Landscape Design
Balcony & Container Gardening

With Summer upon us and life moving into the out of doors, I've had a number of clients ask what they can do to make their balconies more attractive. Of course, as a landscape designer and contractor, my obvious answer is … "add plants!"

Lemmon Tree

While there are many other things you can do to improve the look or view of a balcony, including furniture, outdoor lighting, umbrellas and a whole host of soft goods, as well as water features, the thing that will brighten up a balcony faster and more economically than anything else, is a well thought out selection of plants.

Balconies, regardless of their size or the amount of sun they receive, can transform a view from the same old building you've been staring at since you moved in, into a charming vista. And while it would be ideal to sit out on one and enjoy the view, a view isn't required or even room to sit.  A simple "Juliet Balcony" (an ornamental stone or decorative iron enclosure outside a window) or even a window ledge is more than enough space to create landscape magic. Of course, the larger the balcony, patio or roof garden, the more creative you can be.

However, before you rush off to the garden store, there are a few things to consider. Balconies, patios and rooftops are often micro climates that present different conditions from the ground below. Spend time during the day observing the space where you intend to garden. And please consider the following:

Plan Before Planting – Think It Through

Garden Of Eva Balcony

Sun: Which direction does your balcony face and how much sun does it get? If your balcony has both sun and shade, you need to determine the amount of sun each area receives in order to make proper plant selection. I just completed landscaping a seventy-foot balcony that had enough sun on its southern end to plant succulents and an Algerian Tangerine, and so much shade at its northern end to create a fern garden and plant clivia and violets. Once you've determined the number of hours of sun, do a little research on what plant material would be appropriate for your particular situation.

In addition, balconies and rooftops can become excessively hot. There are sun-loving plants that do very well in extreme heat and others that will wilt and die.

Wind: Like the sun, wind can be very detrimental to plants. Therefore, if your balcony gets a lot of wind you need to choose plants that will fit that environment or modify the environment by creating wind brakes. This can be accomplished by adding structural windbreaks or by using wind-tolerant plants as windbreaks. And if you want to include really fragile plants, plant them in low pots close to the

Wind also causes plants to dry out very quickly. If you aren't prepared to install a drip irrigation system or get self-watering pots, you may wind up having to water several times a day.

Garden Of Eva - Balcony Design

Weight: Make sure that the structure you intend to plant on is structurally sound and can bear the weigh of containers filled with wet dirt and plant material. If the structure hangs over a sidewalk or the entrance to a building, you need to be particularly careful and would be well advised, if you don't own the building, to secure permission from the appropriate party. We live in a litigious society so it's best to avoid any reason for a lawsuit.

Containers are best positioned along the perimeter of a balcony or roof garden, near load-bearing walls or over a load-bearing beam or joist.

Water: Water is the essential ingredient for life and for your plants. Know where the water is coming from because, unless you've got a gardener, you're going to be spending a good deal of time watering. Consider how you're going to get the water from the spigot to the plants? What size watering can are you going to need?  If you're planning on planting more than a couple of containers, you might consider running a flexible hose from your kitchen or even having a plumber run a line to your balcony or roof garden and adding a drip system.

Garden Of Eva - Balcony Design

And where there's water, there's the always the potential for flooding and water damage. Is your balcony waterproof? Is there appropriate drainage or will the containers require saucers to keep the runoff under control? Make sure you're clear about all aspects of watering before you invest time and money in a container garden.

Container Selection: Choose containers that create focal points and spend money on a couple of larger containers rather than on a lot of smaller ones – too many small plants make a space look overcrowded. You might also consider placing a trellis for climbers, either against the wall or as a backdrop at the center of a window.

Plant Selection: Start with evergreen plants to provide a year-round green background and then add your favorite colors, selecting plants that have a long blooming period and, if you live in a mild climate, will return next year, bigger and better than ever.

Odd Numbers: Planting in odd numbers gives the most aesthetically pleasing results, so plant one, three or five plants in a container.

Restrict Color Palette: Don't overdo the number of colors in your planting scheme – otherwise, it will look too busy and make your garden seem smaller.

An Edible Garden

Asian Pear

If you like to cook or just enjoy the idea of having a window filled with tasty edibles, herbs are easy to grow can be gorgeous, not to mention, the flavor of most home grown food way out-strips anything you can buy in a supermarket. You do need a sunny spot for most herbs and vegetables (6-8 hours of direct sunlight), although there are a number of greens and a few herbs that require less sun.

Begin At The Beginning

If you're just starting to create a balcony or container garden, my recommendation is to start slowly. You can always buy more plants once you get a sense or how much time and energy is going to be required to keep your garden growing. The secret to successful gardening isn't just planting, it's the hours spent tending to it. If this turns you on, then go for it. If not, you haven't made a huge investment of either time or money.

Additional Information

If you'd like more information about balcony or container gardening check out the following:

Garden Of Eva - Balcony Design

Garden Consultation

If you're interested in learning more about our design, contracting and maintenance services and would like to set up a phone consultation or arrange a site inspection, please give me a call (323-461-6556) or email me. I also love giving advice and have provided garden consultations to any number of folks with great results.

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Container Gardening

Think of a container garden as a living flower (and foliage) arrangement with roots! Are you interested in something harmonious, dramatic or soothing? One kind of plant in a container is the simplest to maintain.

Plants that thrive in like soil, watering, and light conditions make successful combinations. When combining plants, size, texture, proportion and color all play a role.

Pick Plants with Similar Requirements

Plants have adapted to the diverse environments of our planet. Plants adapted to dry climates usually have thick, waxy, or hairy leaves to hold moisture. The roots of these plants often like to dry out between watering. Succulents like jade plant, Christmas cactus or hens and chicks are examples. Succulents suffer root rot and die if the soil stays too moist or is not allowed to dry somewhat between waterings. Plants native to moist areas need steady, even moisture. To combine plants that do not have similar needs require double potting.

Balancing the watering with the pot size, type of container, soil types, and how large the plants are likely to grow in one season can be daunting. But it can be fun and interesting, and unlike people, plants can be replaced, so don't be afraid to experiment. If plants fail, pull them out and replace them and learn from your mistakes. If you are uncertain why an occasional plant dies, talk to other gardeners or search for the answer on Google.

Variety in Plant Shapes

Winning container combinations often use three types of plant shapes:

  • Tall plants - Thrillers
  • Round, mounding plants - Fillers
  • Plant that hangs over the side - Spillers

These overall plant shapes vary in texture, size, shape, and color to create an endless variety of combinations.

Leaf Size, Shape, Texture

Experiment by putting different sizes, shapes and textures of leaves side by side. Texture usually refers to the overall size of the leaves so textural sizes are relative to one another. Grasses have narrow, fine textured leaves. Salvias have medium textured leaves. Large Hosta leaves are considered coarse textured. Texture can also refer to the smoothness or roughness on the surface each leaf. Contrasting size and surface textures provide drama when done well. Alternatively, repeating similar leaf sizes and textures may provide a soothing or harmonious look.

Proportion To Container

When choosing plants, consider the ultimate height of the planting compared to the height of the container. Visually, a pleasing proportion is one-third container to two-thirds plant height. In other words, the plant material may be twice as tall as the visible part of the container. Conversely, when featuring the container, the proportion is reversed - the container will be twice the height of the plants. Take into account how rapidly the plants will grow, as the proportion will change over time.

Color Considerations

Choosing a color theme will give your container garden a "pulled together" look. To choose a theme, consider:

  • Colors complementing the background where your container will be placed
  • Colors you have chosen for the inside of your home
  • Leaf colors of a particular plant you like
  • Colors of nature from the region you live in
  • Colors and styles that reflect a place you love to visit or would like to re-create such as the lake shore, the tropics, or the north woods.
  • Your favorite colors

Source: Successful Container Gardens

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