How to create the perfect balcony garden

BEIRUT: As the days stretch on and the final rainstorms of spring pass overhead, Beirutis will soon begin to dust off their patio furniture and reclaim their balconies.

The best way to get those terraces ready for the summer sun is with a healthy dose of horticulture, preferably brightly colored blooms that emit the season’s heady fragrances.

But with the threat of an exceedingly dry summer looming, it is also important to choose plants that won’t drain the water tank.

“Bougainvillea and geraniums are good for summer gardens because they can be in the sun and they don’t require much water; just twice a week. It is important to not overwater bougainvilleas because then you will have less blossoms,” said Akil Allam, who has been selling flowers in Tabarja at Beirut’s annual plant market in front of Karantina for 14 years.

Allam, who grows his stock himself, also recommends impatiens, gazanias and pansies, which, though requiring water every two days, bear bright blossoms that can liven up a balcony and still stand the heat of the season.

Landscape architect Sara Hage, who teaches in AUB’s department of landscape design and ecosystem management, told The Daily Star that it was important to use local plants, as they were the best suited for hot summers.

She said plants with flowers that attracted wildlife, such as verbena and rosemary, were also good options for making a space more colorful. She added that she preferred to add smaller plants for ground covering, such as local grasses and herbs.

Landscaper Hala Chmaitelly Abbas, founder of Surface Design, also offered herbs as a good option for terraces that get lots of sun – and they have the added benefit of being edible. She recommended mint, zaatar and rosemary

Of course, for those with a greener thumb, many vegetables and fruits can be grown on a balcony. Peppers are a good option, as they can take up to six hours of direct sunlight a day and need to be watered only once or twice a week, according to Allam.

Chmaitelly said small citrus, fig and even olive trees could also be kept in containers without too much trouble, but they require at least half a day of direct sunlight if not more, and need watering twice a week. The trick, she added, was to give the larger plants plenty of room to grow, and to trim them in the winter.

Hage also said pomegranates were a good option.

For something with a scent, there are the perennial Beirut favorites: gardenias and jasmine. Jasmine, Chmaitelly said, requires sun, while gardenias need partial shade. She said she preferred to place both flowers near seating areas so that their fragrance could be fully enjoyed.

A better understanding of the plants that can thrive in Beirut is just the first step to creating your own garden oasis in the city; the real work is in the planning and execution.

Study the contextWatch the sun throughout the day to determine what areas get full, partial and no sun. Hage said it was also important to notice the direction your balcony faces; if it faces west or east, it is more likely to get direct sun, while those on northern or southern sides will receive more filtered light.

Make a planChmaitelly recommended taking note of your view before you go shopping: If you want to accentuate it, plan to buy smaller plants that draw attention to your vantage point. But if all you have is a front-row view into your neighbors living room, you may want to plan to get some larger plants and vines to create more privacy. Hage said she preferred to use plants to create a variety of spaces, with some delineating seating areas and others grouped into proper garden areas. She added that it was important to bridge the indoor and outdoor space by clustering plants near the door.

Going shoppingPick out some larger plants to anchor the space. Fruit trees can be used to create shade for other plants while small, brightly colored flowers are always good for arranging around other plants. Also, make sure to get plenty of large planters with holes at the bottom for irrigation.Get dirtyChmaitelly and Hage both recommended replanting your new purchases immediately. Larger plants such as vines and trees should be transferred to planters at least twice their size, Chmaitelly said. Hage added that big pots with lots of soil would help conserve water as the summer months drag on, because the liquid would be conserved for longer. Saucers under planters are also helpful as they collect excess water that can then be reused. Hage said mulch was key to prevent water from evaporating before it could reach the roots.

Put it all togetherOnce all the groundwork has been laid, it’s time to arrange your new plants. Make sure you leave vines and crawlers, such as bougainvillea and jasmine, room to grow along the walls. To keep things from looking too cluttered, it’s best to stagger, with tall plants at the back and smaller plants placed at the front. Chmaitelly recommended two to three layers of plants, if you have the space. The garden will also be easier to maintain if you group plants that need to be watered with the same frequency together. Once it’s all in place, whether you create a jungle or just add a few colorful blooms to your outdoor space, sit back and get ready for a greener summer.

The Beirut flower market is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. until the end of June.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 09, 2014, on page 2.




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