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Balcony gardens need special care

A bit of greenery can make even a drab concrete space look lush and inviting — what could be better?


In our last Arresting Design column, we wrote about how important it is to avoid storing junk on the balcony, and to plan and design that space with your enjoyment in mind.

Since plants are such a big part of most successfully-designed balconies, we’d like to concentrate on this important element. A bit of greenery can make even a drab concrete space look lush and inviting — what could be better?

But you must remember that plants do require care, and balcony plants especially so. Plants that are neglected or do not thrive look sad, no matter how good your intentions.

So, before you even purchase any plants, you need to consider whether their balcony home will allow them to thrive. Will they get enough light? Will they get enough water? Are there strong winds from which they need to be protected?

Is the soil a good place for them to live? Do you have enough soil? Is it hard and compacted, or saturated with water?

You, as the balcony “manager,” will have to make their home as natural as possible. (Also make sure you check with building management for any rules about balcony décor.)

First of all, most balconies do not have access to natural rainfall. In addition, high winds and small amounts of soil encourage moisture to evaporate quickly, making balcony plants especially vulnerable to drought. So you must plan to water. If your water supply is not close, and you do not relish the thought of trucking dripping watering cans through your living room, you must make provisions. You may rig up a hose that takes water outside to the balcony, or close to it. If you must, you can cut down on the number of plants that you need to tend to, so watering does not become an onerous task.

Drainage is also a must and this precludes certain types of floor treatments. Installing carpeting or a floor vulnerable to water damage is not a good idea. If you have a concrete balcony, a rubber mat keeps your feet above drainage water and allows evaporation as well. You may put plants in drainage plates or pots to handle overflow, but remember to pour out the standing water to avoid drowning the roots.

Then you must choose plants. Talk to a gardening expert about this. The degree of lighting will play a big role in determining the types of plants you buy. As any gardener knows, some plants tolerate shade, and others require bright sunlight. Overall, choose plants that can withstand the extra challenges of balcony life.

Keep in mind that everything you bring up to a balcony must first make it up the elevator — huge plants, and heavy containers that require tons of soil are not a good idea.

When you plant, think vertically, and use plantings or elements of differing heights to add interest. If space allows, layer the plants and other elements to add texture and the illusion of greater depth and size. For example, choose small pots adjacent to a bench, taller plants in a planter behind the bench and in the back, English ivy climbing up a trellis. Mix flowering plants with foliage.

Here are some tips for keeping balcony plants healthy:

>> Have a watering plan for those times you leave for an extended weekend or longer.

>> Use a high-quality soil mix with a slow-release organic fertilizer and vermiculite — regular soil tends to become compacted without worms to aerate the soil.

>> Use a landscape cloth at the bottom of pots to keep soil from washing out of pots.

>> Avoid terracotta containers and very small planters since they dry out quickly, but do choose medium or larger-sized insulated containers of lightweight material such as plastic, wood or fiberglass.

>> You can lighten the load of large containers by filling the bottom third with styrofoam peanuts before you add soil.

>> Anchor planters to protect against strong winds.


Tammy Schnurr and Jeffrey Fisher are hosts of Arresting Design on W Network. Tammy is an interior decorator. Jeffrey designs home furnishings and bedding through his company Jeffrey Fisher Home.

 
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