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Designing a Contemporary Balcony Garden

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If you’re lucky enough to have a balcony, you’ll want to make the most of it, so that it looks its best all year round. It doesn’t matter how big it is, I always ask clients to think about three aspects of design that will impact them when they are asking me to design a balcony. How the design will transform their view, their home and their lives.


The first point is important because in the UK, we don’t often have long periods of lovely weather when we can sit outside all the time. So you may be looking from inside much of the time and whatever you design on your balcony should enhance the view you have from your living space.


For people living in tall buildings, wind can also be a problem, so the way you design your balcony should factor in the impact of the wind on planting design, furniture and accessories. Looking out on a beautifully designed balcony when a south-westerly gale is blowing plants and furnishings around isn’t a relaxing experience. 


The second point is thinking about how the design of your balcony impacts on the rest of your home. Most newbuild apartments have lots of glass, so you will be looking out at your balcony all the time. Your balcony is essentially an extension of your home and therefore of your taste and style.


Balcony with planters


You will have spent time and money styling your interiors beautifully and choosing accessories and colours that you love, so your balcony design choices need to reflect that. You need continuity in your design thinking, where you consider how what is outside looks good from inside. 


The last point is self-explanatory. What I am asking clients to consider is the impact of having a new living space to inhabit and look after, a new room of your home. You need to think about how you are going to use the space? Is it just something lovely to look at as in my first point or do you plan to use it to socialise, entertain and relax or even for fitness or yoga? This will affect the size and positioning of your planters and furnishings.


Thinking about these aspects of your balcony design, will now help you to plan how it will look. In addition to this you’ll want to consider how you’ll keep the plants watered and any lighting you want to add to the overall effect.


If you have access to an external water source, you can set up an automated watering system or use reservoir tanks in your planters to give plants the water they need. Similarly if you have a power source outside you can build in a lighting design or use solar lamps which will produce a lovely soft evening light for your balcony. 


The next consideration is the look or style you want to achieve. Of course you will be directed to a great degree by the altitude and aspect of your balcony. The kind of plants that will succeed on the 3rd floor of a north facing balcony are different from those that will survive a 27th floor south facing balcony. On more sheltered outdoor spaces you’ll have a different range of plants than you will on exposed rooftops.


When I am looking at plants tend to think about design through the eyes of different terrain or growing zones. So our design collections include Mountain Aromatics, Alpine Prairie Grasses, Coastal Cliff, Hedgerow, Shady Forest and English Border. Your choices will depend not just on the position of your outdoor space but on how green-fingered you are and whether you want to spend time tending the plants and keeping them well-tended.


If you don’t have time or the inclination to look after plants, then you’ll choose a planting design that doesn’t require too much maintenance. Though there is no such thing as ‘no maintenance’ planting! You are buying into a living system that will need feeding, watering and tending to some degree.


Once you have thought through some of these ideas, you want to consider the shape, size and colour of your planters. We use lightweight steel planters, which can be powder coated in any colour. You can use these to create ‘pops’ of colour that draw your eye, perhaps picking up colours you are using in your interior design.


Balcony Planter


People mostly tend towards grey or darker colours, so I spend a lot of time with clients persuading them to look at more interesting colours. Not necessarily bright colours but those with subtle shades in different lights. Bear in mind that in the UK, you will be looking out at cloudy days lots of the time, so you want colours that will add a soft touch to the built environment as well as complementing the planting design. 


In terms of sizes, you need to consider the lifespan of container plants. This is by nature, shorter than plants in a garden. We recommend planters minimum 450mm in dept, to allow for water reservoir tanks and enough root space for plants to get well established. Container planting medium will need to reconditioned and replenished every three years, at which point you can do some root trimming and general maintenance to prepare the plants and planters for another 3 years beyond.


When you are creating your design, you’ll want to decide if you’re looking for uniformity or variety of shape. If you’re going to create planting screen to make your balcony more private, you’d probably want a row of planters the same size. But if you are looking for a more interesting design, maybe planting a small tree or large shrub alongside  your smaller plants, then you’d think about having planters of different heights and lengths to make it look more visually interesting.


This will also help to direct you in terms of the look of the planting design. If you want very stylised planting or what I call ‘block’ planting using a single species or ‘varietal’ planting which uses different types of the same plants. If you prefer more naturalistic planting you need to plant thinking about balance and evenness across the planters, otherwise you may end up with very messy looking plants after a strong wind. 


We always suggest a structural base of evergreen, hardy plants that will perform all year round, interplanted with plants that give more seasonal performance and may need to be cut back at some point to allow them a period of dormancy. You should also think about plants that flower across the year, in autumn and winter, as well as the spring and summer show stoppers.


Lastly, it’s time to think about the furniture you would like to use on the balcony. There are a few things to consider. First of all, the height you plan to sit. High up in a tall building, I don’t recommend dining style furniture as it leaves you very exposed. Go for more lounge level chairs and low tables. Closer to the ground where you are protected from the weather, it’s fine to be sitting taller if that’s more comfortable.


Balcony view


Consider what materials you want furnishings to be made from. Again it depends where you are but it’s a good idea to think about durability, how something will weather and how heavy it is. If you’re bringing things inside and storing them in winter or when you’re not using them, you don’t need to worry but things left out all year need to be able to withstand rain and wind. Go for sustainable hardwoods which you can leave out all year and make sure what you choose is solid as you definitely don’t want things flying around your balcony. 


I hope some of these ideas will help you to create a stylish contemporary balcony design for your home

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