Wonderland in a window box
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
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).
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
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