Who doesn’t love a balcony or roof terrace? Above the street and away from passers-by, looking out over rooftops, parkland or even water. And when it comes to planting for roof terraces and balconies, the job can be far less maintenance than rolling lawns and flower beds, making these gardens in the sky a hit with lazy or timid gardeners.
But lazy or not, everyone loves a beautiful garden or green space. So this week, we’re showing you how to create a verdant oasis up in the air that’s easy to make, easy to love, and easy on the eye.
The rules of planting for roof terraces and balconies
Before you begin, it’s time to figure out your basics. Safety first – are you above anyone? Could anything you hang or balance fall and hurt anyone? Or do you have a daredevil cat that could take out a whole window box when scaling the rooftops?
Checking your situation will help to determine a few other things as well. When you’re planting for roof terraces and balconies, you need to think about the pots you buy and how much weight you can safely add. Natural pots and wet soil can weigh a fair bit, so if that’s a concern, go for lighter plastic or resin containers and get yourself some lovely lightweight soil that’s designed for potting.
Next, establish the conditions your balcony or roof terrace faces. Are you getting full sun most of the time or none at all? Is there a lot of wind or roof runoff from the rain? Any which way, it’s just a matter of choosing the plants that will work for your space. Don’t worry if you’re tucked away in the shadow or sweltering in the harsh sun – there’s a plant to suit any spot.
Finally, think about how far you need to go with your watering can. A good rule of thumb is never to plant more than you’re willing to water. Do you have access to an outside tap? If so, you can hook up a nifty irrigation system that’ll make your life much easier (more on that later).
Where there’s a wind
With the wind whipping between buildings, especially when high up, outdoor spaces can get neglected and sometimes not even used. So when you’re planting for roof terraces and balconies, the answer is to create a windbreak with plants.
An excellent evergreen option often used as hedging and stands up well to a battering from the wind is the multifaceted oleaster (Latin name Elaeagnus ebbingei), also known as Silverberry.
Its subtly scented white autumn flowers are followed by orange berries in the spring, and its evergreen leaves with a silver underside and speckles look beautiful when tossed and turned in the breeze. It’s fast-growing too, giving you upwards of 30cm a year, and you can clip it to shape in the autumn. A favourite for exposed sites, Silverberry fares well in the wind, heat or shade and makes the perfect mini hedge. When planted in containers, they don’t get much taller than 2m, so even a tiny space won’t get overpowered.
Grasses can be another excellent windbreak if you have pots securely attached to the side of your balcony or roof terrace. A personal favourite that survives being dehydrated by the wind is mondo grass (Latin name ophiopogon japonicus). This drought-resistant plant is perfect for containers and has small purple flowers in the summer. It thrives in the shade as well as in the sun and makes a good companion plant with bigger friends like dwarf fruit trees.
Sitting in the shade
Lots of urban outside spaces are shady. It comes with the territory when they’re overhung by other balconies or bordered by screens or walls. North-facing views might see no direct sun; those looking east are bright in the morning; westerly aspects get late afternoons and evenings.
The good news is that whatever direction your balcony or terrace faces, your plants can thrive. Plenty of varieties absolutely love the shade, and you don’t have to settle for dull colours. For brilliant brightness, look no further than ferns, heucheras and hardy geraniums, all happy in pots. Try combining them for a vibrant display.
Another excellent shade plant is the hosta. Living on a balcony is actually a secret boon for them… their biggest adversaries are slugs and snails, and there aren’t many of those twelve storeys up! You’ll never tire of their elegant heart-shaped leaves in many sizes and colours. Try Hosta ‘mouse ears’ for a small blue variety, Hosta ‘rainforest sunrise’ for something so bright it almost glows in the dark, and Hosta ‘patriot’ for a variegated beauty.
Soaking up the sun
If you’re blessed with a sunny spot, think ‘summer holiday’: all those plants you see thriving in the Med are your new best friends. Spanish window boxes full of pelargoniums are super hardy and, despite taking quite a bit of neglect, they show off with vibrant colours and often beautifully scented leaves.
You can often spot plants like crocosmia and Erigeron growing in hot arid gardens. They also do really well in containers. Why not visit a ‘dry garden’ such as Beth Chatto’s near Colchester or Hyde Hall near Thurrock for some inspiration?
Your sunny spot is also a great place to cultivate your very own herb garden: rosemary, basil, sage and lavender all love soaking up the rays. Herbs make perfect planting for roof terraces and balconies and they provide an endless supply of flavour for your kitchen. No more spending out on over-packaged bunches from the supermarket that slowly turn to mush in the bottom of your fridge!
Thriving on neglect
If you’re a forgetful sort, a great solution is planting succulents. You may spot them looking cute on coffee tables, but they’re also perfect outdoors. Just make sure to plant them properly.
Succulents need good drainage, so mix in plenty of vermiculite, gravel or sharp sand into your soil. The pot should never be sitting in water. Be gentle when planting succulents as they can sometimes bruise easily. Pop them in at the same depth as their original pot, with leaves proud of the soil.
Echeverias look lovely if you like a bit of symmetry, and sedums lend themselves nicely to a mini landscape of sorts. Once you’ve got a look you like, there’s very little you have to do! If your spot gets frosty during the wet winter months, you may want to bring your succulents indoors. But if you have a sheltered spot, they can thrive all year round.
Pulling a look together
Now you know what you’re going to plant, you can think about dressing your space. You’ll be looking out on it all year round, so make it an extension of your home.
Try tiering pots of different heights to add more depth to small balconies. These groupings can also look great on a large roof terrace, where furniture alone might feel a bit stark.
Groups of pots also lend themselves well to irrigation systems if you have access to an outside tap. Kits for balconies and terraces cost as little as £25, saving you lots of bother and water. Try companies such as Claber and Hozelock for good quality.
Got empty walls to fill? Train a climber up some trellis. A favourite climbing stalwart is the star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), a fast-growing evergreen that smells divine. You could also insert mirrors among your climbers – even the slightest glimpse can make the smallest space feel much bigger.
Planting for roof terraces and balconies when you’re lazy
If you’re not feeling green-fingered at all, get some help! Plenty of gardeners and garden designers specialise in planting for roof terraces and balconies. Many also provide bespoke pots, window baskets and planters. A great way to find one near you is to post the job on Nextdoor.co.uk or your local Facebook community. Houzz.co.uk is another excellent resource for finding professionals if you have a larger project in mind.
Keep checking our blog for more home design inspiration. We aim to publish a new article every week so there’s always something interesting to discover!