May 08, 2008

by Karen Pye, Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener                      
So, you live in an apartment, a condo, or a town home, and think you can’t indulge in your favorite hobby, gardening.  Well, have I got great news for you!   You can create a soothing outdoor retreat by selecting just the right containers and plants.  With a little planning your balcony can actually seem to increase the interior space of your dwelling.
Getting excited about this? Ok, but first there are a few things to consider.

Think Safety

Find out what limitations you must follow from building management; can you attach anything to the building or railings; what is the maximum weight the balcony can handle?

Be sure to use lightweight growing media and lightweight planters to reduce the overall weight of each plant.  How will you water your plants?  Is there available water supply?  You don’t want to have to lug heavy pails of water across your carpet. 

What about drainage?  Ideally there should be a sloped floor with a drain and perhaps open-weave rubber mats to protect the floor surface.  Otherwise excess water may drip on your neighbor below. Plant saucers can help, but remember to empty them after watering so the plants don’t sit in water.

Think Small

Once you have all your answers you’re ready to get started.  As with all gardening it is wise to first do some planning and designing. 

Start with a diagram that is to scale, including all the features of your balcony: windows, doors, railings and walls.  This will give you a sense of how much room you have for plants, containers and furniture. 

Be sure to leave plenty of room to move around and enjoy the space.  You don’t want plants that will grow too big too quickly.
Decorative planters can provide design and color to a compact space like a balcony.  Make sure you know the light patterns of your balcony, then plant containers in all kinds and colors of perennial bedding plants in abundant supply at garden centers that require various amounts of sun and shade. Don’t forget to consider watering requirements and sources.
The bright, heat-loving hibiscus comes in various colors.  The bush or tree makes a “showy” plant for a direct sun balcony.
Think about the aroma the plants put out.  The breeze will likely fill your home with the garden smells, so make sure scents are light and pleasant.  Because of the limited space, you will not want to be working on your garden all the time.  It can be a hassle to move around all the plants continuously.  Choose to plant perennials in decorative plant containers.  They last longer, so you will have to replace plants less often.

Think Location

Does your balcony get lots of sun, only morning sun, the hot afternoon sun, or lots of shade? Which directions does the balcony face?  Does it get constant winds?  Knowing all this will determine what plants to select.  Determine the “feel” you want to create in your garden; a secluded shady nook, an open tropical sun spot, or simply a very colorful, restful retreat.  Consider the view from inside your home when placing plants outside.  Opt for a design that will incorporate both vertical and horizontal lines, tall plants in the background, smaller plants in the front.  Trailing plants along railings can give the illusion of width to the balcony.

Think Furnishings

It is nice to be able to sit in your garden to enjoy it.  If space is at a minimum, consider using lightweight furniture that you can bring out only when you want to use it.  If your balcony is close to your neighbors, you may want to add a privacy screen, (lattice is relatively inexpensive and very effective) or rely on plants to enclose your space.  Decorative planters can dress up a small space.  There are so many styles to choose from.  Here’s a tip on using large containers.  You don’t have to fill the entire container with potting soil.  Add about 3” – 4” of light weight styrofoam-type peanuts to the bottom of the container, place a couple of sheets of newspaper over the peanuts then add the potting soil.  Takes way less soil and makes the container lighter, easier to move.  Consider adding the soothing sound of running water by placing a portable fountain in your balcony garden.  All you need is a nearby source of electricity for the pump. Again, there are many sizes and shapes available so finding just the right fountain should be a snap. 

Think Plants

Ok, now your ready to look for your plants and containers.  Since you are working with limited space, choose plants based on basic, efficient design schemes.  Visit the local nurseries for suggestions on plants, letting them know the plants are for your balcony.  Take your plans with you.  In the meantime, here are some ideas.

For that shady balcony, consider Mona lavender, Persian shield, foxtail fern, impatiens, caladiums, any of the dracaena family to add height and texture. For the full sun balcony there is always the ever popular, ever beautiful bougainvillea. Geraniums, ixora, asparagus ferns, variegated vincas add color.  Plant a duranta in a big pot with a trellis for a spectacular backdrop.  The hibiscus comes in an array of colors and makes a nice bush or tree, as does the firebush.
Plants that do well with only morning sun can include the shade plants as well as red sister, cala lily, crotons, coleus.  The Xanadu philodendron is low growing and provides a nice tropical or oriental touch.

If the balcony gets lots of windy days, the ornamental grasses are graceful, colorful and make a good windbreak, thus protecting the other plants.  The firecracker plant is both graceful and colorful.  Gulf Muhly, Mexican feathergrass and dwarf fountain grass are colorful and mix wonderfully with plants.

Included are a few pictures of listed plants, taken at Four Seasons Garden Center, plus one of some plants around my front yard fountain.  You can adapt this same concept just as easily on your balcony.

Once you have all your plants and furniture in place, add a few candles in strategic places, hang a wind chime or two - and Voila! Your very own Garden of Eden. Enjoy!  Your work is basically finished.  But I’ve got to run, I’m an outdoors – not a balcony - gardener, there are weeds to be pulled, mulch to be spread, and the yard to mow. Alas!


• Know your building requirements and limitations.  Determine how you will get all your supplies upstairs.

• Check for available water supply, storage for your supplies and electrical source.

• Determine amount of sunlight hours and wind direction.

• Plan and draw design for plants and furniture.

• Visit a local nursery for plant and container ideas.
The soothing sound of running water can be a nice addition to a balcony.  A fountain scene like this one with impatiens planted in partial shade can be adapted to a balcony with a power source for the pump.

Lunch & Learn with the Masters

“Crape Myrtles: Lilacs of the South”
Presented by Victoria County Master Gardener Mary Janak

WHEN: Monday, May 12 - Noon- 1:00 P.M.
WHERE: Pattie Dodson Health Center
WHAT: FREE Session
Bring your own lunch and drink.

Coordinated by Texas AgriLife Extension Service – Victoria County
The Xanadu philodendron thrives in early morning sun.  Its low-growing foliage provides tropical or oriental flare to your design.