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Choosing plants for your balcony

Feeling limited by your condo’s tiny balcony? Wishing you had room to plant a ‘real garden’? Look no further for inspiration than Mike Lieberman’s now-famous blog UrbanOrganicGardener.com. The Brooklyn native took a rickety old fire escape and transformed it into a thriving vegetable and herb garden – despite knowing nothing about gardening. His passionate blogs about growing organic food in small urban spaces has catapulted him to internet stardom.

There are a plethora of DIY gardening blogs like Lieberman’s that post step-by-step planting advice and tons of project pics. You’ll soon discover that balcony gardeners are an obsessive lot. But with resources like Balconygardener.ca, LifeontheBalcony.com, and TotallyIneptBalconyGardener.com at your fingertips, balcony inspiration is just a few clicks away.

“In New York, we have to work with the space we’re given – and normally it’s pretty tiny.”

Another great place to start is your local plant nursery. For New Yorkers, Plantworks is a popular go-to for green thumbs and wannabes. In business since 1974, the store is renowned for its hands-on approach with city balcony gardeners. “It’s very rare that you’d have a person own a house with its own plot of land on which to grow a garden,” says Plantworks’ owner Neil Mendeloff. “In New York, we have to work with the space we’re given – and normally it’s pretty tiny.”

Mendeloff says popular balcony choices are fragrant plants such as gardenias, jasmine and rosemary. “Some people like to work with colour schemes, too – it really depends on what you are looking for,” he explains. “Almost everyone loves a basil plant. And, if you’ve got good sunshine, a tomato plant is great. Tomatoes can sometimes run up to $4 a pound.”

While free-standing containers and potted plants are safe on any balcony, it’s imperative to check your condo’s rules and regulations before pulling out the drill. “It varies condo to condo,” says Mendeloff. “There’s no across-the-board rule of what you can or can’t do; just check with building management.” He notes that very few establishments allow you to drill holes in the ceiling area of a condo balcony, where you might put hanging plants. Remember – your ceiling is someone else’s floor!

And beware of weight restrictions. You don’t want to lug up a half barrel, put soil and water in it, and then have it compromise the building structure. It may look like nothing but, filled with soil, it could weigh hundreds of pounds!

Amin Datoo, general manager of Toronto’s Sheridan Nurseries, suggests potted plants or over-the-rail hangers for this very reason. “While you need to check with your condo board, a lot of customers can’t be bothered,” says Datoo. “They don’t want to deal with a lot of red tape. So the easiest route is to get something that doesn’t require installation.” This could be anything from shrub pots or containers that remain outside year-round, to moveable pots that can be brought inside when the season is over or frost begins.

Datoo also suggests using wall screens or trellises – not only for privacy but to block wind. He says, “Depending on what floor you are on, the wind can dry out container plants quite quickly.” Trellises can be covered with vine-like plants, such as ivy, black-eyed Susans, sweet lace grape vines, morning glory or sweet pea vines. Even zucchini can climb a structure and look quite beautiful – though it needs to be guided and trimmed back, so as not to dominate the garden.

Chris Marchese, President of Concord, Ontario’s Marquis Gardens, notes that variable weather conditions on condo balconies, combined with sometimes patchy sunlight, have some gardeners weaving in artificial plants to give gardens that extra boost. “The products out on the market right now look exceptional,” says Marchese. “In fact, you would never guess they weren’t real.” Artificial boxwood or cedar shrubs are popular and literally maintenance-free.

For flowering plants with a brief period of blossoming, adding artificial flowers extends the colour through an entire season. “Hydrangeas are a common one,” Marchese explains, “because their blooms are so short-lived, people will often attach ‘fake’ blooms to an otherwise real plant – and you’d never know.”

“A balcony garden can really be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it,” says Datoo. “It’s really up to the customer’s level of enthusiasm.”

So don’t worry, green thumb or not – just dig in and get your hands dirty.

Perfect Plants

These fail-proof buys can perk up an otherwise drab concrete balcony. Start slow and build as you feel more comfortable. But watch out – gardening is addictive!

  • African daisies, petunias and fountain grasses need little water and quickly beautify a space.
  • Nicotiana, impatiens and ivy won’t mind if your condo faces the ‘wrong’ direction – they tolerate shade well.
  • Zinnias, fuchsia and geraniums hold up in windy zones; ideal for condos on the 25th floor
  • Lilacs, dogwoods, cherry and apple trees are meant for larger spaces and can bloom with the seasons.
  • Parsley, basil, chives, thyme and dill are great in an herb garden – a manageable first step for beginner gardeners. Herbs will inspire your inner chef and make your food taste better, too.