How to get wonderful window boxes and perfect planters

The finished box and planter on the balcony

The finished box and planter on the balcony - Credit: Nigel Sutton

The West Hampstead-based Balcony Gardener shows how container gardening can transform a small outdoor space into a whimsical urban oasis in just five simple sets.

The finished box and planter on the balcony

The finished box and planter on the balcony - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Summer is here and we are finally set to enjoy the longer daylight hours outdoors. I’m starting rather late this year; I’m a fair-weather gardener and the thought of getting drenched and blown from pillar to post outside on my balconies is not one I relish – gentle rain yes, a gale no.

I’m transforming my balconies over the weekend from a series of pots and troughs filled with perennial shoots and my beloved evergreens, into a glorious adventure of additional planting to create what will become my little fairytale garden for 2015 – all from two, 2x2sq m spaces.

The best thing about container gardening is that you can change your garden style completely or add to already established planting every year without too much effort.

I’ve chosen a design with an array of pastel colours and whimsical planting, quite different to my usual style. Normally I use statement planting in tones that emulate the darker décor of my living room so that there is a continuous flow, making the balcony an extension of the living room. However, this year I’m making the windows and doors into a framework for the fantasy garden outside, creating a picture at every turn.

The finished box and planter on the balcony

The finished box and planter on the balcony - Credit: Nigel Sutton


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Container gardening has a completely different set of rules than planting a regular back garden. A garden requires the gardener to consider how the plant is going to grow, its position, whether it will overtake the space, and if it fits in well with other established plants.

With container gardening the plants will only be there for a few years before they need potting on or, if they are annuals, they will be spent once their season is over anyway, making space for other exciting plants with new colours, sizes and moods. The sky’s the limit.

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The benefits are great, especially if you rent, as you have a portable garden to take with you anywhere. For me there would be nothing worse than having to leave all my plants and the associated love and care behind.

Window boxes seem to me to be a much maligned product. Most people have green or terracotta plastic rectangles as their abiding image of container gardening, but this needn’t be the case. There are so many beautifully designed, lightweight window boxes available in materials that are both enlivening and modern. Currently I have zinc window boxes, which sit prettily astride my railings, adding to, but never detracting from, the stunning flowers and shrubs I have planted through the year.

The finished box and planter on the balcony

The finished box and planter on the balcony - Credit: Nigel Sutton

When I’m looking for inspiration for my own little bit of green in north west London I look at all sorts of sources. It could be a particular colour on a paint card or a tile, a flower from an arrangement or in a public space or something in a magazine. Think along the same lines as you would when you decorate you house and consider how you want the space to work for you and what you’ll be using it for. Mood plays a big part in all gardening so if you want to feel relaxed as opposed zingy choose plants to suit.

Of course, a big question is how much you want to spend. Gardening can be very cost effective. Seeds are a great way to get a garden cheaply, although not quite instantly. It’s not as easy to visualise the end result, but it’s a great starting point on a limited budget.

Cuttings are also good if you have space to bring them on. Even if you have only one window box you can still evoke a garden.

There are a few limitations, however, and like in any garden, you need to match your plants to the site, conditions and the aspect that you have.

The finished box and planter on the balcony

The finished box and planter on the balcony - Credit: Nigel Sutton

If you have a balcony that’s several floors up, it may be windy, which plants don’t especially like. A trick I use is to stake all the tall plants.

This safeguards them from breaking and some of the wind damage/burn they often suffer from. Plants may also be in direct sunlight with not much shade or, conversely, with too much, but if you position them to take this into account you can grow almost anything.

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Container gardening checklist:

The finished box and planter on the balcony

The finished box and planter on the balcony - Credit: Nigel Sutton

1. It is essential to check with an architect or structural engineer how much weight the roof can take if your containers are on the floor; whether planning permission is needed; and whether or not the balcony is waterproof. Ideally, place heavy containers near load-bearing walls and on the outskirts or over a load-bearing beam or joist. For window boxes make sure they are secure and are not going to fall on anybody.

2. Pick containers that create a focal point; it can make a minimal space look bigger. It’s better to spend your money on a couple of larger key items than on lots of smaller ones. Pick containers in the same material or colour tone because having lots of containers of differing patterns and colours will make the space look overwhelmed. Always make sure they have a drainage hole at the bottom so you don’t drown the plants.

3. Try to place pots in your sight line, opposite a seat, say, or outside the window. If you have a balcony, use the patio doors as a frame for your design. Hanging baskets and vertical wall hangers are a great way to maximise space.

4. Remember to water daily as containers have little soil so dry out quickly. Use a topping such as purple slate as it helps maintain moisture and also gives the pot a finished look. If you think you may forget, use containers with self-watering cavities or use plant minders that will feed your plants with water.

The finished box and planter on the balcony

The finished box and planter on the balcony - Credit: Nigel Sutton

5. Deadhead regularly to encourage new blooms. With fewer planters in a small space, you want to maximise flower growth.

6. Use evergreens to give you year-round colour as a base. Buxus and bay are my favourites and last through the year. Always use perennials so they come back each year if you want a low maintenance and thrifty garden.

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