MAKING THE MOST OF A SMALL BALCONY
By Sheree Rasmussen, AOCA One of the drawbacks of living in the sky is the lack of contact with the good green earth. In condo and apartment buildings, outdoor space is often the last thing to be considered. Even with all the renovating going on, the balcony is often left as the building-codeminimum concrete box with cage-like railings. “Naturalizing” it can soften your environment, create an extension of your living space and act as a buffer from the churning city below. Whether you have 20 square feet of concrete slab or a large wraparound deck, there’s a lot you can do to improve it.
THE FIRST STEP
Check the regulations for your building. Many condo and apartment buildings have strict limits on aesthetics, fastening things to the structure and how much weight you can put on the floor. Generally, locating heavier items such as large plant containers, boulders, etc, near the sides or closer to the building wall will place them over the weight-bearing structure.
Even if your balcony is too narrow to step onto, or the noise from the city below is too difficult to mask, consider creating a garden to be viewed from inside. Use river rock (round stones) pea gravel (tiny pebbles available in different colours), a few large boulders and some well-placed plant material to create shape, height and texture. If weight is a problem, there are some pretty good hollow synthetic “rocks” around, or you can get creative with papier mâché (varathaned), willow balls, etc. If part of the balcony is habitable, that area of the floor can be enhanced with cedar decking or slate tiles. Wood slat panels are available that can easily be placed on the floor without attachment. The railings can be masked with willow, bamboo (both of these are available in rolls that can be cut to size and just wired onto the existing rails) or cedar slats. Horizontal lines are best for expansiveness of view and a calming effect, but rails shouldn’t offer toe holds. The building code requires that exterior rail areas be not climbable. A stone buddha or gnome (depending upon your religion), Elvis bust or other garden sculpture can be strategically placed to pull it all together. Because you want the balcony to act as an extension of your indoor space, the style and colour will need to be harmonious with the interior design. Look for major horizontal lines in your interior – top of couch, artwork, bulkheads, etc, and reflect them in the positioning of materials on the outside.
The most effect way to screen out city sounds is with nature’s white noise, flowing water. Small water features – bowls, bubblers, or wall hung fountains, water falls or water walls – can be purchased at most garden centres. The pumps are tiny and don’t draw much current, but solar-powered ones are also available. Speaking of water, if you do have a lot of container plantings and a nearby water source, miniwatering systems and timers give just the right amount of moisture to each plant and don’t take time out of your busy schedule!
COLOUR IT SEASONAL
A few large well-placed pots with colourful annuals will brighten the space up for the summer. Consider having a seasonal arrangement in at least one container. For summer, annuals are ideal (select according to sun and wind exposure). If it is shady, ferns, ivy, coleus and many other types of houseplants, artfully arranged, can look great. For fall interest, plant tall grasses or pick up some pots of asters. In winter, pine boughs, sumac, curly willow and dogwood stems are beautiful. In spring, put out forced bulbs. If the balcony is large enough and building regulations allow for it, more permanent planting can be grown in built-in planter boxes, deep and wide enough that they can be lined with styrofoam insulation. (Roots need to stay frozen in winter. Alternate thawing in the sun and freezing at night kills them.) Hardy evergreens such as cedar and juniper give year-round height and structure. You can try overwintering some deciduous trees, but be prepared for losses.
BORROW SOME LANDSCAPE
A Japanese garden design technique, borrowed landscape means making use of distant features in the layout of your balcony garden. Tree tops, a church spire, a sign or other interesting architectural features can be highlighted by the arrangement of screens and plantings on your balcony, just as undesirable views can be blocked out. Once a foreground is established, the background is co-opted, taking on a new meaning, and your living space is thereby extended into the world.
CANOPIES AND PERGOLAS
If hot sun is a problem, a possible alternative to an awning or canopy is an overhead pergola for vines to climb on. This can be a light structure of 2by-2 cedar or lattice. Plant a fastgrowing deciduous vine. The leaves provide shade in the summer and die back in the winter to let the light in.
LIGHTEN UP AND ENJOY
Your balcony garden can also be enjoyed at night with one or two wellplaced light fixtures. Use them to distract from street lights or strange goings-on across the way, and to complement your interior lightscape. If the need for nighttime privacy usually has you pulling your curtains and blocking off your balcony, try a light reed matting screen hung from the edge of your balcony roof to reclaim your now beautiful sky garden.
THE SMALLEST BALCONY CAN BE A PARADISE WITH A FEW CREATIVE TOUCHES.