Won­der­land in a win­dow box

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Small Spaces -

A tiny bal­cony plot can be a colour­ful oa­sis all win­ter if you have a cun­ning plant­ing plan, says Alice Vin­cent

If those first longer, warmer days of sum­mer in­spire new gar­den­ers to buy plants and try to grow things, then the mo­ment the clocks turn back is prob­a­bly the point at which rook­ies give up for the year. It’s un­der­stand­able: city-dwellers with nine-to-five jobs may barely see their gar­dens or bal­conies in the di­min­ish­ing hours of grey light. The jaunty an­nu­als that brought such joy over sum­mer have turned scruffy and died. It’s cold out­side. All of which makes the urge to gar­den harder to re­sus­ci­tate than that sad-look­ing hanging bas­ket.

Gar­den­ing as the tem­per­a­tures drop is about prepa­ra­tion and pa­tience: plant­ing hard lit­tle brown things with noth­ing but hope of what they’ll look like in six months’ time, sow­ing seeds for sturdy, tough win­ter crops and cut­ting things back.

If you have a proper gar­den, this comes with the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing that the peren­ni­als will do their job: tree fo­liage will turn, flicker and glow be­fore fall­ing, daffs will come up where you left them last year, shrubs will bloom in spring.

But if you’re a con­tainer gar­dener or have only a small space, you must be the one to make these nat­u­ral mir­a­cles hap­pen, be­cause the whole show changes at least twice a year.

Small space gar­dens are a haven for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, but lim­it­ing ex­pec­ta­tions is im­por­tant. I’m now go­ing through win­ter on the bal­cony for the third time. If last year was fu­elled by giddy bulb-plant­ing, win­ter seed sow­ing and much op­ti­mistic naivety, this au­tumn I ap­proached it with more pre­ci­sion.

My “gar­den” is a four-squareme­tre, north-fac­ing bal­cony, four floors up on a hill in south Lon­don, so ev­ery inch has to be eked out for light, shade and ex­po­sure.

The clos­est con­tainer gar­dens get

Jiffy-7 pel­lets

A use­ful hy­brid be­tween seed trays and hy­dro­pon­ics, these pel­lets of­fer to flower beds are long troughs – I have three run­ning across the length of the bal­cony. Along with two big cor­ner planters and a cou­ple of square pots, this pro­vides enough space to grow some­thing sub­stan­tial while mak­ing the most of lim­ited space.

Con­tain­ers are an in­vest­ment – they don’t come cheap, and those light­weight and con­tem­po­rary enough for mod­ern gar­dens are dif­fi­cult to track down. But they turn a small space from be­ing a scatty mess into a green oa­sis. I rec­om­mend Elho for troughs, morethanpots.com for their Lava Char­coal Cube and Bay and Box for light­weight win­dow boxes.

This year I kept the Bos­ton ferns that soften the corners of my space and a Skim­mia japon­ica that has put up with both my ne­glect and a scale in­sect in­fec­tion, but cleared out the gera­ni­ums (for cut­ting back and over­win­ter­ing), petu­nias and cos­mos.

In Septem­ber, I tri­alled Patch, a com­pany that of­fers be­spoke plants to novice bal­cony gar­dens, and chal­lenged it to pro­vide ev­er­green struc­ture. It sug­gested a Euony­mus for­tunei ‘Sil­ver Gai­ety’ and a camel­lia. What’s ex­cit­ing about both is how seeds the best start in life in a lim­ited space (£1 for 10, sea­spring seeds.co.uk). they’ll progress as win­ter gets grisly: the euony­mus leaves should be­come tinged with pink, the camel­lia’s buds hint at ex­trav­a­gant white blooms.

I’ve stuck to white on the rest of the bal­cony. The win­dow boxes are full of cy­cla­men, with some of the hardier trail­ing ivy gera­ni­ums still at ei­ther end, and I’ve un­der­planted my ferns with white helle­bores, where they are shel­tered from the wind.

I’m a strong be­liever in bulbs for bal­conies, but things have to be done dif­fer­ently if you’re plant­ing in con­tain­ers. Un­like the “scat­ter and plant” ap­proach taken by peo­ple with an ac­tual gar­den, bulb po­si­tion­ing has to be con­sid­ered. I as­cribe to both the

Bot­tle top wa­terer

Small but nifty, this de­vice for turn­ing an empty plas­tic bot­tle into a wa­ter­ing can is a per­fect stock­ing filler for any small-space gar­dener. Widely avail­able and by mail or­der (60p each, sea­spring seeds.co.uk).

Enamel bucket

com­pan­ion and the mono-plant­ing school, but the ba­sics re­main the same: ev­ery­thing gets re­done each year.

It may sound waste­ful but the changeover of com­post and switch­ing of plants means bulbs rarely sur­vive for more than one year. If one sur­vives the cull and pops up, it’s a bonus, but usu­ally I’ll re­move old bulbs with early sum­mer plant­ing and start again.

I also dou­ble-up. Monty Don may have the space to leave planted con­tain­ers to sit in a cor­ner cov­ered in gravel, but I would end up with a bal­cony full of brown pots for months. So I have a small trough of white hy­acinths over­planted with artemisia, while Iris retic­u­lata

Grow kits

De­signed for ur­ban gar­den­ers, Seed Pantry’s monthly grow kits could in­clude bulbs for forc­ing, mi­cro herbs or veg seeds (from about £6, seed pantry.co.uk). have been snuck into the win­dow boxes, and snow­drops and nar­cis­sus will pop out from more fo­liage-filled con­tain­ers.

Over­win­ter­ing is done on the bal­cony ta­ble, against a warm wall. There is nowhere dark or cold enough in the flat to force bulbs, so I’ve im­pro­vised win­ter in two half-full com­post buck­ets with lids in one of the bal­cony’s darker corners. There is, just about, room for ev­ery­thing – gar­den­ing can be small but (al­most) per­fectly formed.

Raskog metal trol­ley

Use­ful in­doors or out, this mov­able shelv­ing sys­tem can at­trac­tively stash the gub­bins even the most minimalist gar­dener tends to hoard. It also looks lovely heaped with fo­liage

Room at the top: Alice Vin­cent at work in her bal­cony gar­den

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