Design Tips ? Exposure ? Weight ? Plant Tips ? Must-have Equipment

Planting on high is not for the faint of heart. Balcony gardening is difficult and confusing and we don?t see nearly enough of it, which means too many Canadian balconies are either empty or rudimentary. Herewith how to make a real garden out of a small and difficult space.

John Broare and Mark Gomes of Box Design are balcony specialists. They are astonished at will grow on a balcony. If you like a plant, go ahead use it, they advise, but keep in mind the exposure you have and how much wind you?ll be facing. They have seen a wind whip all the soil right out of a container.

Box builds modules that can be installed quickly and removed easily. Their minimum requirement is a box 22 inches high by 2 feet by 2 feet. The boxes are formed by a high density foam with a skin of concrete and what?s are light, winter-resistant and handsome. The depth solves all problems with root systems keeping them protected and frozen over the winter (so there?s no freeze-thaw damage). They emphasize that it?s the drainage that counts. Which means you have to have a good watering programme (that is someone does it once or twice a day) and a good planting medium.

Design Tips

Think of the balcony as a way to frame a view. It should also look like a tapestry or a painting from the interior of your apartment. If you start sketching this way then you will quickly develop a vision of what the balcony-garden will look like. Have a palette that harmonizes with the interior or makes a pleasing contrast.


The most important factors in making plant choices are the wind and the sun. The higher up you are the colder and windier it will be. As obvious as this may sound, many people forget that wind is even more devastating than relentless sun. Western or afternoon sun is hotter than any other exposure. A northern exposure is full shade. The amount of overhang you have will also play a part in your choices of plants:? you won?t be getting the benefit of rain (this really is a rain shadow).


Don?t worry about weight unless you are putting in humongous planters. What you can schlep upstairs and on the elevator will dictate the size and weight of your planters. Drainage, on the other hand, is a huge issue.

Choose as large containers as you can possibly lug, or afford.?? There are some terrific ones that have a deep base in which you can put stones or water to make sure they are solid and won?t tip over (look at Make sure you don?t have anything up against the railing that kids could use to climb on.

If you are using terra cotta pots, put them on risers (bricks, boxes) so they drain properly and you have a variety of heights with biggest at the back (and closest to railing) and to give protection from wind to the ones in the front. And make sure you have a place to store them in winter.? If you want to leave them out permanently, consider lining planters with 1/2inch to 2 inch sheets of Styrofoam which will absorb moisture and save them from freeze-thaw shattering.

Consider creating your own shade:?? trellisage looks good but you have to check with the management to find out how high, how much and where you can place it. Box Design usually establishes them in a large container set against the dividers between balconies so that it will be anchored and won?t blow over. It?s best to get a professional to do this.

Plant Tips

Have really good drainage by adding? packing popcorn in the bottom, sand or even gravel. Cover with horticultural cloth.? Add a layer of SoilSponge (this will help hold in moisture); fill with potting soil. Add a handful of SoilSponge (or any coir product avoid using peat moss) to the top layer. Plant normally and water until it runs out the bottom.? Do the latter at least once a day.

Plant choices for the wind and blasting sun:
Any succulent:

  • aeonium
  • echeveria
  • sedum
  • aloe
  • agave
  • ?or silvery plants such as perovski, caryopteris or lavender.

Ornamental grasses are designed to rustle in the wind:

  • Hakonochloa macra ?Aureola? for gold
  • Schizachyrium scoparium ?Prairie Blues? (a native blue grass)
  • Panicum ?Prairie Fire?? burgundy
  • Bamboos are great container plants so try any available.

Shrubs and trees:

  • Cornus kousa (pagoda dogwood)
  • viburnums
  • Sambucus ?Black Lace?
  • and many evergreens such as pines, hemlock, dwarf blue spruce and Japanese junipers.

Hostas do really well in containers but vary the colour and size. Don?t go for huge ones such as ?Sum and Substance? or ?Francis Williams?? they are just too big.? Heucheras, ferns and and, of course, any of the hundreds of annuals now available especially Plectranthus ?Mona Lavender?.

Must-have Equipment

  • A wonderful trowel
  • a good pair of secateurs
  • and a small pair of Japanese scissors for nipping off deadheads.

If you can?t get a tap installed outside, then you?ll have to get the water there somehow.? Consider an Indoor Plant Watering Kit ($42.35) which attaches right to the sink and has
a 45 feet of coiled hose probably long enough to reach to the balcony.

Give yourself a lovely halo of light defining the balcony with Aurora Glow String Solar Lights ($52.00).

Somewhere to store things:? one of the cleverest I?ve seen is a bench with a cushion on top for the seating area and inside was space for all the gear. Think about this before you get ambitious.