Imagine lazing in a hammock on the sunny, plant-filled balcony of your elegant apartment, gazing over a beautiful green space teeming with wildlife. That’s the sort of lifestyle that drew Inka Karppinen and her boyfriend Andrew Ryan to a new home at Woodberry Down in 2014.
Quite a few years on, they have the hammock and the view – which stretches as far as the Olympic Park – and Inka is now in the process of lovingly creating her own verdant balcony space.
The east-facing corner balcony of their two-bedroom place is 12 storeys up and Inka is starting to learn what will thrive best there. Her fragrant rosemary plant, for instance, is gearing up for its second, flourishing year, after a strong winter cutback.
“You get direct morning sun for six or so hours, so it has to be a very hardy plant to survive. It’s pretty hot if there is no wind,” says Inka, who adds that the temperature can reach as high as 30 degrees Celsius in summer, before cooling off in the afternoon when a fresh wind comes through.
So what else is suitable for balcony life? Inka and her boyfriend are not the only green-fingered residents developing balcony gardens. Take a stroll through the beautiful grounds of the development and you can see high patches of green dotted throughout.
Sophie Verhagen is Head Grower at Growing Communities, whose Hackney Patchwork Farm grows award-winning salad sold through Growing Communities’ organic fruit and vegetable scheme. She has invaluable advice for would-be balcony gardeners.
“Anything you grow is likely to be exposed to a lot of sun and wind, so choose plants that are tough,” she advises. “Mediterranean herbs, such as thyme, rosemary and basil, will do well – and give you a tasty, super-fresh addition to your cooking. Just snip off a sprig and add to meals.” Sorrel is another culinary herb suitable for growing in balcony containers, providing you with a tangy flavour to add to salads and soups.
“Even if you live high up, trying planting lavender, hyssop or buddleia, to attract any stray bees cruising at high altitude: blues and purple are their favourite colours,” she continues, “create natural windbreaks on your balcony from ornamental grasses, and make sure any containers are weighed down or securely attached.” Dwarf shrubs and other Mediterranean species such as juniper can also protect more fragile plants from the wind. Artemisia is also rugged and can grow quite tall.
Bigger plants are well-suited to protecting smaller, more fragile plants, so bear that in mind. Container gardening always looks smart but do consider the weight of larger tubs, troughs and pots. The Royal Horticultural Society’s website has a great section devoted to balcony growing (www.rhs.org.uk/advice). Among the really useful advice to be found there is a recommendation to use non-porous containers rather than terracotta planters. They will not only weigh less, but the plants won’t dry out as much, for terracotta can leech water away. Alternatively, invest in containers that have built-in reservoirs.
Alpine plants are accustomed to windy, wild weather and make a beautiful display. It is important not to let them get waterlogged in winter though, so protect them by covering with a well-secured piece of Perspex.
In general, however, really keep up the water. Plants grown in containers need more watering than those grown in the ground – especially if rain can’t get to your balcony because of an overhang from the one above. A balcony-planting scheme will need even more water in hot weather. The RHS recommends watering twice a day in summer, preferably by hand as it is more accurate. It’s always best to water early in the morning and late in the afternoon or evening, to prevent wet leaves scorching.
Meanwhile, Inka has invested in hardier flowering species, including ornamental, topiaried dwarf conifers, a vivid pink azalea and a sizeable rhododendron. She’s also planning a living bamboo screen to provide shelter for more delicate plantings – maybe even some bulbs.
“I think this is a trial and error thing,” she says. “I’ll see if any of these plants survive this summer, and if any of them do, then I might keep those and then think about other plants as well.”
If you want to get your hands dirty in a bigger garden – as well as meet your neighbours and pick up tips from expert growers such as Sophie Verhagen – Growing Communities welcomes volunteers on its market gardens across Hackney and at its farm in Dagenham.
The Castle Climbing Centre near Manor House also has a flourishing food garden where volunteers are welcome.
Sign up for Growing Communities’ veg scheme and collect weekly bags of fresh organic veg from local farmers, including Hackney Salad, from the Redmond Community Centre.