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Balcony, Patio, and Courtyard Gardening

By Gwen Stewart

People choose balcony, patio, and courtyard gardening for many different reasons. Some are moving from a large house to smaller accommodation, some don’t want the hassle of a large property, and some chose to live in rental property to avoid the high-cost of owning a home. Whatever the reason, this doesn’t mean we can’t garden. No space is too small for a small space garden. One plant in a container is a garden. In fact, ever more gardening options are available in terms of pots, half-barrels, window boxes, troughs, cast-iron planters, recycled materials – the list is unending with possibilities.

Planning a Small Space Garden

When planning your small space garden several steps are fundamental. The first consideration is to determine what purpose this space will serve. Do you want to grow vegetables, herbs, entertain family and friends, meditate, create a place of peace, healing, a memorial garden – the list is endless. Next, walk around your space and really look at what you have. Where are doors, sheds, permanent planters located? Is there any clutter? Clear out the clutter by asking yourself: ‘Do I love it? Have I used it in the past year?’ If it no longer serves you, turf it out, paint it or fix it, give it to somebody who needs it.

If possible, take a chair and sit down, move it around, and think about where the energy feels best for you. Wherever that is, place your seating such as a park bench, lounge, Muskoka chairs, dining furniture, swing, etc. Do you want a formal or informal setting? What features do you want? Features such as water, flowers, vegetables, herbs, wind chimes, wild life, color, etc. add the finishing touches to your small space garden. Finally, make a plan particularly if you are going to use large features such as a half-barrel. Once filled with soil you will not want to be moving it.

Creating a Small Space Garden

Containers: Generally speaking natural materials such as wood, clay, stone, or cast iron in all their forms make better companions for plants. Remember that wet soil weighs a lot so if you garden on a balcony weight restrictions may apply. Containers made from lighter weight materials such as fiberglass are ideal for roof or balcony gardens. Styles of containers include hanging baskets, wirework stands and baskets, wood window boxes, sinks, troughs, galvanized buckets, old shoes or boots, bathtubs, old tires, and all manner of recycled objects.

Scale is extremely important in small space gardening. For example, small plants look more balanced in small containers, large plants in large containers. I especially like the effect of vines growing on trellis in half-barrels with smaller plants edging the container. In the half-barrels I use, I have grown many different vines but have found that the effect of scarlet runner pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) is really a knockout with their gorgeous red flowers and you can eat them too.

Microclimates: Which plants prefer which location? Choose plants according to the conditions suitable for their optimum growth. Plants such as begonia (Begonia x semperflorens), coleus (Coleus x hybridous), and Fuchsia (Fuchsia x hybrida) prefer shaded areas while geraniums (Pelargonium x hortorum), marigolds (Tagetes erecta), and petunia (Petunia x hybrida) prefer full sun. Wind can be a major factor and damage fragile plants. Choose plants that are wind tolerant such as many of the grasses; the sound of the rustling of the grasses as the wind blows through them is very pleasing to the ear.

Soil: I buy pre-mixed potting soil from the garden centers or shopping malls. These are generally lighter in weight to carry, sterilized to prevent weed seeds from germinating, and contain a lot of peat moss that helps loosen the soil so that it doesn’t compact in pots. I also buy organic soil that doesn’t have artificial chemicals added as I dump my pots of used soil into the garden where I grow vegetables.

Watering: Check daily as container plants often dry out more quickly. This is especially true if you are using clay pots. Make sure pots have drainage holes, as roots sitting in water will rot. When there has been excessive rain or water, empty saucers that are full. If you garden on a balcony sit plants on something to catch the water so that it doesn’t run down on your neighbors.

Fertilizer: Due to frequent watering, container plants require fertilizer on a more consistent basis then plants in the ground do. Use organic fertilizers such as blood meal, bone meal, or fish emulsion, particularly if the soil is going to be added to the garden at the end of the season, as chemical fertilizers harm the wildlife.

Function: When you are creating your small space garden you are actually designing an outdoor room. Keep in mind that this can be color co-ordinated to appear as an extension of your home. I move my indoor plants outside for the summer (which they love) and design these areas as garden rooms.

Focal point: Create a focal point such as a large pot, tall plant or tree, color, or a water feature. Perennial vines such as Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) will grow in a large container and come back year after year. Create a sense of mystery by hiding a plant or ornament behind something else to give the pleasure of discovering it.

Color: In a small space, use three colors such as pinks, blues, and whites; reds, oranges, and yellows; reds, whites, and blues; or reds, whites, and purples that provide continuity rather than too many colors which tend to be distracting. Cool colors make the space appear bigger and brighter while intense colors shrink spaces. A white and green color theme called a ‘moon garden’ is more formal and particularly at night is spectacular. Many white flowers are fragrant at night as well.

Lighting: I especially like the small Xmas lights hidden in plants and interwoven throughout a trellis with climbing vines. Up lighting with small spotlights can focus attention on a particular area for evening entertaining.

Gwen Nyhus Stewart, B.S.W., M.G., H.T., is an educator, freelance writer, garden consultant, and author of the book The Healing Garden: A Place Of Peace – Gardening For The Soil, Gardening For The Soul. She owns the website Gwen’s Healing Garden where you will find lots of free information about gardening for the soil and gardening for the soul. To find out more about the book and subscribe to her free Newsletter visit

Gwen Nyhus Stewart © 2004 – 2005. All rights reserved.

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