general 08 October 2018

Balconies are the perfect opportunity to create your own little piece of garden heaven –Cairn’s landscape architect, Daibhí Mac Domhnaill, has some top tips on making the most of life outdoors with a balcony.  

At first glance, balconies might not give you the scope and scale as a traditional garden, but there are many advantages to them. For one thing, if you live in a development like Marianella, you have the advantage of looking out into a lushly planted courtyard that changes with the seasons without having to worry about its upkeep. And with a little clever arranging, a balcony can be the perfect private space for outdoor dining, lounging or people watching.  

The first principle in furnishing your private balcony is to maintain some flexibility in the quantity and layout of your balcony furniture so the balcony can be rearranged as needed for different activities such as outdoor dining or relaxing with family and friends. Depending on your needs, stick to perhaps only one or two comfortable loungers or armchairs; folding seats that that can be stored away might do when you have guests.  

The same principle applies for pot plants. A small feature tree like Olive, Arbutus or Japanese Acer is worthwhile, but apart from this, stick to a smaller array of container sizes that can easily be lifted and moved around. This will allow you to shuffle plants around and highlight the plants that are blossoming right then. Don’t be afraid to play with colour and texture with your containers; try aluminium pots in an array of vibrant colours or make your own from wine crates, tea caddies or wicker hampers. If you are an avid plant collector, try stacking up your pot plants against a wall or balcony divider on shelves. Include a small bird feeder for perfect breakfast entertainment at any time of year.  

In terms of what to plant, I’d recommend perennials that grow from bulbs and corms as typically such species won’t require larger pots and most tend to emerge as shoots, flower and then die back again, so perfect if you’re planning to rotate pots according to season. Some of my seasonal favourites include Alliums in May, Dieramas in mid summer, Agapanthus in late summer and Shcizostylus to take you into the autumn. The dwarf daffodil Narcissus ‘Tete a Tete’ looks great around the rim of larger pots, as would Muscari or Snow Drops. Hyacinths have a beautiful bouquet and some varieties hold their flower for over a month. For an ecological native twist, why not try some native heathers, such as Erica cinerea or Calluna vulgaris? 

Be careful with shrubs as they can overload and clutter a balcony if not used sparingly. I would focus on those species that provide winter interest such as fiery Nandinas or Pieris, Skimmia or smaller varieties of Viburnum such as ‘Eve Price’. Choisya is delightful in winter – the orangey scent of its blossoms or leaves rubbed between the fingers is a joy. Dwarf Edging Box options are great to bring a bit of structure and order to your ensemble. 

You may find that some parts of your balcony are shadier and this is where ferns really play an important role, especially the fleshy Aspleniums and Matteucias. Heuchera ‘Lime Marmalade’ looks great all year round and is another good one to shuffle into view when all of your flowering perennials have had their day. For a bit of delicate privacy, bamboos are great but should be thinned back to the base annually to keep them tidy. 

Balconies are also ideal for some herb gardening or sensory planting. Lavenders and Rosemary are well adapted to balconies, as their natural habitats are the shallow sandy soils of Mediterranean hillsides. Lavenders tend to look a bit shabby by the end of the summer, so ideally have the scope to move them out of sight. Chives have small bulbs and will thrive in very small pots and troughs. Sage holds onto its downy green leaf year round. Fennel can be a bit unwieldy for a balcony; instead, try Feverfew, Camomile, Thyme or Mint. If your balcony balustrade is glass then it might suit the more tender herbs such as Basil and Coriander. I love cooking with Bay in stews and ragu, and a small lollipop-shaped Bay could provide an ample supply of handpicked leaves. 

Don’t rule out edible planting – I’ve met some Cairn residents who grow tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries on their balconies. I’d recommend growing some rocket and nasturtiums, which will give a kick to any salad or sandwich. Courgettes and gherkins produce lovely yellow and orange blossoms and can be pickled for consumption in the depth of winter. I wouldn’t recommend growing potatoes or other space-hungry vegetables like cabbages and sprouts; however, if you have deep enough containers and good-quality potting compost, carrots, radishes and beetroot are worth trying – what you lack in crop yield will be more than compensated by the intense flavours and crunch of home grown. 

A final note on balcony surface – Cairn balconies are surfaced in composite and polymer deck systems, which have the look and feel of natural timber decking but perform much better under wet conditions. If you prefer something more in the traditional style of a garden, there are lots of high-quality artificial lawn sods on the market, most of which can be rolled out and glued to the decking boards.