into pots and Sedums, Heucheras, Fuschias: they’re all things that need to go out into the garden eventually but for a couple of years they’re going to give me value for money in my containers. They’re gong to make big, stonkin’ plants, and when I do plant them out they’re going to say ‘Phew, thank you much Mum’ and then they’re going to grow like crazy afterwards. If you got a balcony and you haven’t really got a garden that you can transfer them into, you could take them out in a couple of years time and divide them: replant one and give one away to a friend or have two pots for the price of one. You’ve got a choice. Plants don’t stand still so you obviously need to allow for what is going to happen to them long term, but you won’t be that pessimistic about them, you can still give them plenty of room for manoeuvre, I think, without causing problems.

Particular things which I would look at: in the ornamental department I would certainly give grasses serious consideration – they’re such good value and of course they’re ever-moving in the breeze, I think they look wonderful. Bedding plants certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Fuschias do extremely well in tubs, always consider those ones. Agapanthus look fantastic, Hypericums always look good. Verbena bonariensis makes a lovely plant, generally better in the garden but it does do well in a pot so long as you don’t let it dry out too much. Bedding plants like Busy Lizzies, if you’ve got a shady balcony, and Fibrous-Rooted Begonias will do really well. Never ever (ever-ever-ever) be tempted to put Lobelia in a coastal garden – it’ll be like fried crisp-and-dry, it won’t enjoy it. If you’re up in a high balcony, if you happen to be in an apartment block, personally I wouldn’t bother with the hanging baskets. They have enough of a job surviving when they’re hanging up at ground level: hanging up halfway up a building, you’re really going to be battling to water them four times a day just to keep them alive, so I really don’t think it’s worth the candle to do that.

There’s an automatic assumption, though, that all balconies are sunny, but of course not all buildings face south! Some people will have north or northerly-facing balconies which don’t get the sun all day: they might be thinking that they’re a bit left out by all this. There are a lot of plants which will grow quite happily in that sort of situation on a coastal garden balcony. So think about things like Pittosporum, Hypericum; again, the grasses will do quite well on the whole; Sedum can be worth looking at; Fuschias are good, again the Busy Lizzies will do very nicely. What you need to steer away from are the Lavenders and herbs which, again, need full sun. But as long as you’ve got reasonable light and aeration, most plants will be happy bunnies up there.

I don’t think pollution is a major issue – but abrasion, yes. You are going to get extreme exposure to the wind, salt will carry a long way up there and it’s very, very drying because you’ve got dry air all around. So if anything, pollution is less of an issue because it dissipates as it rises, than it is at ground level. It’s the salt and the wind which are going to be your real problems. Keeping your plants irrigated is going to be vital: if you can, invest in one of those little automatic irrigation systems with trickle feeds. It’s dead easy to install, they’re relatively cheap. They work on a system with a ballcock. Quite fun to do – you could have an irrigation building party one weekend but I suggest that you invite people to do this before you give them a drink so that it does actually work. But it does save so much time, and if you’re away and it’s maybe a weekend retreat for you and you’re not there during the week it would be nice to know that, when you get down there for the weekend that you’re not going to have to pop out to the garden centre and replace all your plants.

One thing that is worth trying and is very successful in those sorts of situation is, in fact, a herb garden. But if you think about where most herbs grow well, you’re talking about Mediterranean countries, you see beautiful Sages and Rosemarys hanging off the cliff edges. They will take an awful lot of exposure to salt: they love it in full sun and they love having good drainage. So why not create for yourself a wonderfully aromatic balcony – Lavenders, Rosemary, Cotton Lavender, Sage, Thyme, Basil, Parsley, Chives – all of these things will do extremely well. Of course there’s the pleasure of being able just to go out and pick a few leaves of your own, when you’re cooking, is fantastic. There’s no reason why you couldn’t go for Bay, in fact you could have a clipped Bay if you wanted to indulge yourself in a little topiary, which would be quite fun and would look good on a balcony. Obviously you can grow the annual herbs like Coriander, they grow quite nicely from seed: they’ll grow well out in that sort of situation. Basil, in fact, will do much better because it doesn’t enjoy the colder wetter summers that we normally have, and if you have a hot dry balcony it will do well.

Tracy Wilson, 2006