8 tips to turn your tiny balcony into a lush garden

A do's and don'ts guide for green thumbs with small spaces!

A do's and don'ts guide for green thumbs with small spaces!

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

If you're like thousands of high-rise dwellers, the only outdoor space you have is a tiny balcony. But just because the square footage you have to work with is small, it doesn't mean you can't do big beautiful green things with it. Creating a lush balcony garden just requires a little planning and making decisions based on the specific factors you have to contend with when it comes to your own petite garden in the sky. In fact, Andrea Bellamy of Heavy Petal, says this is a great time to be a small space gardener. "There are more products and possibilities for urban and small-space dwellers than ever before," Here are some pointers to help get you started.

Do start by planning out how to use your balcony space. Consider where your table, chairs and BBQ will be, and what space you want to fill with your garden. If you plan to spend time on your balcony, you want it to be not too crowded (think about whether you plan to have guests over on the balcony, too) so you can move around comfortably. If you don't entertain often, and are inspired to make it a lush jungle you can take in from inside your apartment, go ahead and allocate more space to plants than empty space.

Do plant some of these! Here's a short list of plants, by no means comprehensive, that would work well on a balcon.

Veggies: carrots, lettuce, chillies, tomatoes, kale, French beans

Herbs: sage, basil, rosemary, thyme, chives

Plants: sedums, euonymus, boxwood, yew

Flowers: hydrangea, alyssum, agastache, salvia, nasturtium, lavender

Don't invest in a ton of small containers. You may find yourself gravitating towards a pile of small containers since your balcony is only five by 10 feet or so, but go bigger. "It's better for your plants (and you!) if you size up," says Bellamy. She recommends going for the largest containers your balcony can hold.  Why? "Your plants' roots will have more space to develop and you can fit in more plants without cramming them together—both of which makes for healthier plants." There are loads of container choices available such as a slate planter for a modern look or a raised planter box if you're looking for a more summer cottage look.

Do plan for a garden you can enjoy beyond the summer season. Why limit your green-thumb work to just the warm months? "When choosing your plants, select an assortment of plants for four-season appeal," says Eileen Kwan (full disclosure--my sister!) of Garden Exuberance, a Toronto-based urban garden company. Mix in both annuals and perennials; add in an evergreen or two so that you have greenery to enjoy from your window during the winter month, which is a great idea if you're keeping your containers on the balcony year-round, given the typically limited storage space that comes with high-rise living.

Do grow vertically. This is the single biggest way to maximize a small space, according to Bellamy. She recommends cover fences, walls, screens, pergolas and trellises with climbing vines, but also looks to hanging baskets, wall-or-railing-mounted containers, and even green wall panels, too. Some of her personal favourite vertical-space maximizing products are Woolly Pockets and Vine Spine trellises.

Don't forget to consider the light and wind your balcony is exposed to before going to the garden centre. "Select heavy enough containers that will not blow over, especially off the balcony," says Kwan, who adds you should check your condo's restrictions when it comes to your balcony. If you're on the rooftop, you may be contending with more sun exposure (or possibly shade from other buildings) and less protection from the wind. Containers often have to be watered daily given the elements they are exposed to. However, "larger containers don't need to be watered as frequently as smaller ones--a good thing when the summer heat hits," says Bellamy. When choosing your plants, "full sun" means six hours or more a day, whereas "part sun" means four hours or less.

Do discourage insects by mixing up your edible plants. While your garden is high from the ground, it may still attract flying pests (or have insect pests from when it was at the nursery. "Discourage pests by never planting one bed or container with just one edible; I try to practice companion planting principles, combining plants that benefit each other in some way. This helps diversify your garden and make it more resilient," says Bellamy, who is also the author of the book Sugar Snaps and Strawberries: Simple Solutions for Creating Your Own Small-space Edible Garden. She will often combine carrots, lettuce, basil, and tomatoes, since carrots are slow to germinate, while lettuce is quick, and then the lettuce is often ready to harvest by the time carrots really get growing. "And basil is said to make tomatoes taste better," she adds. 

Don't be afraid to mix and match shapes and textures. For a dynamic grouping, go with a variety.of plants. Think grasses such as echinacea or cranesbill for movement, while herbs can provide fragrance and give you a steady supply of fresh ingredients for your summer cooking, for example.

Do mix your vegetable garden with flowers. Bellamy says this will soften the look of a vegetable garden and many attract beneficial insects. "Tuck them in wherever there's space—my favourites are alyssum, agastache, salvia, and nasturtium."