Balconies and Roof Gardens

Balconies and flat roof spaces can offer a great opportunity to produce a really different sort of garden area and although they impose their own constraints on landscaping, with a little imagination, it is possible to create some quite extraordinary effects. As a true “outdoor room” these sorts of gardens are hard to beat and whether they are your only bit of green, or an additional accessory to a traditional plot, the key to success lies in careful planning from the outset.

Staying Safe

Gardening above ground inevitably makes some special demands on safety. For one thing, it is important to provide properly robust barriers to prevent anyone from falling off – especially if there are children or pets in the house, or they are likely to visit. It is also important to consider the weight of plants, pots and compost that you intend to install and to make sure that the structure of your roof or balcony will be able to support it.

Often a spot of professional help from a local builder or architect can be a worthwhile investment when it comes to siting the elements you want to include in such a way as to make maximum use of the existing load-bearing capacity of walls or cross-beams.

Selecting appropriate materials can also help reduce the overall load. Choosing light containers made from plastic or fibreglass rather than stone or ceramic can make a huge difference – especially when you add in the additional weight of wet compost they will hold. In the same way, decking makes a far lighter alternative to any kind of ceramic or concrete flooring and bark chippings beat gravel.

However, it is also important to be aware that a garden built on a roof or balcony is always going to suffer more from the wind than one on the ground – so don’t over-do the quest for lightness! Whatever you use must be secure to avoid the possibility of causing damage or injury below if the weather gets a bit blustery.

Contacting the local authority for help over appropriate building regulations – and guidance on any relevant planning issues – is always a good idea at the outset to make sure your safety precautions really are adequate.

Planting the Roof-Top or Balcony Garden

As with all landscaping, the elements you can include in your roof or balcony garden really depend on its size and location. While large areas can include almost all of the features you would find in any “normal” garden – including seating, barbeques, water features and trees – even the smallest of spaces can be made into something quite special.

This kind of gardening is really all about containers – whether standing on the floor or attached to the walls or railings – so you can really feel free to indulge your own tastes, although it is essential to remember the special challenges this environment poses.

Plants with particularly fragile or tender foliage, such as Japanese Maple (Acer) and the like, may suffer badly from the extra exposure to wind buffeting, while the drying combination of wind and sun – always a problem for container growing – can be a major problem. If your site is particularly wind-swept, choosing tough, drought-resistant forms should help your garden do well and as a general rule, bushy, compact plants offer the best resistance to the worst effects of the elements.

Wisely chosen plants can transform the most stark of roof-spaces into an oasis of calm, while the ugliest of views can be softened with flowers and foliage – and remember these gardens can look every bit as attractive from the inside too. Planted with hardy evergreens such as box (Buxus sempervirens) for all year round appeal, winter and summer flowering pansies, a range of early and late spring bulbs or any of the usual bedding plants, even the shadiest of spaces can be transformed.

If you are lucky enough to have a balcony or roof with a sunny aspect, then the options are even wider – from drought-tolerant pelargoniums and New Zealand Flax (Phormium) to specimen azaleas or any of the wide range of aromatic Mediterranean herbs.

Despite the particular demands they place on both safety and the growing environment, almost any balcony or flat roof area has the potential to be turned into a interesting and unusual garden. With careful selection of the plants and materials, coupled with some expert advice to make sure everyone stays safe, a well planned balcony or roof garden can extend your living space and completely change how you view the world outside your window.