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By Sheila Frampton

In retirement, many of us move from large family homes to apartments or smaller houses that are easier to maintain, cheaper to heat and less effort to clean. Downsizing or ‘rightsizing’ can be traumatic, particularly if you’ve lived in a house for years and have brought your family up there.  Leaving a much-loved garden can also be a wrench – especially if you move to a property with a patio, balcony or very small garden.

Owning a home with very little outside space needn’t mean giving up gardening entirely – and, indeed, it’s better for your health to maintain the connection with nature. Being outside in the fresh air, soaking up the sun, enjoying physical contact with the soil and watching the plants grow is a good way to reduce stress and anxiety. What’s more, a sense of contentment and tranquillity comes from observing even a single flower to say nothing of the pleasures of sitting on a balcony or patio surrounded by scented flowers.

Planning and designing even a small garden can also be fun and very uplifting and maintaining your terrace, patio or balcony garden is a relatively inexpensive hobby. But how to start?

Designing your small garden

Close your eyes and imagine the type of small garden you’d like – what immediately springs to mind:

  • The patio furniture?
  • Entertaining friends?
  • A colourful array of plants?
  • Woodland outside your door?
  • A relaxing sanctuary?
  • Growing your own herbs, vegetables or fruit?

Patio furniture

If you’d like your garden to be an extension of your living space, your patio furniture is going to be a priority. Your choice of furniture may depend on several factors:

  • How many people will share the outside space?
  • Do you want to eat outside or just sit with a cool drink on a hot day?
  • Is your home short of storage – so do you need to buy furniture with built-in storage options so you can tuck your gardening tools and gloves out of sight?
  • What kind of material do you want your furniture to be made of – metal, wood, or wicker? Most metals, teak, cedar, and all-weather wicker furniture are the easiest to maintain.
  • Do you want colourful furniture or are you content to add splashes of colour with cushions and accessories?

Seating should be comfortable – and if you have enough space, think about treating yourself to a hanging ‘egg-chair’ – being cocooned in a gently swaying ‘nest’ is a wonderful experience.

Garden themes

Small spaces with a strong ‘theme’ can look spectacular – and the following are just a few ideas. Before you decide on your garden do check whether your space is sunny or shady – because this will determine the plants you choose and this, in turn, may affect the ‘garden theme.’

A Cottage Garden

Set your cottage garden off with a piece of artificial lawn – try to buy this in person at a DIY store or a garden centre rather than online so you can feel the quality; some feel like the ‘real thing’ underfoot and are an excellent way to cover ‘tired’ decking.

With a cottage garden you’re looking to have a wild, unruly look full of climbing plants and soft colours – so choose climbers that thrive in pots and make sure your containers are brimming over with flowers and foliage. Make sure your plant choices all have similar light requirements – pairing a shade-loving plant with a sun-loving variety will not work. You’ll also need a lot of water for a cottage-style garden due to the plants being ‘crowded’ together.

Your container choices could include

  • Containers that look as if they are made of stone (actual stone ones may be too heavy for a balcony garden)
  • Galvanised buckets and watering cans
  • Simple ceramic pots

Your plant choices could include:

  • Climbers: Morning Glory, Sweet Peas, Climbing Roses, Honeysuckle
  • Container plants: Lavender, Petunias, Pink Verbenas, Coleus, Dusty Miller, Cosmos
  • Trailing herbs: thyme, sage, and oregano


‘Inside-Outside’ Gardens

This type of balcony, terrace, patio garden is an extension of your living space – so the furniture will be important, and the colours of the soft furnishings will reflect those inside your home. Rather than having an abundance of plants, you may choose a piece of garden sculpture – and just because you have a small space, it doesn’t mean you have to have a small ‘artwork’ – a large, impressive piece on a balcony or terrace can create a definite impact. Your ‘focal’ point may be a dramatic container – planted with something like Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) which looks fabulous in a large pot. You may want to add some lighting – perhaps solar lighting.

For a sunny balcony choose:

  • Geraniums
  • Petunias
  • Surfinias
  • Million Bells
  • Marigolds
  • Verbenas

For a shady balcony choose:

  • Impatiens
  • Fuchsias
  • Begonias
  • Busy Lizzies
  • Hellebores

Zen Gardens

If you have a small patio or balcony, think about creating a peaceful Zen garden. Choose rock and wood – a collection of garden rocks, smooth stones or large pebbles arranged around dark-stained wooden deck tiles introduce the sense of stability and earthiness. Add a small water feature but if you have a balcony ensure that this won’t leak or spill onto the balcony below.  Use only green plants to relax the mind. Seating and tables should enhance the theme – stain wooden furniture the same shade as the deck tiles.

Choose woodland ferns and plant in wooden containers. Hostas are also beautifully leafy and come in many sizes, leaf shapes and colours – the blue-green ones are favourites.

Colourful Gardens

Bright colours can inject a sense of life and vitality into your small garden. Colourful plants and matching plant markers are just a couple of ideas – match them to the cushions on your patio chairs.  Choose a colour theme – not only for your planters and pots but for the flowering plants and the soft furnishings as well – or choose a rainbow assortment for variety.

  • Colourful balconies and patios can be energising so choose red, orange, and yellow – this works well if you’re planting edibles – tomatoes in large pots along with peppers, chillies and basil. Add marigolds for pest protection and colour and paint your patio furniture in bright colours.
  • Blue is an excellent choice for a relaxing space – it is the colour that helps lower blood pressure and reduces the heart rate. Paint wood deck tiles in blue and add matching blue planters and navy chair cushions. Contrast the blue with the colour of flowering plants – or choose to plant only those with blue flowers. Morning Glory ‘Heavenly Blue’, Cornflower and Delphinium are ideal.
  • Black and white can be an effective way of creating a statement space – choose plants with white flowers and paint your planters black and add black and white cushions to your patio furniture. Cup flower is a fantastic plant for adding fine texture to containers. Go for the white flowering variety. It is best planted with Annual vinca (Catharanthus), which has similar flowers but a coarser texture.
  • Ice cream shades – pinks and blues and striped chair covers, along with smooth stones or garden rocks can help you create a seaside garden. Add coloured metal buckets planted with Rosemary, Echium Vulgare and Armeria Maritima (Thrift) or Crambe Maritima (Sea Kale).

An Edible Garden

If you enjoy eating the fruits of your labour, you could plant herbs, vegetables or even a small fruit tree. Even if you’ve only got a tiny space, you can grow a fruit tree. Fig trees and Calamondin orange trees flourish in pots at least 1 ft in diameter and 1 ft deep. Citrus trees love sunny spots. Do make sure you choose a variety that can survive the cold because planters freeze faster than the ground.

Most vegetable plants like lots of sun and plenty of water – tomatoes, peppers, beans, and most herbs need at least 5-6 hours of sunlight a day so either a south or west-facing balcony is best. Salad greens can survive with less sun but do choose a sheltered spot to screen the containers.

The following need different depths of soil if they are to thrive:

  • 4-5 inches of soil: chives, lettuce, radishes and other salad greens, basil, and coriander
  • 6-7 inches of soil: garlic, onions, peas, mint, thyme, kohlrabi
  • 8-9 inches of soil: pole  beans, carrots, chard, cucumber, aubergine, fennel, leeks, peppers, spinach, parsley, and rosemary

You can grow vegetables and herbs in themed containers – for example, an Italian pot of tomatoes, garlic, and basil.  If you do combine any herbs and/or vegetables it’s worth checking they are compatible – with a similar need for water. For example, Rosemary likes hot, dry conditions so it wouldn’t be good with cucumbers which need a lot of water.

Good companion plants:

  • Beans, carrots, and squash
  • Eggplant and beans
  • Tomatoes, basil, and onions
  • Lettuce and herbs
  • Spinach, chard, and onions

Avoid mixing the following:

  • Beans with onions and garlic
  • Carrots with dill and fennel
  • Tomatoes or squash with potatoes
  • Onions with beans and peas

 Forest Garden

If you love trees you can give your balcony or patio a ‘forest feel.’ Go for dwarf varieties such a Dwarf Japanese Maple, dwarf Flowering Cherry trees, compact conifers, weeping Crab Apple trees, Fig trees and Magnolia shrubs. Complement these with wooden containers filled with foliage plants – such as woodland ferns or Hostas.

A Low Maintenance Garden

Do you travel a lot or spend time abroad?  If so, you may need to consider plants that don’t need much maintenance. It’s upsetting to return from holiday to find your plants have died from lack of care. Consider growing succulents. Cacti are very hardy, drought-tolerant plants.  If you’re creating an edible garden, basil and mint are hardy herbs requiring little water. Try Verbena, Wallflowers, Lantana, Bougainvillea and Agave.

Vertical Gardens 

Even the narrowest of balconies need not be an obstacle to creating a beautiful garden – you just need to think vertically. Hanging pots and baskets and planters attached to the balcony railings work well.  Think about plants that will climb the walls. Colourful window boxes can create a dramatic impact on your balcony. Pop your plant pots in a shoe organiser and hang it on the wall. Attach a trellis to the wall and hook your pots over the wooden frame. Make a vertical planter by collecting a succession of different size pots from the large to the small. Fill each with soil and stack them up, then plant trailing varieties around the edges and in the top pot. You can even take an old picture frame and make your own wall planter. There’s a tutorial online at balconygardenweb.com.

Plants to include in your balcony garden include Bromeliads which require little space as they have shallow roots and trailing vines which grow vertically with extraordinarily little effort. Ivy, Clematis, honeysuckle and wisteria may be grown in containers

Garden  Ornaments

Don’t think because your space is small, you have to choose small ornaments. If you visit the garden centre, you’ll find a number of garden statues of all sizes – choose your favourite and personalise it or tailor it to your garden with a can of spray paint designed for garden furniture. Gold or silver catches the sun or colours make a bold statement.


If you want some privacy on your balcony consider some screening. Garden centres and DIY stores sell artificial leaf-covered fencing panels and bamboo rolls that you can fix to your balcony. This immediately creates a sense of privacy and if you haven’t much of a view, when you’re sitting down on your balcony you feel surrounded by greenery. If there are rules about not putting the washing out on your balcony – as there are in many developments – screening and the use of a low, flat airer can conceal the laundry!  If you want more natural screening, place tall plants or plants in taller pots around the edge of the balcony or patio.

Points to remember:

  • Make sure your planters are not too heavy for your balcony – even light containers may be heavy when fully planted
  • Make sure that water does not leak onto your balcony possibly causing the wood to deteriorate – and so it does not drip onto the balcony below
  • To plant your container, put a layer of broken pots at the bottom, fill the pot with compost to about 0.7 inches or 2 cm below the rim, arrange the plants (in their pots) putting taller ones in the centre and smaller or trailing plants around the edge – and once you are happy to take the plants out of their pots and plant in the container and water them.
  • If you are hanging anything from plant holders to suspended chairs make sure that whatever you attach them to is strong enough to bear the weight.

Enjoy your balcony, terrace or patio garden!


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