Chelsea Flower Show experts reveal how to plant a balcony garden

balcony garden ideas
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When designing a balcony garden, a limitation on space can mean it's hard to find inspiration and know where to begin. But in fact, with a little know-how and imagination, creating a balcony garden can be a truly rewarding experience.

"Sometimes having the restriction of a small space makes you think more creatively," says Tom Wilkes-Rios, who designed The Blue Garden in the Chelsea Flower Show's Balcony Garden category for 2022.

From the best plants based on aspect to maximising space, all the advice you need - from our carefully selected experts - is outlined in our bumper guide of balcony garden ideas.

But before you get started with the designing and planting, it’s important to make a solid plan of action that takes into account important details about your balcony.

“I often go on Pinterest and look at examples just to get an idea what style I like,” said Ula Maria, author of Green: Simple Ideas for Small Outdoor Spaces.

“Think about what size balcony you have, and whether it's shady or sunny, then write all of those things down, almost like a brief for yourself.”

Isabelle Palmer, author of Modern Container Gardening: How to Create a Stylish Small-Space Garden Anywhere feels its important to consider how you’ll use your balcony.

“Designate how you want to use the space. Is it somewhere that you want to sit and relax? Is it a space that’s quite difficult because either there’s no sun or it’s very exposed? You can start zoning and deciding how you can use the space effectively.”

Isabelle also feels it’s key to recognise the features of the indoor space that the balcony leads off from, and how to link the two areas.

“Think about where the space is leading off from - a living room or a bedroom, and how that is going to affect your outdoor space. Have you got a colour scheme inside? Do you want to make that seamless flow from the living space into your balcony garden? Certain colours in a nice cushion or picture can give some hints and tips into your kind of colour scheme.”

Balcony garden: Important points to consider

Sun and wind exposure

Many balconies can be without a roof or cover above, meaning they’re very exposed to the elements including sun and wind. It’s crucial you understand how much your balcony will be affected by such things, according to Alex Mitchell, author of The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Produce in the Heart of the City.

“Spend time on the balcony and work out where the wind is coming from...I would recommend some kind of windbreak if you can – bamboo screening is great tied to railings with cable ties,” Alex says. “Or, you could plant something to create a bit of a windbreak. Lavender, for example, is happy in wind and will have that effect. Also, rosemary which very happy in wind, and it’s evergreen.

balcony garden
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Isabelle recommends a range of hardy plants for windy balconies.

“If you’re quite exposed to wind you need to look at hardy plants, things with waxy leaves such as fatsia japonica - that’s quite good when it’s windy and there’s sun exposure,” she said.

She also recommends snapdragons, cosmos and jasmine.

“You want to steer away from very tall flowering plants, such as delphiniums because they're going to go crazy in the wind and obviously they're going to get a lot more sun exposure,” Isabelle added.

“Another plant that grows happily in wind is samphire, which grows on beaches. You can grow it in a pot, you just need to add sea salt when you water it to recreate its natural environment. If it is very windy try to create as much shelter as you can,” advises Alex.

Balcony garden watering

Because of the sometimes harsher elements on balconies, and the fact that containers dry out quicker, you’ll need to take care to ensure your watering routine is right.

“You’re going to have to water quite a lot, especially if it's very sunny and exposed and windy. So, bear that in mind, either using water reservoirs in your pots, using an irrigation system, or making sure that you've got ready water supply to water your plants,” Isabelle said.

“In the height of summer, you’d need to water at least once and probably twice a day in the morning and the evening, before the sun's come up and after it’s gone down. Do it at the coolest time otherwise it just will completely evaporate as you’re watering,” Isabelle added.

Balcony gardens in shade

Alternatively, some balconies can be prone to prolonged shade and in these cases, Isabelle recommends the likes of:

Ferns, ivies, fatsia, hydrangeas, delphiniums, lupins, foxgloves, snapdragons, pansies and other perennial bedding plants.

“Some vegetables do grow in shade. Most things you eat the leaves of will be relatively happy in shade. The things that won't like growing shade are things that produce fruit because they need sun in order to create sugar for the fruit. Shade wouldn’t be so good for strawberries and tomatoes,” advised Alex.

“Mint, coriander, sorrel are happy in shade. Also spinach and chard. Don’t give up if you have just shade, you can still grow things,” she added.

Balcony garden weight restrictions

Tom Wilkes-Rios stresses that, "balcony conditions are often very different to the conditions on the ground," meaning that, "there are a few things to consider with balcony gardens that aren’t necessarily relevant to traditional gardens," such as weight-load.

How much weight a space can safely carry is something you should establish before any work begins.

“It’s important to check whether the weight restrictions...the soil can get really heavy when it’s watered. It’s under-appreciated how heavy it can be,” says Ula.

Alex has a few tips she'd recommend.

“Work out where the supports are below you. If you have a balcony which is jutting out, then you're going to want to put your heaviest things near the house," says Alex. "But if you have a balcony which is on top of another balcony, sitting on top of walls, that's obviously going to be quite strong. Then you could put those heavy items towards the edge.”

Alex recommends using light weight plastic Tubtrugs as planters and covering them over with natural-looking materials like bamboo.

"You can wrap them in some reed screening you can buy on a roll. You can just cut that down and wrap it around any pot you don't like the look of to make it look more natural and blend in,” Alex says.

Designing your balcony garden

When it comes to design, Ula also feels it’s important to make a balcony harmonious with the indoor space it’s connected to.

“It’s an extension of your home so I think the best thing is trying to provide that continuity from inside to the outside. Try and join those spaces and that will make the balcony space feel slightly more generous,” she said.

For a cosy feel, Ula recommends soft furnishings, while bistro-style furniture that can be folded away easily gives flexibility for multi-functional space. She also says that mobile lights which can be recharged and moved around prolong the usage hours of a balcony.

Planting vertically is a key way to maximise space.

“If there's a possibility of introducing planters vertically or hanging them on railings, do that rather than eating into the space of the balcony,” Ula said.

It is possible to create different ‘zones’ on a balcony, too. This could mean different areas for eating, reading or relaxing, marked by certain plants or accessories. However, remember to ensure the plants you are positioning will suit the conditions of each area.

"Test the temperature in different spots to understand any microclimates within your space," says Tom, saying it's important also not to forget, "the conditions created by glass barriers if present (this can heat up the balcony immensely)."

Ula adds that larger plants can work well to create divisions between spaces, as well as having an added benefit.

“Placing larger objects within the space sometimes does help to give a feel of grandeur. I think one of the common mistakes is filling a small space with other tiny things that make everything feel very small,” she said.

Tom Wilkes-Rios agrees; "Don’t be afraid to put in large shrubs or small trees. It doesn’t always have to be small plants on a balcony."

You can also make a balcony feel more expansive using colour.

“You really want to go with lighter colours. You want the lightest plants and furniture at the furthest viewpoints so that you elongate the space. Lighter colours at the end are going to draw the eye out and your space is going to be a bit bigger,” explained Isabelle.

“Also I would only go for a small palette of colours. I never really go much more than three colours, not including green. I either pick three contrasting colours or three shades or tones of the same colour.”

Can you grow trees and shrubs on a balcony garden?

“You can actually grow quite a lot of varieties in containers in terms of trees and specimen trees. It's just a case of a little bit more management,” said Isabelle.

“You have to pot them on every two or three years to a big container, or failing that you can top dress, which is where you take off the top layer of soil and put some new compost on. You can do that after the second year as well to elongate that container.”

Isabelle recommends the likes of acer, olive trees, eucalyptus, wisteria, clematis, fruit trees like apples.

“Mexican orange blossom is a really nice big shrub which gives off a lovely scent of orange blossom and is very hardy and does well in in containers,” she added.

Alex recommends growing fig or apple trees, if you want something larger.

“The great thing about them is they don’t need such big pots as other fruit trees. You can get away with planting an apple tree in a pot that’s about 45 centimetres in diameter at the top. (That’s 40 to 60 litres). You get blossom, you get the fruit, you still get the structure over winter. They’re very hardy and it’s lovely to have some height in a balcony,” Alex said.

Can you grow succulents on a balcony garden?

“They’re seen as so easy as a houseplant because you don't have to water them but I think when you move outside that's when it gets a little trickier because ultimately they're desert plants and we have lots of rain here. So it's slightly different in terms of growing outside,” Isabelle explains.

“The issue with succulents is that, come the winter months you have to bring them back in. They won't survive outside in the winter. Although, if you've got a very sheltered and south facing spot then possibly you can leave them out in the winter if it’s sheltered from rain and severe wind.”

Tom recommends drought tolerate plants such as aloe, agave or cacti for your balcony, if you are interested in growing succulent type species.

How to plant for pollinators on a balcony garden

“Butterflies and bees are really strongly attracted to purple plants - and yellows and reds but they’re colours where you either love them or hate them terms of planting scheme so I’d always go purple. You've got things like verbena, salvia, lavender, ecinachea - they've got that wild flower look going on so I think that's the kind of road you need to go down,” Isabelle said.

“There are some really great seeds where you can literally just pour them directly into a window box in about May and you'll get a complete window box full of wild flowers,”she added.

Isabelle also recommends lilacs, buddleias, dwarf sunflowers as well as herbs like chives.

Growing edibles on a balcony garden

While many people might think growing fruit and veg on a balcony would be too challenging, Alex feels it’s very achievable if you use your imagination.

"It can be incredibly easy, it's really a question of just choosing the right crop that's suits growing in the container and there are loads that do. Some, like strawberries will actually grow in quite a shallow pot, like a window box or a hanging basket, so you can grow surprising things in quite small spaces like that,” Alex said.

“There’s only a few things that don't like growing in a pot - like raspberries - and you wouldn't want to grow big, big potatoes, because it would be a waste of space. But most other things are really quite suited to it. There’s no limit to it really, it’s really just a question of how much imagination you have.”

Alex thinks growing the likes of tomatoes, beans and chillis is a great place to start.

“Tomatoes are brilliant in pots and they are really productive. I would always include growing tomatoes in a balcony. French beans and runner beans are great too and have lovely red flowers. French beans tend to be better in pots because they don’t need so much water. If I have space, I’ll add in a flower like nasturtiums to mix things up because everything’s in your face, it’s not like a veg patch at the edge of the garden. You want everything to be fragrant and pretty.”

Alex also recommends growing baby salad leaves.

“You can sow them from around early March, right up until October time. And if you want to try to take them through the winter, the great thing about growing in pots is that you can control the environment of it so much more easily than you can in the ground. So you could move it inside, you could leave it in a more sheltered part of your balcony or you could put a piece of glass on top of it which creates essentially a mini cold frame or mini greenhouse which means that the salad will grow all year. If you live in a city where things are generally a bit warmer, you can grow salad all year round,” Alex said.

“If in doubt, imagine you’re on the beach because a balcony’s environment has similarities to the seaside – it’s windy, it’s exposed and it’s often very sunny. Everything that grows by the coast would grow well on a balcony.”

Another of her top tips is remembering to use your vertical space.

“Can you hang something up on the wall? Can you have a hanging basket? Could you build a vertical green wall? Could you put up some shelves then put lots of pots on there?

“If you have railings, make the most of them because you can have window boxes hanging on them and trailing down.

“Strawberries can be hassled by slugs so having them in a hanging basket is good because slugs can’t get to them,” she added.

When it comes to herbs, Alex recommends a wide variety.

“For a sunny balcony, I would use terracotta pots for woody herbs – the kind you’d find in the Mediterranean that like sunny conditions including thyme and oregano and rosemary. And I would put those into medium sized pots with free draining soil,” Alex said.

“I would do a window box of basil and chives, both of which like a rich soil so you could plant them in a peat-free compost. Lemon verbena is also a fabulous herb for a pot, or you could add blackcurrant sage which is a fabulous plant – rub the leaves and it smells of blackcurrant.”

Clearly, the sky’s the limit.

“If you imagine the tiniest balcony you could, just know it’s possible to grow a lot there, and a fantastic array of things,” Alex said.

Happy balcony gardening!

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