Great beauty from small spaces.
Walls of purple clematis and blue hydrangea blooms climb towards the sky. But as stunning as the blooms are, they’re just the most vivid elements of the cornucopia of plant life on Stanley Luk’s terrace. The landscape designer has turned his Toronto condo’s balcony into a miniature garden of delight. It contains a blend of annuals, hardy trees, and tropical plants. Anyone sitting around the deck table can imagine they are sitting in a picturesque country garden. It’s easy to ignore a forest of downtown condominium towers that surround you.
Container gardening’s popularity has exploded in the past decade; it’s a billion-dollar industry in the United States alone. It’s no wonder; few people have the time or energy to devote to growing a huge garden in today’s fast-paced world. But anyone, with the slightest hint of a green thumb, can grow a plant or two in a pot. With enough passion, skill, and planning, a plant lover can use containers to turn the smallest deck into a Garden of Eden.
Their biggest selling point is flexibility. If you decide your hydrangeas would look better in another spot, you can move them. They can be used to create arrangements as simple or as complex as you want them to be.
Time and water. “Ask yourself how much time you can devote to it,” Luk says. “One as intensely planted as mine is a lot of work and requires a lot of experience. I wake up at around 6:00 or 7:00, and the first thing I do is to water plants and then have breakfast. Watering has to be taken seriously with a terrace garden. Your plants will be irreparably damaged after just one day without water, and it’ll be very hard to resuscitate them afterward. I basically don’t take holidays in the summertime. It’s definitely not a design I would impose on a first-time gardener.”
Plants in containers only have access to a finite amount of water, so they need to be watered more often than plants grown in a garden or flower bed. While watering plants becomes a daily ritual for avid gardeners like Luk, not everyone is quite that dedicated. If you want to devote less time to nurturing your plants, consider investing in self-watering pots or a drip irrigation system.
The amount of sunlight, wind, and heat your plants face on your terrace determines which types of plants will thrive in that location. It’s a good idea for beginners to start slowly with just a few containers of annuals. Then, after gaining experience and confidence, add a few more plants incrementally and see how it goes.
“The clematis is my favorite plant to use on a terrace, because of the vertical nature of its growth,” Luk says. “It provides a huge color impact while taking up very little floor space. I highly recommend using delphiniums on terraces, too, if you’re thinking of using perennials. Yes, they have to be staked, but what other plants can give you such a range of color, that takes up so little space, and will bloom twice a year?
“Shrub-wise, I really love hydrangeas with their beautiful blue flowers in July and August. It just lasts and lasts, plus some varieties are winter hardy to zone 4.”
Containers are also a great way to have fresh herbs, spices, and vegetables at your fingertips when you need them. That way, you only harvest what you plan to use; no more running down to the supermarket to buy a big bunch of parsley when you only need a few sprigs.
Change out. It’s easy for a passionate gardener’s spaces to become overcrowded with plants, so don’t hesitate to cull them. If one isn’t thriving in a location, yank it out and try again. Luk changes out his annuals as many as three times during the growing season to ensure he always has something blooming. He plants bulbs in the fall, and as soon as they are done flowering in the spring, they’re removed and replaced with early summer annuals.
Gardeners face a steep learning curve if they plan to keep their perennial plants alive in containers over the winter. It took a lot of experimenting before Luk learned to drag all of his perennials into one corner of his terrace, adding an incandescent lamp and covering them up with plastic. Then, whenever the temperature dips to -15°C to -20°C, he turns on the light. It gives off just enough heat to keep the soil temperature in the pots near the -5°C degree range that is needed to keep the plants alive. He recommends using containers insulated with styrofoam if possible. The styrofoam not only protects the roots from extremes of cold and heat but also gives the soil room to expand during freeze-up without cracking the pot.
Consumers have an astonishing choice of containers in all shapes and sizes. So, Luk says, be sure to pick one that’s large enough to accommodate the plant when it’s fully grown. Trees, for example, need the biggest pots you can find.
Just about any plant that can be grown in a garden can be grown in a container with enough skill and care. Luk purchased a twofoot-high Bloodgood Japanese Maple at a local garden store for just $29.99 and has nurtured it for seven years. It now reaches to the top of the balcony on the floor above him. His upstairs neighbors love it.