Plants for Balconies
Following on from our balcony feature, here are designer Karen’s top choices for container plants that can cope with the difficult growing conditions of balconies.
Many fruit trees, herbs and even vegetables love growing in pots on a sunny balcony. Remember that the soil in pots dries out quickly, so you will need to water and feed regularly to ensure a good crop.
Fruit salad tree (Feijoa sellowiana)
This evergreen shrub is an attractive choice for an edible balcony garden. It thrives in a large pot, and its grey-green leaves and lovely white-and-red flowers will brighten up any dull space. The fruit ripens in autumn and has a sweet, aromatic flavour that tastes like a mix of pineapple, apple and mint. It prefers a sunny spot but can tolerate some shade and is frost hardy. Although relatively drought tolerant, keep well-watered to ensure a good crop of fruit.
Most citrus trees take well to growing in large containers. They like a sunny position and respond well to the warmth reflected off walls, but do need to be kept well-watered. Most varieties flower in late winter, although some lemon varieties flower almost constantly. Their blooms alone make citrus worth growing as the delectable scent will enthral all passers- by. Feed regularly, particularly in spring and summer. Regular pruning helps limit tree size and promotes bigger, better fruit.
Most herbs grow well in pots, but none more so than rosemary. Like most herbs, it needs plenty of sunlight and a rich, well-draining potting mix. Once mature, rosemary will tolerate the odd dry spell, and it’s better to underwater rather than overwater them. Allow the top few inches of soil to dry out between waterings and then water so that the soil is evenly moist but not soggy. There is a trailing variety that is particularly suited to pots.
Almost all succulents need excellent drainage to thrive. There are potting mixtures specifically formulated for succulents, or you can make your own by making a mixture of 50% potting soil and 50% coarse river sand. To check when it’s time to water, stick the tip of your finger in the soil; if it’s dry up to the knuckle, it’s time to water.
Echeveria and Graptoveria
Plants from these closely related genera make for excellent pot specimens. The main difference between plants from the two genera is the thickness of their leaves, with echeverias having the more delicate leaves. Although they are fairly drought tolerant, they will appreciate being watered when the soil dries out. There are many varieties that provide wonderful tones and texture for pots, and there are some delightful hybrids on the market with striking foliage for year-round interest; Echeveria ‘Tutti Frutti’ is a particularly good choice.
Aeonium haworthii ‘Kiwi’
Winner of the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society, Aeonium haworthii ‘Kiwi’ is an excellent choice for your balcony landscape. It’s a compact cultivar that grows about 30cm tall and wide, and offers up pyramidal clusters of pale yellow flowers in summer. However, its main drawcard is its eye-catching, tri-colour variegation. To ensure good colour in its leaves, make sure that it gets plenty of sun.
Aloe ‘Fire Chief’
One of master hybridiser Andy de Wet’s creations, Aloe ‘Fire Chief’ starts flowering when the plant is still relatively young. It is a good choice if you are looking to bring in some winter colour, although it may also flower sporadically throughout the year. Plant in full sun in rich, well-drained soil and only water once the soil has dried out. While it is cold hardy, it will need protection from frost.
Pretty flowers are almost guaranteed to lighten up your mood, and are particularly effective in the confined spaces of a balcony garden.
Flowering pretty much from spring right through into autumn, these perennials are an excellent way to bring colour into a balcony garden. Feed monthly with a balanced, all-purpose liquid fertiliser to help your plants develop and flourish. In addition to its pretty blooms, the dark green, ferny foliage and tidy, mounding appearance add interest even when it’s not flowering. Deadheading keeps the plants neat and encourages more flowers to appear.
Christ thorn (Euphorbia milii)
This tough Madagascar native needs full sun and little else. Plant breeders have been hard at work on this species, and there are a host of colours and forms available. If it gets unruly, it takes well to pruning. The plant will bloom throughout the year. While it doesn’t suffer from any serious pests or diseases, keep an eye out for scale, mealybug and mites.
Brachyscome ‘Brasco Violet’
Attractive, dark-blue to purple, daisy-like blooms that appear in spring and continue well into autumn are set amid clouds of lacy green leaves. Its compact shape (height of 30 – 46cm and spread of 25 – 36cm) makes this a good choice for hanging baskets and containers. It is an undemanding plant that naturally grows into a neat mounded shape. Flowers best in full sun, but also grows in light shade. A dose of slow-release fertiliser in spring ensures good flowering. Trim lightly in autumn, if needed.
Form or feature plants are the foundation around which the rest of the plantings revolve. They immediately draw your eye before you begin to take in the rest of the landscape.
Sago palm (Cycas revoluta)
Not strictly a palm, these lush, long-living plants provide year-round interest with their striking, palm-like foliage. They are among the toughest, lowest-maintenance plants you can grow, and they thrive in pots. They prefer a spot that gets morning sun and is shaded from about noon onwards. Overwatering causes the older foliage to turn yellow, so cut down on the irrigation if you notice this. Feed with a general fertiliser in spring and late summer.
Butterfly agave (Agave potatorum)
This slow-growing small agave only reaches a maximum height of 50cm, and if kept in a container it’s easy to control its size. This plant has sturdy, blue-grey leaves that grow in a symmetrical rosette pattern and are tipped with attractive reddish spines. This is a tropical succulent so doesn’t like temperatures much below -1°C. Remember that you shouldn’t fertilise agaves as this encourages them to flower, and the plant dies once it has bloomed.
Fire sticks (Euphorbia tirucalli)
Reminiscent of underwater coral, this indigenous succulent forms a thicket of brightly coloured branches that turn from yellow and green in summer to a vibrant red and gold in winter. It is a good choice for novice gardeners as it is low maintenance and grows relatively quickly, and is seldom attacked by pests and diseases. Be aware, though, that the sap from these plants is toxic, so make sure that you wear gloves when handling it.
Trailing or spiller plants tumble over the sides of your pots and help to soften the edges, creating a larger mass of growth to catch the eye and giving the whole area a polished look.
Parrot’s beak (Lotus berthelotii)
This striking perennial puts out slender stems that are covered in fine, silver-grey, needle-like leaves that become engulfed in yellow, orange or red blooms from mid-spring through to summer. While they are extremely drought and heat tolerant, water once their soil has dried for best results. When you notice new shoots appearing, pinch out the tips to encourage more side shoots and a fuller look. If you notice the plant looking straggly, it won’t sulk if you trim it back by up to half the plant.
Vygies (Delosperma spp.)
Delospermas are predominantly from the summer-rainfall regions of South Africa, so are a good choice for inland gardens.
D. cooperi is the most commonly commercially available species and grows naturally at higher altitudes in central Southern Africa. It thrives in sun and shade, is relatively fast growing, and cuttings root quite easily so you can have a bunch of plants trailing from your pots in no time. They do need to be watered in summer during dry spells.
Baby sun rose (Aptenia cordifolia‘Variegata’)
Another member of the summer-rainfall branch of the vygie family, this fast- growing succulent offers succulent, glossy leaves and deep magenta-pink flowers. Its stems can grow up to 60cm long, so it is ideal for growing along the edges of a pot. The variegated variety offers added interest with its showy leaves. Generally pest free, it flowers best in full sun but will still be happy if shaded in the afternoons. Water sparingly in winter.