One of the few pandemic trends we don’t want to see go away is Americans’ embrace of outdoor living spaces or “garden rooms” as an essential part of the household. English and European garden design have always incorporated landscape spaces that allow for a natural flow of daily activities in and out of a home’s official walls. Faced with the prospect of no social time inside for the past two years, we in the U.S. decided to “take it outside” as well. As a result, we’ve connected with our yards, flower beds, trees, porches and patios like never before.
Balcony gardens are perhaps the perfect example of a literal “outdoor room.” Clearly delineated by walls and a railing, they can become perfect microcosms for everything from containers bursting with traditional annual color to contemporary, minimalist succulent and tropical gardens. The more apartment buildings go up around Rochester, from downtown to every suburban quadrant of the city, the more balconies we see. Each has the potential to become a household oasis for much of the year.
Basic needs and considerations
When setting up a balcony garden, look at the way light and heat affect your particular site. Because your plants will be in containers, they will need more attention than a full garden bed. Daily watering in the summer and early fall months will be essential to keeping your plants healthy and lush. Be aware of watering and where it flows for drainage. You don’t want to drench your neighbor below. Make sure each large planter has a tray or catchment system underneath to save water and avoid spills onto the street or next door. Over-banister and wall planters will probably leak, regardless, so choose your watering times accordingly. Fortunately, most water will evaporate quickly during the hot growing season.
Local garden centers have an amazing variety of colorful annuals to choose from for your planters. These one-year life cycle plants offer a huge color impact with lots of form, texture and palette options—anything from petunias to geraniums, zinnias, impatiens and begonias.
Herbs and vegetables can be grown on balcony gardens too. While some vegetable crops need a lot of legroom, in recent years new cultivars of everything from tomatoes, peas and potatoes to lettuce, peppers and radishes have been developed just for smaller settings. My children and students have particularly liked growing “salsa gardens” in containers on their decks or porches, including everything from cilantro to chiles. Cucumbers do well in pots and can be trained to climb up a trellis for easy harvesting. Remember to water, fertilize, weed, trim, deadhead and consider pest control for both vegetables and annuals as needed during the summer, as the plants will need that support to last through the whole season and produce good yields.
Tropical and house plants can make an appearance outside on the balcony as well. Large, tall plants are particularly good for screens and privacy or could become primary elements for a balcony that has a modern, minimalist design. Perennial (multi-year) succulents make excellent outdoor container plants as they resist heat and humidity and require less watering than most annuals. It’s important to remember that what goes out must come back in! Annuals will die down, and other plants must be brought in and redistributed around the apartment for the winter or passed along to friends and family. If not, you might participate in a local composting program or encourage your building to start a roof garden.
The sky truly is the limit when it comes to curating your own balcony garden. Small spaces have both intimacy and impact and can be the perfect antidote to a busy day at work, without the maintenance required for bigger garden rooms and beds. As long as you account for light, heat and the water needs of your plants, almost any type of growing is possible. This summer, I will definitely be looking up as I bike, walk and drive around Rochester to see who is enjoying beautiful green space just beyond their apartment walls.
Enjoying your balcony in comfort and style
Flowers and plants aren’t the only balcony decor you’ll need—comfortable furniture and eye-catching decor are must-haves too. It’s amazing how creative outdoor furniture, rugs and planters have taken off as a decor category in the past decade as well as the past two years. Every home store from Target to Lowe’s, as well as a range of local independent retailers, has lines of furniture, outdoor rugs and even lighting to create an open-air retreat. Solar lights, whether hanging or inserted into planters, have finally come into their own (meaning they really work now) and have become a staple garden element year-round.
Recycled timber furniture holds up really well and, while expensive at times, is long-lasting and promotes creative re-use. Several Amish makers can be found in Rochester and south into Harmony, with styles ranging from contemporary to traditional. And let’s not forget containers! Some of my personal favorites include the Vietnamese planters in a whole range of colors and styles that do well indoors or outside. Sargent’s, Carousel and Whiting’s all have a variety of styles and price points for these, but don’t be afraid to mix them up with wire, wood and metal as well. Vintage garden elements can be found at resellers and antique markets throughout the city and region, like Collins Seed and Feed in Rochester or antique markets in Winona and Red Wing.
Don’t forget your balcony walls as potential growing and design surfaces, either. “Living walls” of ferns, succulents, tropicals or other plants are relatively easy to create and can be re-mounted in a steamy bathroom come winter. This “biophilic” design can be as simple as a cloth pocket hanging planter or more complex cup and mat systems. You can make things easier on yourself with wall-mounted planters, too, but don’t forget to account for watering and fertilizing during the intense summer months, particularly on an exposed wall. A floor planter can be used to train plants up an outdoor wall, too, using mounted wire or string.
Balconies are for more than just outdoor storage and air-drying laundry! Share pictures of your beautifully designed balcony gardens with @rwmagazine this season. ::