Escapism is well within your grasp when you’re gardening above the ground. As confined microcosms, balconies and roofs seem to cry out for theatrical transformations, and it’s amazing what effects you can create with just a few plants. It’s hard to turn a regular back garden surrounded by featherboarded fencing and a view of your neighbor’s laundry into something exotic, but a balcony or roof above the city is a blank slate. After all, it’s already set apart from the world below, so why not go all the way and create a fantasy world—a tropical paradise?
Surround yourself with the scent of orange blossom, cut your own lemons into your cocktail. You never know, if you’re lucky you might even be able to savor your own olives. Some glamorous plants are surprisingly easy to grow, while others, such as citrus, are a little fussy, but with a bit of attention, an exotic jungle is well within grasp.
Recreate a Mediterranean feel by painting walls white or terracotta. Consider handmade terracotta planters, or glazed deep blue pots. You can also emphasize the escapist theme by adding gorgeous, hot-blooded non-edible companions into the mix. For a Mediterranean feel choose oleanders—evergreen shrubs with spiky leaves and plumes of pink, white, or purple flowers—geraniums, lavenders, hibiscus, or neat box balls. For a more tropical ambience, go for bamboos, tree ferns, succulents such as the spiky and magnificent century plant (Agave americana), or palm trees—the Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), the Chusan palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), and cycad, or king sago palm (Cycas revoluta), all thrive in containers on a balcony.
The top 4 crops for the exotic balcony
If you want to give your roof or balcony a hot-blooded flavor, these delectable fruits are a great start.
The gnarled, twisty trunks and cloud of silvery, pointed leaves of these trees are horticultural shorthand for hot climates, conjuring instant images of dusty Italian hillsides or ancient Greek groves. And yet these trees are surprisingly hardy in cooler climates, too, and can exist happily on urban balconies and roof terraces even in the North, benefiting from the mild microclimate of the city.
Olive trees (Olea europaea) are beautiful and elegant—find a style-conscious balcony owner and odds are they’ll have an olive tree nestling in a corner somewhere. Wind-resistant and low-maintenance, they will happily stay in the same pot for several years and don’t need much pruning. If you’re lucky, you might even get an edible crop too (see right).
A two-year-old standard tree is a good choice for a balcony, and is relatively cheap, but go for an older tree if you want instant gnarled maturity. Plant in a sunny, sheltered spot, ideally in a half-and-half mix of a soilless potting mix and loam. Prune lightly in mid-spring to maintain shape, or more heavily in early to mid-summer, and feed your tree every two weeks with liquid seaweed from May to September. Repot the tree every third or fourth year in spring, into an only slightly larger pot each time, as olives like their roots to be restricted.
Over winter olive trees are surprisingly hardy; they can tolerate night-time temperatures of 28°F regularly, and even down to minus 22°F now and then. Any lower than that and you should protect the tree with several layers of horticultural fleece and the pot with plastic bubble wrap to prevent the roots from freezing.
Citrus trees are a popular choice for the exotically inclined balcony or rooftop gardener because they bring a real dash of glamour. Any urban skyline looks beautiful when seen through a screen of potted standard lemon or lime trees. The leaves also give off a wonderfully zesty lemon scent when rubbed, though this is nothing compared to the fragrance of their flowers, which are often produced all year round. Citrus trees often have flowers and ripe fruit on them at the same time, but they do need a hot, sheltered spot for the fruit to ripen.
CALAMONDIN ORANGE MARMALADE
Makes 1 jar
- 6 oz. chopped Calamondin oranges
- 1 pint water
- 8 oz. sugar
- A jar
Sterilize the jar; wash in hot, soapy water, rinse and then place upside down in a cool oven at 275°F for at least ½ hour. Wash the Calamondins, then cut them in half and remove the seeds. Slice them finely, with the rind on, then put them in a saucepan with the water and boil, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to steep overnight with the lid on.
The next day, add the sugar and bring to a rolling boil for about half an hour— it’s ready when a spoonful dropped onto a cold plate cools to a jam-like consistency. Pour into the sterilized jar.
Which citrus tree should I choose?
For easy pickings: Calamondin orange is perhaps the best choice for beginner gardeners. These glossy trees constantly produce intensely scented flowers which develop into small, round fruits that are too sour to eat raw but make delicious, tangy marmalade. They can also be cut into segments and added to cool drinks. The biggest benefit of Calamondin oranges (× Citrofortunella microcarpa), though, is that this is the only citrus that can be overwintered indoors—it can even be grown all year inside.
For cooler, frost-prone climates, the following tough customers are good choices: Japanese bitter orange is as tough as they come; this citrus can handle short periods of frost unprotected. The plant will stop growing at temperatures below 55°F and will lose its leaves, but it will then put out new shoots in the spring. It is happiest planted near a south-facing wall. Flowers appear in spring and transform the bush into a cloud of scented, white blooms, but beware the long, sharp thorns. The fruits are too bitter to eat raw, but they can be made into a tangy marmalade.
Kumquat is another variety suitable for the inexperienced gardener, which can be overwintered outside even during brief cold fronts. It makes a very attractive container plant, producing a multitude of small, oval-shaped orange fruits which you eat skin and all. ‘Nagami’ is a reliable and productive variety.
Meyer lemon is a cross between a lemon and an orange. This delightful compact tree has sweet fruits and pure white star-shaped flowers that appear at the same time. This variety can cope with occasional frosts; any colder than that and it would be best to overwinter it inside.
The following varieties are fabulous, but frost sensitive:
If you are lucky enough to garden in a frost-free climate, choose from mandarins, satsumas and clementines, lemons, oranges, limes, or grapefruit. If you live in a cool climate but really want to try growing one of these frost intolerant citruses, bring the tree inside into a cool bright room that is kept at a temperature between 40-55°F from the second month of fall to the second month of spring. If this cannot be achieved, put the tree in the coolest, brightest room you have, right by the window, and keep watering to a minimum. Trees may lose their leaves while kept inside in the house, but they should recover the following year, even if they lose their crop.
Plant trees in a sunny, sheltered spot in a free-draining soil-based compost with 20 percent added grit. Citrus plants don’t mind being quite snug and a five-year-old tree can do well in a 1 ft.-diameter pot.
Feed plants with specialist citrus feed—there are different types for winter and summer—and water with rainwater rather than tap, if possible. Citrus like a humid atmosphere around their leaves, so the leaves will benefit from a misting now and then with water from a spray bottle as well as a wipe with a cloth to remove dust and keep them glossy. Little pruning is required other than to remove dead branches or to form a desirable shape.
What could be more decadent than sitting in a deck chair on your balcony on a sunny afternoon, reaching out to pick a bunch of grapes and eating them in a suitably Cleopatra-like manner? There’s no reason why you can’t grow grapes even several stories up. Eat them fresh or squish them for a refreshing juice as the ultimate start to the day. ‘Black Monukka Seedless,’ ‘Canadice Seedless,’ and ‘Himrod Seedless’ are all good choices, even for cool climates, while ‘Concorde Eastern’ has the added benefit of being hardy down to zone 4.
Growing grapes You’re going to need a large pot to grow a grape vine—about 18 in. in diameter and depth. Position the container in a sunny, sheltered position and fill it with potting mix. The easiest way to grow a grape in a pot is as a standard, with a single central stem and branches bushing out of the top.
When you have planted your vine, tie the main stem to a cane pushed into the center of the pot. For the first couple of years, allow side branches to grow unpruned. Then, in the third winter, cut off all the side branches except for five or six at the top of the stem. Chop these back to five buds from the main stem. In early summer, cut back any sideshoots developing from these branches to two leaves beyond the young flowers or developing grapes. The bunches of grapes should soon form, hanging from the top of the vine. In winter, cut the side branches back to within two buds of the main stem. Every year repeat the same procedure.
- Cape gooseberry
Its smooth, round fruit looks like a small orange, but in fact this South American native (Physalis edulis) is related to the tomato—and there’s certainly a detectable tomato tang behind the sweetness of the fruit. It’s a lovely bushy plant with perfectly heartshaped leaves and pale yellow, chocolate-spotted flowers that looks particularly beautiful in early autumn, when the fruits ripen inside cases that turn brown and papery like little Chinese lanterns.
Either buy Cape gooseberry as plants or sow seeds in small pots inside in midspring, transplanting seedlings to a large pot (at least 1 ft. diameter) or a grow bag in late spring. Place the containers in a sunny, sheltered spot and feed the plants every two weeks with a high-potash feed once fruits begin to form. When the plant reaches about 1 ft. high, pinch out the growing shoot to encourage fruiting side shoots and tie these in to a trellis or railings. You can eat these fruits raw or make them into delicious jam. Frost will kill the plant, so you could try overwintering it in a cool, bright room.