By Gabrielle Stannus
A small footprint does not necessarily make for a boring garden, judging by the balconies I saw at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show recently. Given the growing number of multi-level apartment buildings that have been, and are continuing to be constructed in our urban environments, the demand for balcony gardens will not be going away anytime soon. so, I spoke with two entrants in the Show’s second annual Ryman Healthcare Balcony Gardens competition to find out their tips for designing these small spaces.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), flats or apartments in a four-or-more-storey block increased their share from 5.4% of Australia’s dwelling stock in 2016, to 7.5% in 2021, which the ABS claims is a sign of growing urban intensification1. The Victorian Government has developed guidelines to provide adequate private open space to residents of these apartment buildings, including rooftop terraces, podiums, and balconies. In an apartment development of five or more storeys (excluding a basement) in a residential zone, and all apartment developments in other zones, a balcony must be accessible from a living room. A balcony connected to a studio, or one bedroom dwelling, must have a minimum area of 8m², with a minimum dimension (width) of 1.8m, whereas a balcony constructed as part of a three or more-bedroom dwelling should be 12m² with a 2.4m minimum dimension (width)2. Note that the space required to install built-in storage and heating or cooling units must be considered on top of those measurements. However, that is still not a lot of room to play with!
Use space wisely
Consider then, coming up with a balcony garden design in even less space, 2.4m x 1.2m to be exact! That is the challenge that Rebecca Mitchell from Little Footprint Studios met, and exceeded, when she took out first place in the Balcony Garden competition at the Show for her display ‘Escape To the Balcony’, constructed by Stonefield Landscapes and Gardens. After a career in paramedicine, Rebecca turned her attention to garden design, drawing on formal qualifications in permaculture as well as theatre and costume design. Rebecca likens balcony garden design to ‘dressing a set’. “You have to look at every angle because when you are looking at a set, the audience sees it from so many different angles, not just straight ahead,” says Rebecca, “and you are not just looking at the functionality of one component. You must decide what you want to use your balcony for, get all the functional aspects down and then create zones. Do you want a lounging, dining, entertaining or a food growing area? Maximising use of space is key but you must plan it well first. Using the full height of your space is also important.”
Feed the inhabitants
For her balcony display, Rebecca assessed every inch of space to see how it could add to the overall atmosphere of this garden. She created a cosy nook for reading as well as an intimate dining setting suitable for two. The table is multi-purpose and can be used to dry the herbs growing ‘vertically’ in the green wall, but can also be folded up along with the chair to create extra space when needed. “Even with a tiny balcony like this, you can produce enough herbs for yourself. You can share any surplus with your neighbours. They are all edible flowers. You can harvest and dry the lavender, which is calming,” says Rebecca, “If you have a space like this, it can help with your mental as well as your physical health, so that is what inspired me; to get to the people that often get forgotten in society, people in social housing, aged care, and small apartments.”
Encourage your clients to grow those expensive vegetables from which they may only want to harvest a few, fresh leaves at a time, e.g. rocket and radicchio. On shadier balconies, you may just have enough indirect light to grow leafy green vegetables, whereas if you want to grow fruit such as tomatoes, leave that to your north-facing balconies or those receiving full sun for between six to eight hours a day. Select dwarf varieties and those plants that grow smaller size fruit or have a shorter growing season until maturity and harvest e.g., 55 days as opposed to 80 days for tomatoes. Consider hanging baskets full of colourful herbs with variegated or colourful foliage. I came across this cracking ‘thriller, spiller, filler’ combination in, dare I say it, an Australian Women’s Weekly publication recently: chives and curly leaved parsley at the top, surrounded by golden oregano and marjoram, with variegated mint, and summer savoury draping over the edges of the basket3.
Use your illusion
As well as using space wisely, you can also employ tricks to make a balcony garden appear larger than it is. “Mirrors help make a space appear larger by creating depth through the reflected image, and also reflecting light,” says Rebecca, who carefully positioned a large, mirrored panel to reflect light on to the white surfaces, thereby creating a sense of greater depth to her display. Think carefully as to where you might place mirrors in similar balcony gardens to avoid directing sunlight onto sensitive plants or neighbours. Large-scale objects help trick the eye into thinking the space is bigger than they are, e.g. paving, plants, and pots, as will positioning those more dramatic objects at the far end of the balcony to catch people’s attention. Rebecca added additional depth to her display by securely hanging a planter box on the external side of the balustrade. You might consider employing the art of trompe-l’œil (French for ‘deceive the eye’), by creating a 2D representation of a 3D object on a wall or similar surface. Mural anyone? Similarly, tap into a borrowed landscape, if there is one of merit to be viewed from this balcony. What vistas can you frame, or screen out, to provide extra viewing pleasure for your client?
“Often these are very small apartments. By enclosing the balcony, this almost makes it another room to be used, and the privacy aspect then encourages people to get out. A lot of people do not want to go on their balconies because they have a less than ideal view, neighbours, or smog from nearby traffic,” says Rebecca. Use plants, artistic screens, umbrellas, or overhead awnings to offer privacy, shelter, and screening. Be mindful though not to annoy neighbours with any plants that may extend, trail, or climb into their private open space.
Provide seasonal interest
To give the illusion of a larger space, Angelina Fox from Porch Envy laid floorboards in a diagonal pattern across her balcony garden display ‘City Sanctuary’ at the Show. The Sydney-based plant stylist is a relative newcomer to the industry and is passionate about small space design, showing an eye for detail. Not only do the diagonally patterned floorboards create movement in this space, but the direction of the lines leads the eye purposefully to the feature plant cluster.
“A lot of my clientele in Sydney has these small spaces and I want to show people what you can do on a really small square meterage; that you can still have a beautiful garden that is peaceful and clutter free,” says Angelina. Her take on a contemporary Japanese courtyard garden features one of my favourite trees, Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’ (Coral Bark Maple). This small shrub to large tree provides seasonal interest throughout the year with its coral-red bark and pinkish-yellow leaves which become green in summer and yellow in autumn. Before adding this maple to your balcony, make sure that you have space for it to grow, and that your balcony structure can take the combined load of the mature tree, container and (wet) growing medium. Check with your builder, building surveyor or local planning department for any weight restrictions on your balcony.
Incorporate artistic and sculptural elements
Angelina’s design philosophy is grounded in simplicity. “Pick a beautiful feature. I have used this swinging chair, which freed up a lot of space on the ground so you can feel the movement in there when you are looking at it from the inside. This chair is multi-functional; it is a beautiful sculpture to look at and you can also sit in it and swing away,” explains Angela, whose colour choice is also very deliberate, “I love the way that black showcases the green; it makes the plants stand out and black makes the space feel bigger because black goes away from your eye. It does not come towards you like lighter colours do.”
Go slightly ‘potty’
Pots are essential in a balcony garden as water and balconies do not mix. However, a small space does not necessarily need small pots. Avoid using smaller pots, plants, and furniture as they can make a balcony garden appear smaller and cluttered. In The City Gardener, Sydney landscape architect Richard Unsworth recommends placing smaller pots on tables to keep floor space clearer for the larger pieces, and to make the area look more expansive2. Depending on the project budget, he also suggests commissioning a ceramicist or fabricator to make bespoke custom planters. Pots should be scaled to suit their purpose; large, where impact is demanded and space allows, smaller for detailing. Angelina selected only three pots for her display. However, each pot perfectly complements the plants contained in it and adds to the garden appeal. “Having the quirky (lion) pot, you just want to go up and shake his mane (Casuarina glauca ‘Greenwave’) and touch it,” Angelina says.
Install a water feature
Angelina also shows that even the smallest of balcony gardens can benefit from the beauty of a water feature, albeit one at a suitable scale. Her water bowl features aquatic plants including Nymphaea sp. (Water Lily), Nasturtium officinale (Watercress), Pistia stratiotes (Water Lettuce) and Lysimachia nummularia (Creeping Jenny). Make sure if you are installing a water feature that it is fully lined, but can be drained, when need be, and that there is external power available on the balcony if this feature requires a pump to move water.
Make the most of available micro-climates
When thinking about the climate your balcony is situated in, it is more appropriate to think micro-climate. Balconies on the same building can experience very different climates depending on which face of the building they are constructed on, and whether they are overshadowed by surrounding buildings. Some balconies are covered by a roof while some are not, and others host heating or cooling units, all of which can mean very different micro-climates from one end of a balcony to another, let alone one side of the building to the other. If selecting plants for a west-facing balcony, consideration of harsh summer sun is paramount, whereas south-facing balconies may be lucky to receive a few hours of indirect sunlight each day and generally experience relatively lower temperatures. Heat and light can be reflected from neighbouring hard surfaces, creating scorching conditions for plants to grow in.
Select hardy plants
So, choose hardy plants that can tolerate these conditions and that look good for most of the year. In our larger cities, wind can also be funnelled between buildings which act as street canyons. The effects of this wind will differ depending on the height of the balcony garden (think first floor compared to the twentieth floor), as well as the positioning of the balcony in relation to the prevailing winds. Whilst some designers suggest securing pots and containers to prevent tall, leafy plants from blowing over in the wind, I would instead recommend selecting plants that can withstand these conditions in the first place. Do not make it difficult for your client to achieve success unless they themselves are a master gardener. Make use of low-growing, carpeting plants from alpine or clifftop environments or sturdy succulents.
Other balcony garden design considerations
Accessibility: Just because it is a small space, does not mean that a balcony garden should be inaccessible. Design for mobility!
Installation: Remember that any plants and materials you specify need to be transported to this balcony. Can you wheel them in via a lift or do they have to be craned in? Factor those costs into your budget.
Irrigation: Set up an irrigation system if water is available on the balcony or select sub-irrigated planters that only require occasional topping up by hand.
Security: Some balconies are closer to the ground than others and their contents may be in relatively easy reach of nefariously minded individuals. Consider securely fixing any valuable items that you do not want to see disappear from such a balcony.
Sustainability: Just when you thought you had got away without a lecture from me on this topic, reuse materials. Tempted to go for artificial turf? Consider instead a beautiful rug made from natural or reclaimed materials. Ditto other furnishings.
Transition: To entice your client onto their balcony, consider how the garden will look from the inside and design for that view accordingly. To transition from the indoors to the outdoors, consider a grand entry with fragrant plants at the door.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2022, 3.6 Dwellings, ABS, accessed 11 April 2023, <https://www.abs.gov.au/census/about-census/census-statistical- independent-assurance-panel-report/36-dwellings>
- The State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning, 2017, Apartment Design Guidelines for Victoria.
- Unsworth, Richard 2021, The City Gardener, Thames & Hudson, Port Melbourne
- Gunter, Caroline, 1999, Balconies, courtyards and pots, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Sydney.
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