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Turning your balcony space into a wonderland of growth

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Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2009 6:15 am

CHICAGO - It's your little corner of paradise - "little" being the operative word.

So work it. Turn your balcony into an Eden of your own.

Maybe you'll try something like Tina Howard's second-floor balcony in Chicago's Logan Square. Brussels sprouts share a container with red cabbage, while viola grow in another with celery. "Celery is quite beautiful," says Howard, who also has Ichiban eggplant in a hanging basket and untrellised string beans that hang over their container.

Or, you'll consider window boxes like the ones on the balcony off the bedroom of Barbara Collins' Bolingbrook, Ill., home. They're filled with geraniums, dianthus and wax begonias, "the most underused plant that people just don't realize how versatile it is," says Collins. "It can take full hot sun all day and it shades well."

Or, you'll try old-fashioned geraniums. Denise Corkery planted them on her West Loop balcony for the "first time and their bright red flowers really pop. And one I'm using again this year is 'Diamond Frost' euphorbia, which also holds its own in a crowded box and blooms nonstop through frost without deadheading."

All three agree that balcony gardens - whether on the second floor of a big city condo or a 10th floor apartment in the 'burbs - have challenges. Wind is an issue. So are water, space and sun.

Just remember that basic container gardening rules apply, then expect some trial and error.

There's the sun. Howard, a staff gardener at Chicago's Grand Street Gardens, carefully tracked the sun's progress across her balcony. "I wanted to grow edibles and (there) wasn't enough sun to grow what I wanted, so I had to make a choice, adjust and grow something different or move them."

"Things shift in an urban area," she adds, with buildings going up and casting shadows, and you may need move plant positions.

Then there's wind, which can tip pots over and dry out plants quickly - especially those in baskets.

"We seem to be in the windiest place on earth," says Collins, acting greenhouse manager at Sid's Greenhouse in Palos Hills, Ill. "So make sure you have big enough pots to hold enough soil so you don't become a slave to watering."

"My balcony boxes sometimes need to be watered twice a day, especially late in the summer," says Corkery, the Chicago Botanic Garden senior writer and columnist for the Tribune. That's when annuals are larger and have leaves from which to lose water as well as roots.

First, decide on a look. Do you want the flowers providing a street view or dense foliage creating a private space?

"We have people who want flowers all day long," Collins says. "Some want to try their hand at vegetables in containers. People want trees and shrubs and traditional landscaping containers on their balcony or deck."

Corkery has used two rows of balcony boxes - one along the railing top, another on the balcony floor.

"One year, I planted morning glories on the bottom row and strung garden twine between the posts for supports. It worked well, but you had to be on the street to see the flowers facing the sun," she says. "Now, I have clusters of pots on the ground, which I like because I can mix and match or remove plants that are finished."

Last year, Collins had a vinca vine 'Wojo's Jem' that grew down to the ground. This year she's giving centradenia 'Cascade' a try.

Howard favors Wave petunias that "blossom in waves; crop after crop, they can handle heat and sun."

Corkery knows that sweet potato vine is ubiquitous but, she says, "it's a vigorous grower, doesn't mind competition from other plants, handles heat/drought better than most, and bounces back well from being underwatered. The lime-green leaves have good street presence, which isn't true for a lot of the plants."

Years ago, after Collins and her family moved from a home on 20 acres to a small Mississippi apartment, she filled the balcony with flowers.

And just two chairs.

She would sit out there and her three children would visit - one at a time. "(They) would come out and sit, and we'd have time to talk. It was great one-on-one time with them," she remembers. "With lots of chairs it wouldn't have been special."

Now that's a personal paradise.

Tips on balcony gardening

Here are a few suggestions from the trio of balcony gardeners mentioned above:

Before you go to the garden store, check the rule book for your apartment building and condo association regarding window boxes, hanging baskets, etc. Are barbecue grills OK? Municipalities and buildings vary on those regulations, too, so check.

Bring a photo of your balcony and a tape measure to the garden center (dimensions are good to have too). Consider all the elements you want (chairs, table, grill, etc.) in addition to plants.

Consider the weight of your potted plants and the water, so you do not overload your balcony.

Premixed soil with water-absorbing polymers can help alleviate watering issues.

Don't overwhelm containers: "(It) took me a while to learn how many plants to put in 3-foot balcony planters," says Denise Corkery. "The first year, I started with four. Last year, I got carried away and planted it out. More did not make it better. More made it harder for each of the plants to thrive."

Will you need to overwinter plants and do you have space to do it? Or friends who will take them?

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