Making the most of your space: design basics

Wander through a tunnel of climbing beans. Tiptoe to a deckchair hideaway decorated in raspberries and bright orange squashes. Your balcony doesn’t only have to be productive, it can also be a private paradise where you let your imagination run wild. From your choice of flooring to tomatoes and nasturtiums cascading down from above, here’s how to make your balcony look as good as it tastes.

What are you looking at?
You may be up high and therefore out of reach of cars, pedestrians, and plantmunching slugs, but if you live in an apartment building, chances are you’re not far away from other people. Before you reach for a screen or fence to give you privacy, though, consider using plants instead. A spherical bay tree in a pot, for example, could block out the curious eyes of any neighbors all year round; evergreen box or rosemary can make a dense low screen; tall bamboos and grasses do well in containers and will filter the wind, too; while a grapevine climbing over a pergola will give you not only privacy but also lovely dappled shade. Other edible evergreens such as rosemary and sage can be useful as well, not to mention a morgasbord of non-edible climbers and bushes.

If your space is big enough, you can also think about creating rooms within rooms with trellis screens forming different areas—perhaps for eating, sunbathing, or as a play zone for the kids. If your rooftop is long and thin, it’s always a lovely idea to create separate “rooms” with staggered screens so that you can’t see to the end of the terrace, but are led on curiously to zigzag around each “bend” to find out what comes

next. From the point of view of edible plants, this also works really well since it provides lots of useful space for climbing plants such as beans, cucumbers, squashes, and kiwis, as well as those that need tying in to vertical supports, such as trained fruit trees and cane fruit like blackberries, raspberries, marionberries, and vining tomatoes. Separating out areas provides shelter from the winds and useful shade in very sunny gardens too.

Balconies as outdoor rooms
With a floor, three walls, and often even a roof, balconies really have more in common with indoor rooms than they do traditional gardens. This can make them great fun to design, as well as much less intimidating to first-time gardeners who would hesitate at the thought of planning an expanse of lawn and flower beds. If you think of your balcony as another room, it frees you up to dress it in your own style and
experiment with color and materials.

Balconies as outdoor rooms
Balconies as outdoor rooms

From the floor up
Many modern roof terraces and balconies are decked with wood, which is a stylish and relatively light and inexpensive choice. This material also evens out uneven
surfaces and is great for hiding lighting cables or watering underneath. Make sure you buy your timber from a properly managed source, since many tropical hardwoods are non-sustainably harvested. Wooden decking is easy to cut for any shaped space and,
for an aesthetic consideration, by laying the boards in different patterns you can play around with how the eye takes in the space. If you have a long, narrow space, lay the boards crosswise to prevent the eye rushing down to the end, which makes the area feel narrower. Similarly, mixing up the direction of the boards in panels gives visual interest to an otherwise bland block.

When altering the flooring of any balcony or roof terrace, you must always make sure that rainwater can run off freely. Standing water on any balcony or roof floor surface is not a good thing, as over time it can rot the waterproofing and then leak through into the building below. So this means that any decking should be laid on wooden joists to allow the water to run through the cracks and flow away down the guttering as normal. When laying the joists, makes sure that they do not block water flow either.
If decking seems too much trouble and you want something quirky with a sense of humor, what about artificial turf? Simple to unroll and cut to shape, once it is laid all it needs is a quick sweep now and then.

Looking up
As well as placing pots in every possible corner, don’t forget that there’s a lot of potential growing space up above too. Hanging baskets can grow a surprising amount of delicious food—from strawberries to greens and tomatoes. There have been exciting breakthroughs lately in edible walls, such as modular grids filled with mineral wool into which crops are planted and then fed and watered hydroponically . You can grow all sorts of herb and green crops in these walls and they fit snugly against the wall of a building.

If you are not high-tech-minded, don’t underestimate the value of simple staging— wooden benches around the edge of your balcony or terrace will double your growing area and make it look wonderfully lush, and they can also provide useful shade for less sun-worshipping plants, such as mint, chives, sorrel, and parsley. Balcony railings themselves are perfect ready-made supports for climbing plants to twine up
and to tie tomatoes and trained fruit trees to.

An archway or pergola is a wonderful thing to include, too, providing lovely dappled shade, a focal point, and plenty of growing space for climbers such as grapes,
kiwis, Scarlet runner or bush beans, and squashes of all shapes and colors. If you have a small balcony, why not make a pergola by running some wires up from the balcony railings to the building wall, as high up as you can, and grow crops overhead? If you have more space, think about putting up an arch—whether wooden or metal doesn’t matter, as long as it can be secured so it doesn’t blow over in the slightest wind.

What pot?
There are no rules when it comes to choosing what container you want to grow your plants in—from an eclectic mix of differently sized pots in terracotta and plastic to sleek metal troughs hugging your balcony edge, the style of your sky garden is up to you. There are, however, a few considerations worth keeping in mind to get the best out of your plants.

Generally, the bigger the container, the lower- maintenance it will be, in particular when it comes to watering and feeding, which you won’t need to do as often. Small pots and window boxes need watering every day in the height of summer, while large containers can manage for three or more. Treat large pots as mini beds; mix trees, for example, with low flowers and crops such as lettuce, strawberries, and herbs and you can fit a lot in. For flexibility, planters on wheels are a great idea as you can move them around to screen different areas, as well as to benefit from the best of the sun.

You can have wonderful planters made to fit the space exactly, but it’s also easy to find cheap containers in garden and home improvement stores; a galvanized dustbin can look just as stylish as custom-made troughs. A smart look can easily be achieved if you keep uniformity in mind. Mixing up too many materials can distract the eye and chop up the space visually in a way that keeping everything wooden, for example, would not.
A range of galvanized metal containers is an ideal choice: light to carry, modern yet mellow on the eye, and easily available in all shapes and sizes, from window boxes to enormous pots for fruit trees. Another good choice of container material is fiberglass, which is lightweight with a clean, modern look. Terracotta is a classic— handmade pots are far more attractive, yet more expensive, than factory-made versions —although they are not the lightest of containers. Troughs are ideal for balconies because they fit neatly around the edge, using the space well and thereby maximizing the crops you can grow.

For instant gratification, flexible plastic tubs, available in any garden or home improvement store, are a good choice: cheap, light, large and vividly colored. There
are also plenty of lightweight planters specifically designed for growing fruit and vegetables, many made from thin plastic or woven material you can simply fold up at the end of the season. Either brightly colored or sold with woven willow panels to make them easy on the eye, these are roomy enough to be really useful.

Any planter that has a built-in reservoir is ideal for roof or balcony gardeners, as it really cuts down on the watering needed. Large, hungry crops, such as tomatoes, eggplants, squashes, and peppers, are particularly well suited to these types of planters, often known as “self-watering containers.” If you don’t want to buy one, you can easily make your own self-watering container .

Since wind is always a factor on balconies, wide-bottomed containers are best because they are less susceptible to blowing over. The classic container (tapering to the base) is not ideal, though anything can be kept upright if you tie it against supports.

Troughs, however, are virtually windproof and are a great use of space as they can be lined up along the balcony, fitting in lots of crops and also forming a uniform border. Mini raised-bed kits are also a good option if you’re after a traditional look. Being wider, they spread the load, and if they’re made of a lightweight material, the only significant weight comes from the potting mix. Be sure to position them so that any water that drains away is not blocked from reaching the guttering.

Go grow bags
Grow bags are fantastic for growing crops in, since they retain water really well and come with fertilizer already in the potting mix. They’re light to carry up stairs and are so slim that they fit neatly against a wall—so even the narrowest balcony can manage a few and still have space for a table and chairs.
Potatoes can also be grown in grow bags if you turn them vertically and cut the top off. Make a few drainage holes in the bottom of the bag and remove half the potting mix, putting it aside for later. Plant three early potatoes so the tops are about 6 in.
below the surface and roll down the sides of the bag to the new potting mix level. As the plants grow, keep adding potting mix to cover them, rolling up the bag as you go. Keep watered and harvest when flowers appear—about 12 weeks after planting.

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