MAK­ING THE MOST OF A SMALL BAL­CONY

NOW Magazine - Toronto Living - - Front Page -

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.

STUCK IN­SIDE?

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.

QUIET DOWN!

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.

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