South Africa’s cities are growing every day as people flock to them to build new lives. Complexes, clusters and flats are popping up like mushrooms after rainfall and more people are finding themselves living on the second floor or above with a tiny balcony, craving just a little bit of nature in their lives.
The good news is that it really doesn’t take a lot of space to make a working garden, and just because you are looking at a concrete balcony doesn’t mean you have to be without fresh veggies if that’s what you want.
In the end, your balcony plants can be as expressive, and reflective of you as a person as a regular garden. You can choose to spend a fortune or you can make it cheaper. Go for a full-on farm or a low-maintenance succulent display. The only restrictions are the space, light and amount of time you want to spend.
Understand the space
The climate on your balcony is not the same as the one on the ground. Stone tiles can get roasting hot in direct sunlight, and wind can howl across different parts of it, at different times. One small nook may be protected from sun and frost, while the rest might be harsh and exposed, and all these things need to be taken into account when deciding what you want to do with the space.
Different plants will thrive in all these different conditions, but understanding exactly what they are will make planning things so much easier.
The next thing you need to evaluate is the space itself and how you want to use it. It’s no good buying a large wall rack when the only wall is right next to the door into the house or planting a large shrub right where your only view is. When you look at the balcony think of it as a three-dimensional space. Balconies are great because, in general, you have some space to play with going upward as well as sideways.
Pay attention too to the light in the space. It’s very easy to overestimate how much direct light your balcony gets as you assume it’s outdoors and in the open. The truth is other buildings, and even your own flat, are going to block much of that sunlight from ever reaching certain areas on the balcony and this is going to change between seasons.
You will also want to look at just how windy your balcony is and where. Wind tends to dry out plants and high winds will tear some apart while others can take it in their stride. What you will want to consider is using hardier plants to act as windbreaks for the more delicate ones, and for yourself.
Check the rules
Body corporates are made up of all sorts of people, and more often than not there are at least some who love pointless rules and regulations. You need to make sure you fully understand the rules of your complex so that you don’t break them.
Sensible rules that some places may have include not allowing residents to plant things that dangle over the balcony, or run creepers up the walls that may damage the paint. Other less sensible rules pop up from time-to-time too – one complex we heard about doesn’t allow fruits and vegetables and one didn’t allow anything that would blossom with purple flowers, because it clashed with the colour scheme.
Whatever the rules, don’t disobey them. There are few things as sad as being forced to dismantle an already established garden.
Pots and Planters
Because your plants can’t be buried in the ground, your pots and planters are going to be important, not only for the plants but also for the way your garden looks.
Because they can be expensive pots are often one of the things you need to consider most carefully. What kind of growing space do you need? What kind of root systems do your plants have? How big are the plants going to be?
Ultimately, this will come down to your budget, but if you just want to grow food, shrubs or a few small flowering bushes it’s possible to find large plastic tubs, or even wooden crates that are fit-for-purpose relatively cheaply, so your budget need not be a complete deterrent.
Remember, because of the heat and wind you need to always consider your pot’s ability to retain water, and also to drain properly. Terracotta pots don’t retain water as well as plastic or fibreglass ones. If you do buy buckets or similar to keep plants in, remember to drill holes in the bottom to ensure root systems don’t stand in water and rot.
The plants you put on your balcony will ultimately depend on you, your budget at the unique climate of your space.
Vegetables tend to do well as long as you have plenty of direct sunlight, but some herbs can grow well in semi-shade or even full shade.
Here are some South African varieties, which make wonderful balcony plants:
Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is a gorgeous addition to any patio garden. With small, round, succulent leaves and red stems, it’s an attractive year-round shrub that comes into its own in early spring with a mass of star-shaped pink flowers. They also supply nectar for insects and can, therefore, attract insect-eating birds as a result. As an added bonus it has been shown to be a great carbon absorber and air scrubber.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) has serrated, oval leaves and dark red flowers for most of the year. It thrives in a pot and can be easily pruned to grow into a space, or provide a screening hedge if necessary. While it likes warmth, and doesn’t do well with frost and should be protected, being on a balcony will often lift it away from the worst of the frost. The flowers are edible and sometimes used in salads in the far east. Occasionally they are made into tea.
Forest Bell Bush (Mackaya bella) is an ideal shrub for shady balconies as it thrives out of direct sun. It has dense foliage and flowers with large white to mauve flowers from spring to summer. Makes a lovely screen in a semi-shaded area. Requires regular watering and becomes more dense with regular pruning.
African Lily (Agapanthus africanus) is an instantly recognisable plant with round balls of purple funnel-shaped flowers. Usually, it thrives in full sun, but if your balcony is very hot, try give them at least partial shade. Attracting bees and butterflies its flowers are ideal for cutting to put in vases indoors, and it makes a lovely counterpoint to other shrubs or bushes.
Confetti bush (Coleonema calycinum) is an evergreen shrub that produces swathes of white flowers from June to September. It can be used in so many ways from an accent plant to being clumped in groups to form a hedge or even as a stand-alone shrub in a pot. They make wonderful screens and due to their ability to handle the wind, can protect other, less hardy plants. As a bonus, they are extremely water-wise.
European Olive (Olea europaea) A pretty evergreen shade tree with pale silver-green leaves is a good addition to balconies that need natural shade. They do well in large pots and handle strong winds, lashing rain, hail, and frost. In fact, it’s their hardiness that makes them so great as they will also survive very dry conditions. A more mature tree also produces tiny white flowers which blossom into small purple-black fruit which is a favourite for birds such as Barbets and Louries.
Orange Jasmine (Murraya exotica) is a medium-sized shrub that gets its name from the fact that its dark glossy leaves emit a citrus scent when crushed, and its bunches of white flowers smell like orange blossoms. Compared to some of the others on this list it’s quite delicate and needs protection from wind, blazing sun, and frost but its first flowers, then red berries make it an extremely attractive and common addition to flower arrangements.
Pink Joy (Crassula ovata) is a hardy plant that does well with salt air, drought, hot sun and cold weather. It’s most recognisable from the stout, gnarled stem, which is covered in dark, grey-green succulent leaves and round heads of pink flowers from about July to November. It makes a marvellous windbreak but will need a large container to reach its full potential.