How to transform your balcony into a garden retreat.
Updated: Jun 7
A well-designed balcony or patio garden can change how a home is utilised by extending the liveable space and creating a transitional flow from the indoor to the outdoor world. If you are considering starting your own balcony garden, here are our top tips to help you make the most of your space.
As multi-functional spaces, our balconies are often used to entertain, relax, unwind, and escape from the hustle of city living. So why are so many of us underutilising our balconies and shying away from creating our own little slice of garden paradise? The common underlying theme is that most people lack confidence knowing which plants and accessories are most appropriate for their space.
Creating any outdoor space can be tricky, but if you’re like many of us who live in homes with small (or even tiny!) outdoor balconies or spaces, creating a garden in this environment is a tough challenge. It’s all about getting the balance right between plants, pots, scale, and design. However, on the plus side, small space gardens are much easier to maintain and can help to bring style into your home.
Before rushing out to buy plants, determine how you want to use your space.
When it comes to the function of your space, it’s best not to overcomplicate things. Would you like to use your space for sitting and relaxing, entertaining, growing some herbs or creating a sense of privacy from neighbours? Whatever your intentions are with function, focus on no more than two goals and do them well. Prioritise your decisions around these goals, and you’ll create a space that extends your living and gets maximum usage.
Once you've decided on the function, you can create a list of elements you'll need to create the space, e.g. furniture, a bbq, vege pods, pots, plants, or an exercycle....
Assess your balcony - size, space and aspect.
Consider the size of your balcony and the weight capacity of your railings or floor. You don't want to overcrowd it or place too much weight on the railing, which can be a safety hazard. Take measurements, and if you're handy with a pencil and paper, draw a simple plan to scale to work out how many elements you can realistically fit in the space. At this stage, it's really important to take a moment and think about your priorities, as chances are you won't be able to fit everything you listed in the previous exercise!
Balconies fall victim to the extremes when it comes to exposure. They are often too sunny or not sunny enough, too small or too narrow, open to the natural elements or completely undercover. This makes it tricky for plant selection, so you'll need to be open to compromise when selecting plants that will survive. Note down the times of day, how long your balcony receives sunlight, the direction and strength of the prevailing wind, and any privacy concerns you have.
If you're a DIY'er, take all of this information with you when you go to your local garden centre so they can guide you with your selection.
Choosing the right containers - size and materials matter.
There are a few important things to consider when selecting your containers. Firstly, the size; the smaller the container, the more often it will need watering. The bigger the container, the heavier it will be, making it difficult to move if needed.
The material of the containers is another factor to consider. Terracotta pots are very porous and should be sealed on the inside before planting to avoid losing too much water. Ceramic and concrete pots look great and come in a wide range of colours and styles but are very heavy, so you'll need to consider this if you have weight restrictions on your balcony or need to move your pots around. Alternatively, fibrestone planters look like stone and concrete but are lightweight and durable, so they are well suited to balcony gardens. However, there are limited styles and colours in these ranges.
Choosing the right containers - keep it simple.
When it comes to design, it pays to keep things simple. We suggest selecting pots of the same common colour or material and the same style and shape for maximum impact. A simple rule of thumb is to group your pots in "threes". Below are some examples of how we do this.
We custom-painted the pots to match the existing colours and design theme in the above-left example. In the middle example, the rectangular planters create a barrier to block the view from the street and are perfect for planting privacy trees. In the above-right example, the contemporary planters work well in a modern pool-side setting and contrast beautifully with the lush tropical plant theme.
Plant selection - be open to compromise and seek professional advice.
To create a thriving balcony garden, it pays not to be too picky! Your plant selection will largely come down to the amount of sun/wind the plants will be exposed to, how much effort you're prepared to put into maintaining them and how well they'll adapt to life in a pot. We recommend keeping it simple, using contrast to create interest and complement the surrounding colours.
As we mentioned above, note down your growing conditions and seek the advice of a gardening professional with excellent plant knowledge to get the right plants for your space.
Plant selection - when in doubt, remember the "rule of threes".
As with the container selection, we suggest using the rule of threes to help guide your plant selection. After you have read this, browse the images we have included in this blog post, and you'll notice how we have used the techniques below.
Three colours- choose three colours that complement one another. The colour doesn't have to be in flower form either; foliage can be just as colourful, and remember, green is a colour too!
Three textures- If you prefer the look of the more reserved, all-green colour palette from non-flowering shrubs or perennials, consider mixing three different textures to make it more engaging. Mix spikey grasses, large-leafed shrubs, and softer mounding perennials to create visual interest.
"Thriller, filler and spiller" - Keeping this handy phrase in mind will help you to create harmony and balance in your larger containers (60cm + in diameter). The "thriller" is the centrepiece, usually a tree or taller shrub that grabs attention. The filler is used to "fill" the pot and cover the soil. The "spiller" is a trailing plant that spills over the edges of the pot to create balance with the thriller.
Remember, small plants grow big.
Don't be tempted to buy the largest specimen when buying your plants, particularly trees and shrubs. Instead, opt for a smaller specimen that will "grow into" your container, and make sure you use premium organic soil. It may look slightly unbalanced initially, but this will give the plant optimal growing conditions and a better chance of surviving. You can see in the above images how these plants have grown into their container. This is also a great example of how selecting the right plants for the aspect can make all the difference!
Tie it all together with a rug.
If you have outdoor seating and your space and configuration allow, we recommend buying an outdoor rug to add texture and soften the space. Adding a rug can make all the difference by tying the design together to create a cohesive space. Check out our blog post here if you want more advice on selecting and placing outdoor rugs.
Whatever direction you take, taking the time to measure and plan is the best way to ensure you achieve a successful outdoor balcony garden that you can enjoy rather than ignore. Don’t be held back by your own perceived restrictions. There is a plant and pot that will suit every scenario, no matter how small or big your space may be!
Our designers specialise in small urban gardens, terraced housing, balconies, and decks. If you are thinking about transforming your small outdoor space, don't hesitate to get in touch for a free, no-obligation consultation.