plant filled alfresco

Create a plant filled alfresco on your balcony

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Even the tiniest outdoor area can become a slice of horticultural heaven. You may not have the option of having a traditional garden, but a plant filled alfresco on your balcony with a few potted plants, a green wall or vertical garden and some well-chosen items of decor, will transform a balcony into your very own enchanted garden. Add some lighting, a compact barbecue along with some streamlined seating, and you have a cosy, well-coordinated outdoor living space that will tempt you outside, whether it’s to unwind at the end of a hectic day at work or to gather with friends on the weekend.

Apartment balconies in urban areas can feel a bit dull and lifeless, especially if the outlook takes in other big buildings or a bleak city or suburban view. The easiest way to add colour and green life is to introduce plants in pots, troughs and, if allowed by strata rules, built-in planters. This allows you to bring ornamental and edible plants onto a balcony and has the added advantage that the pots can be used as items of decor, introducing textural interest and hues that complement interior living spaces.

Pot it good

Post-pandemic, as modern lifestyles seek to embrace all things natural, the trend for a plant filled alfresco balcony gardens and terraces continues to rise and this has led to a growing interest in how to use pots to best advantage. With the right approach, pots and plants can take a balcony space from drab to fab in no time at all.

“With the emerging trend for container and vertical gardens, even the smallest spaces can be transformed,” says Adam Robinson, horticulturist, stylist, landscape and interior designer. “A considered selection of pots and plants can immediately recharge a balcony, garden or courtyard. Pots don’t all have to be a uniform shape or finish as long as they complement each other when placed in a group. The idea is to play with scale,” advises Adam. “If you have a very small space, it’s better to have one really large pot with amazing foliage than lots of little pots with tiny plants. If your space is large, group pots together, at least three — small, medium and large.”

You need to consider colour and materials, too. Using pots and planters made of a similar material, or of the same colour or tone, creates a more cohesive look. In a small space, the less busy the aesthetic, the more relaxed and inviting the space will feel. And as balconies always flow off an interior space, choosing hues and materials that complement any interior pots or major decorative elements makes for a more harmonious indoor-outdoor transition.

Plant filled alfresco

Weight and watering

There are some practical considerations when creating a potted garden. Whether it’s going on a balcony, deck or terrace, the container needs to be in scale to the available space and big enough to accommodate the roots of the plants you want to grow. You need to strike a balance between finding a pot that is deep enough yet won’t be too heavy when you put in the potting mix.

Weight can be an issue on a balcony, so unless the space is engineered to accommodate something really heavy, stone pots aren’t recommended, but you can find pots made of lighter materials, such as fibreglass, that look like more traditional materials.

How you’ll water your plants is another thing you need to think about. You don’t often find a tap on a balcony, and lugging a watering can through your home isn’t ideal — unless you are a keen gardener and then daily watering by hand is a great way to keep an eye on your plants. You might want to consider a self-watering pot. This has an integrated water reservoir system that ensures your plants won’t dry out if you’re not able to give them daily attention. As a balcony location is typically exposed to a lot of sun and wind, potting mix can dry out quickly, so if you don’t want to be constantly watering, choose wind-tolerant, water-wise plants. A few examples are Cordylines and grasses, Cacti and Succulents, and grey-leaved plants like French Lavender and Rosemary.

Screen scene

If your balcony is in a particularly blustery location, creating an appropriate windbreak will be good for your plants — and for you and your friends when you’re sitting outside trying to unwind. You can create a screen of living plants. Some reliable shelter plants include Box and Viburnum when you want a more traditional look, or for a more relaxed feel, Bamboo.

Slatted screens allow some breeze through while blocking really damaging winds and making the space more private. Laser-cut metal screens are another way to go. They minimise the impact of the wind, can provide privacy between apartments without making the space feel too enclosed, and add a decorative element. They can also be used as a trellis for growing climbing plants. On balconies, screening can be used as infill panels under handrails.

When choosing a screening material, and once you’ve checked that your strata rules will allow you to affix a solid screen, it’s also important to be mindful of your local climatic conditions and the type of outside flooring you have. On a balcony, your screen will be directly exposed to the elements and it will be sitting above paving or a flooring material such as composite decking. Be careful of Corten steel if it is mounted over light-coloured paving or in areas where leaching of the colour may impact wall or floor surfaces. Also consider the mounting system if you are situated in areas of high wind loading.

Plant filled alfresco

Working the vertical

As you would in a courtyard, you need to make the most of any available vertical surface. A green wall, also known as a vertical garden, is a wonderful way to introduce plants. You can have a custom-designed green wall or you can avail yourself of one of the many modular vertical garden systems that are now available. These are easy to install, making it possible to take bare walls and turn them into lush displays of foliage and flowers. And if you’re an avid cook, you can even use them to grow herbs and salad vegetables.

An outdoor mirror can be a great addition to a small balcony. Outdoor mirrors create the illusion of space and depth. If you’re blessed with a view, they can be angled or positioned to reflect that but if your view is of a neighbouring apartment or building, angle the mirror accordingly.

You can buy pre-made outdoor mirrors or have one custom-designed to suit your taste. Make a statement with scrolled wrought-iron designs on square or rectangular mirrors that overlay the mirror, or a sophisticated oval mirror with decorative border. You can also add character to a space by using recycled timber for a frame, or inject some colour with a frame of shimmering mosaics.

Wall art is another way to give a balcony an outdoor room feel and introduce some decorative flair without taking up valuable floor space. There is quite a range of powder-coated wall art designed especially for outdoors that’s available in a range of colours.

Somewhere to sit in your plant filled alfresco

There is no shortage of slimline, compact outdoor chairs, tables and lounge suites designed for use on balconies and other space-challenged locations.

“When selecting furniture, always be conscious of the space you have available as you don’t want it to dominate the area,” says designer Anna Harrison, co-founder of The Balcony Garden. “It can often be tempting to over-design small spaces, resulting in a cluttered area that doesn’t function well. Often less is more. There’s no point getting your heart set on a large eight-seater table setting when your space will only accommodate a four-seater.”

Choose furniture to suit the scale of an area. Go for smaller and narrower pieces to ensure breathing space left around the furniture. Keeping your setting simple and streamlined will make the balcony look more spacious than it is. Anna advises to keep it simple and avoid further reducing space with unnecessary items.

Choosing items that have more than one function is a great way to save on space without cramping your style. Narrow bench seating can double as storage underneath for soft furnishings, an adjustable side table can turn into a fold-out dining table when needed, or stools can be used as side tables or stacked when not in use.

“The great thing about furnishing an outdoor space is that designs and trends constantly evolve,” says Anna. There are so many choices available and there will be a solution that works best for you and your small outdoor living area. So don’t stress, enjoy the process!

Plant filled alfresco

Food and flames

When your balcony is attached to a freestanding home and you own that home, you can technically choose any kind of outdoor cooking or heating option you like, although safety considerations still come into play. If you’re working with an apartment balcony, you’ll need to check with the body corporate or property manager to see what kind of barbecue you can have — or if one is allowed at all.

Some prefer an electric barbecue, but there are gas options aplenty. If going down the gas barbecue route, never store more than one gas cylinder on your balcony and never store one indoors — cylinders must be kept outdoors so any gas leak will vent safely. A gas barbecue must only be used in a well-ventilated space as the fumes can be toxic, and don’t barbecue in an enclosed balcony as even a space with louvres or a lot of privacy screening can pose a fire risk.

If you want a little warmth in winter, for many the preferred choice is a decorative ethanol-fuelled fireplace — and you have the appeal of (safe) dancing flames. Everyone loves a fire. At parties people are instantly drawn to a fireplace and you can have that experience on a balcony with an ethanol fireplace. Ethanol fireplaces are also easy to set up, available in myriad styles, and as they are clean-burning, smoke-free fires, they are ideal for balconies.

As you can see, if you cover all your bases, plan properly and think creatively, you can transform your balcony into a garden space or an area for entertaining.