Small is Beautiful - Balcony Gardening

Balcony gardening can be even more fun than looking after a bigger space. With no weeding or lawn-mowing you have time to be creative! 

Creating a beautiful outdoor space on a balcony can bring a lot of pleasure to you and your visitors for minimum effort. Balcony gardening offers the joy of plants but without the work that usually goes with a garden – you shouldn’t have to do much weeding for a start, you won’t get slugs, and there’s no lawn to worry about!

McCarthy Stone properties provide a mix of balconies and patios which residents can turn into a mini green haven of peace and tranquillity, a place to sit and feel the sun on your face, enjoy tea and cake or a glass of wine, or even dine alfresco if you have enough space.

‘If you want a balcony garden that looks good all year, the key is to choose plants that suit the conditions,’ says Isabelle Palmer, city garden designer and founder of thebalconygardener.com.

Isabelle is the proud owner of two plant-filled balconies at her flat in a converted church in north London. The plants that will flourish on your balcony will depend on whether it’s in the sun or shade, but for either you need species with evergreen foliage. ‘Start with evergreens to give you all-year-round colour as a base,’ says Isabelle. ‘Box, fatsia, camellias and star jasmine are some of my favourites. Then add perennials, which have flowers that come back every year, such as hydrangeas, salvias or clematis.’

Like any garden, you can change your planting with the seasons, but much more easily. Once you have established your evergreens and perennials, you can add pots of your favourite spring bulbs or troughs of summer and winter bedding. Herbs are a wonderfully fragrant addition in the summer – rosemary, thyme and mint grow well in pots, as well as lavender. And cyclamen or winter-flowering pansies will brighten your outdoor space in the colder months. As in a border, you can layer your planting in a container so that as one plant is dormant another takes over – and your balcony will always look fresh and interesting throughout the year. 

Colour or greenery?

Do you want a blaze of colour or a peaceful oasis of greenery? In a small space, too many colours may look messy instead of tranquil. ‘A minimal palette will have a more harmonious effect,’ says Guy Barter, Chief Horticulturist at The Royal Horticultural Society. ‘Choose colours as if you were planting up a tub, with the same family of colours or ones that contrast well together.’ 

If you decide on just greenery, you can create a dramatic effect by choosing plants with varying shapes, textures, heights and shades of green. Plants with large, sculptural leaves – like Fatsia japonica, which produces creamy blooms in October – will give your balcony an instant hint of the tropics. Fatsia grows quite large, so will look best in a corner at the back of a group. Arrange pots of plants with varying textures, from feathery ferns to the pointed architectural spears of an Astelia or Cordyline, and mix different shades from silvery green and luminous bright to dark and glossy. A green and white balcony garden also looks refreshing and elegant. There’s a huge variety of white-flowering plants to choose from, many of which are scented, such as viburnums. Or try the beautiful Camellia ‘Cinnamon Cindy’, which flowers from January to April. 

Add some height

As in a garden, plants of varying height create more interest and the feeling of an outdoor ‘room’, so include some tall plants, or place a narrow bench against the railings for a row of pots to stand on. Trailing plants will also look good on a bench or in a trough fixed securely to railings. If you want a climber, evergreen clematis such as cirrhosa var purpurascens ‘Freckles’ or cartmanii Fragrant Oberon would look lovely planted in a trough and climbing up a trellis against the wall. But avoid climbers if you have a covered or shady balcony as they may become straggly. As Guy Barter warns, ‘They will always be stretching towards the light.’

A place in the sun... or shade

Most flowering plants like sun, though exposed sunny balconies with no shelter from above can be windy and dry, in which case Mediterranean plants such as lavender and rosemary will be good choices. Geraniums are perfect for adding a riot of colour on sunny balconies: they need minimum watering and will flower all through summer and autumn.  

There are plants that love a shady balcony. Many gardeners fight a losing battle with hostas because slugs love them, but in pots on a balcony they are safe from slimy predators and you can enjoy their broad, variegated leaves and tall trumpet-shaped pastel flowers. You have to be careful with bamboo in gardens as it can be pretty rampant, but contained in a pot or trough it can be a stylish addition to a balcony, producing an abundance of tall leaf-bearing canes. Bamboo Chimonobambusa will be happy in the shade. 

Plants that will grow in either sun or partial shade recommended by Guy Barter include the oddly named Elaeagnus x ebbingei, which produces small flowers but is mainly valued for its beautiful dual-coloured leaves, beloved of flower arrangers. Barter doesn’t advise putting grasses in pots but recommends grass-like sedges, such as Carex buchananii, which also has spikes of tiny green or brown flowers.

Year-round attraction

With its dense evergreen leaves, the Pieris is a wonderful plant for year-round interest and looks perfect in a large pot. There are several varieties but Pieris ‘Forest Flame’ is one of the best. In the early spring, the new leaves are a glorious bright red, turning pink then green as the year wears on. In April and May, long sprays of white blooms like lily of the valley appear. 

Another wonderful year-round plant is Nandina domestica, a small shrub with attractive leaves that are a purplish colour when young and again in winter. It has spikes of star-shaped white flowers in summer, followed by red berries in autumn. 

And leave room for one thing – a comfortable chair from which to enjoy your miniature paradise! 

5 SCENTED PLANTS FOR BALCONIES

  • Placing fragrant plants on a balcony means you will be near enough to enjoy their delicate scent. 
  • Lavenders look great in pots and are ideal for sunny balconies as they can withstand dryness
  • Pots of lilies are perfect for summer colour and fragrance.
  • Rosemary is wonderfully fragrant, produces small purple flowers and you can use it in the kitchen, too. 
  • Dwarf sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis) is a small evergreen shrub that produces highly scented white flowers in winter.
  • Mexican orange blossom (Choisya x dewitteana ‘Aztec Pearl’) is a compact 
    evergreen shrub. 

Photo Credit: Alamy, Getty, Istock, Gap Photos.