Better balcony gardens
In this extract from his new book ‘Small Garden Design’, Paul Bangay shares his tips for that most difficult small garden - the balcony.
Words: Paul Bangay, pictures: Simon Griffiths
In inner-city areas, a balcony or terrace is the most common form of outdoor space. The size of these can vary greatly, but no matter the size, people almost always feel the need for a sense of greenery, which can present a number of challenges. Beyond the size, and built constraints are the environmental challenges of wind, light and soil. But there are also benefits to small gardens, one of which is the accessibility, both physically and visually, to the interior of the house.
I like the appearance of real stone for paving, but for weight and thickness reasons, it is often ruled out for balconies. Luckily, there is a great range of thin, light ceramic tiles that look like stone and are durable and easy to maintain. For smaller balconies, I recommend blending the paving with the same tile as the internal space; this creates a seamless transition between inside and outside and makes the outdoor space appear larger. Where this is not possible find a tonally similar material. Small spaces will always appear larger if they are not broken up in terms of paving materials.
Small spaces also appear larger if vertical wall colours are consistent as well. If you have space to use troughs, try to select fibreglass or other lightweight materials that can be coloured and textured to match the external wall of the building. These are available in a range of sizes or can be custom-made to fit the space. The other material I use for troughs is colour-matched aluminium; this can take its cue from door or window trims or other internal finishes. The important thing here, whatever you choose, is to ensure it is as light as possible. All buildings have issues with weight loading; the volume of wet soil is critical, as is the weight of the container itself.
Where there’s room I prefer troughs to pots as they have the advantage of allowing you to create the illusion of garden beds. You can fill them with more planting, and a greater diversity, than you can with pots. If space demands pots, I like to use groupings of varying heights and diameters, which creates interest and diversity of planting. Lower bowls are a good solution if there's a distant view that you don’t want to obscure with high plantings or features.
Consider how you’re going to use the space before you select furniture. Do you want to dine outside or simply sit and enjoy the view?Make sure you choose robust, heavy furniture as you don’t want strong winds to send it flying. If the balcony space really is limited, my preference is always for a couple of comfortable low chairs and low coffee table, which can be used for both relaxing and casual dining.
The important design factor is to never clutter the space, no matter how large or small it is. Fewer better pieces of furniture, ornaments or pots and plants are favourable to many lesser pieces. Consider the outlook when placing objects; try to frame the view instead of blocking it.
Small Garden Design
Paul Bangay is renowned for expansive and elegant gardens with classical lines and symmetrical plantings, as seen in his garden Stonefields, in central Victoria. Most of us though, can only dream of a big garden, so Paul’s new book, published by Penguin/Random House, rrp $60, deals with the real spaces of urban gardening life - balconies, terraces, rooftops, lightwells and courtyards. There is plenty of good advice, and the underlying message is to keep it simple and to make bold choices. If you’d like to see Paul's grander vision at Stonefields join us either in spring on our Inside Victoria tour with Libby Cameron, or join Robin Powell on a new Victorian itinerary next autumn.