x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Make your balcony beautiful for Dh500 or less

Nick's Garden With a little planning and patience, you can transform a drab outdoor space into a lush, blooming retreat, even in the UAE's harsh climate.

Cape leadwort. Getty Images / Gallo Images
Cape leadwort. Getty Images / Gallo Images

Is it possible to have a well-planted balcony for under Dh500? The answer is a resounding yes, but only if you can resist the urge to immediately splash your cash in the nearest nursery. You'll need to plan ahead, shop around and be willing to begin with smaller plants. Then, not only will you have the satisfaction of knowing that your plants were a bargain, but you'll also get all the credit for growing them so successfully.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best way to start thinking about the planting of any space is to forget about plants completely, at least in the early stages of planning. This is particularly important on balconies, where space is at such a premium and where early mistakes quickly become glaring errors or annoying obstructions. Instead, think about the kind of space you want to end up with and then work backwards, asking yourself some very basic but necessary questions in checklist fashion.

The most important issues to consider relate to your balcony's context, which in the UAE means taking the cumulative effects of light, shade, water and heat into consideration.

You'll have to work with these factors rather than against them. Not only will they dictate what you'll be able to do with your balcony, but they will also determine what your balcony will look like. Taking time to understand their impact will make all the difference between gardening heaven and horticultural hell.

It's all very well deciding you want to create a serene urban jungle for afternoon yoga sessions complete with bamboo, songbirds and bananas, but if your south-facing balcony is the sun's anvil or lashed by salt-laden maritime winds, you will likely be disappointed (and suffer heatstroke).

Once you've taken all of these factors into consideration, the fun can really begin. It's time to start choosing which plant will go where.

My favourite gardens are those that refuse to obey boundaries. I like nothing better than the sight of plants cascading over a balcony, welcoming me home after a long day at work. Window boxes are difficult to maintain here, and the display they create is small on all but the most delicate of buildings, so I would opt for a fast-growing, profusely flowering climber or vine.

Bougainvillaea is the obvious and most reliable option, as long as you choose one of the vigorous, naturally erect types that tend to have dark scarlet or purple bracts. But if conditions allow it, why not opt for something a little more unusual instead? Coral vine (Antigonon leptopus, Desert Garden Centre, Dh69), produces frothy bunches of coral pink flowers throughout the winter and thrives in full sun, but it needs a large container, rich soil, plenty of nutrients and protection from strong winds. If you can provide all this and have no neighbours below you - Antigonon can grow 10 metres once established - it will make a truly spectacular display.

Plants on balconies with a formal or minimalist aesthetic tend to be used like pieces of furniture and are often prized for how sculptural or un-plant-like they are (olives, bonsai and topiary are all prime examples). But on informal balconies, you can achieve a more relaxed and established effect by dressing the space with plants. Rather than thinking of your garden as a collection of individual plants in pots, adopt a layered approach and think about which plants will provide interest at head, eye, shoulder, waist and ground level.

At head and eye level, there are many options for covering pergolas and canopies. If you're lucky enough to find it, I would always use Rangoon creeper (Quisqualis indica, Mina Port, Dh15). Quisqualis is fast growing and produces masses of spectacular, fragrant, pink and white tubular flowers each autumn and spring. The double-flowered variety is the best option for a container or gardening in a small space.

With Quisqualis climbing up and over any shade structures, you may still need some extra climbers or vines to cover your walls at eye and shoulder level. Climbers come in three types: self-clinging, rambling or trailing plants, and those that twine.

The type of climber you choose will determine what kind of support you will need to provide for them. While both Antigonon and Quisqualis belong to the twining category, Cape leadwort (Plumbago auriculata, Mina Port, Dh25-35) is a rambling, trailing bush that requires training against a wire or trellis if it is to grow as a climber and not as a shrub. Plumbago's appeal lies in the powder blue flowers that smother it in winter, and the way these seem to glow in the partial shade that the plant needs to survive here in the UAE.

If you don't have a cool, shady wall, consider Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac, Mina Port, Dh25-35), another successful container plant whose small, fragrant white flowers appear over dark green foliage in early summer and late spring.

Despite its ubiquity in UAE gardens and landscapes, the frangipani (Plumeria obtusa, Mina Port, from Dh45) never seems to lose its appeal. It makes an excellent container plant, has glossy, architectural foliage and produces beautiful, fragrant white flowers. Given its attraction, there is always the temptation to buy as big a specimen as possible, but be careful when selecting your Frangipani since price and size are no guarantee of a plant's eventual quality. The best plants, no matter how small, will have multiple branches that "break" in several directions quite low on the main trunk, giving a multi-stemmed effect that improves with age. Tall, straight specimens should be avoided since without serious pruning they'll have all the visual interest of a broomstick.

Regardless of their size, all gardens require workhorse shrubs to provide a sense of depth and to fill in any unsightly gaps. The larger-leaved varieties of jungle geranium (Ixora coccinea, Dh69, Desert Garden Centre) grows well in a container and can provide a suitably green foil against which individual specimen plants can shine. Just be careful to avoid dwarf varieties and garish flower colours that might clash with the other plants on your balcony.

Alternatively, choose Gardenia jasminoides (Mina Port, Dh45), a plant whose blooms are notoriously difficult to conjure but whose lacquer-like foliage more than repays the effort required to keep the plant healthy. Both Gardenia and Ixora will require regular changes of compost, feeding, and at least partial shade in summer if they are to thrive.

Finally, use a collection of smaller specimen plants ranging in height from 30 to 80 centimetres to create an extra layer of variety, texture and interest. When used in pots on the floor, plants such as the desert rose (Adenium obesum, Mina Port, Dh70) will provide the visual equivalent of ground cover, but they can also be grouped together in taller planters to help create focal points or to help frame doorways and views.

It can be tempting to buy as many different species as possible for these jobs, but a few bold plantings of single species will create a far more coherent effect.

When planted in a tall, thin containermother-in-law's tongue(Sansevieria trifasciata, Mina Port, Dh15) will add an inexpensive architectural touch to any balcony, while a shallow bowl planted with water-loving umbrella plants (Cyperus alternifolius, Mina Port, Dh10) or the poisonous Devil's backbone (Kalanchoe daigremontiana, Mina Port, Dh10) is sure to provide a startling conversation piece.

At the other end of the horticultural spectrum, the humble aloe vera and even traditional culinary herbs such as rosemary, thyme and parsley (Desert Garden Centre, Dh9) are transformed by the right pot in the right place.

So there you have it. It really is possible to have a well-planted balcony for just under Dh500. Now all you need are the pots, compost, trellis and irrigation system to go with it, but that is another challenge altogether.

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