Create a Flourishing Balcony Garden

Gillian Carder shows that moving into an apartment doesn't mean you can't take your garden with you

Credit: Bob Young

Gill enjoys the sunshine with her grandchildren

Two stories up, life is beautiful for Gill and Ralph Carder. Here are their three secrets to creating a fabulous balcony garden

Writing about Gill Carder’s balcony garden gives me great pleasure, as I have known Gill and her family since the early 1970s. Whenever we talk gardening, she says – several times during the conversation – that she is a deciduous-and-herbaceous girl at heart!

By this, she refers to the grand perennial borders found in the large English country homes of Devon where she grew up.

Six years ago, Gill and her husband, Ralph, downsized from their beautiful house and garden in West Vancouver into a more manageable apartment. Gill worried about missing her garden, but she now enjoys seasonal changes of flowers on a large, south-facing balcony, as well as entertaining their daughter and grandchildren among the many pots.

Container Gardening on the Patio

Hooked on container gardening, Gill has gradually amassed containers of varying sizes. Ralph notes, “I originally installed an automatic watering system for 24 pots, but every time Gill returned from the UBC Botanical Garden, she brought home another plant or two until we had 49 pots! So I had to double the watering system. At that point, I drew the line – if she had continued in this manner, there would have been no more room to sit outside!”

Gill and Ralph Carder’s balcony garden resembles an old-fashioned herbaceous border (Image: Bob Young)

Gill uses a specialty container planting mix and topdresses each pot in spring, adding Sea Soil and a little seaweed collected from the beach. Before recycling any potting soil, Ralph sifts it to remove old roots. Once a month in summer, Gill sprinkles bonemeal or some 20-20-20 on the surface of the pots before the watering system is switched on. Meanwhile, Ralph cares for his beloved potted roses with a special rose fertilizer.

Annuals, Perennials and a Healthy Dose of Colour

The pots are grouped to resemble a giant flower border. In high summer it is a symphony of colour, with showy annuals and perennial old favourites. The blue delphinium is accented by blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) with its grey-blue spiky leaves. In the corner, Astrantia ‘Hadspen Blood’ blooms above its deeply lobed foliage, which adds texture to the mix of plants. Another eye-catching perennial is a cheerful Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sonnekind’ with its pure bright-yellow, maroon-blotched flowers. The lovely white rose, at its height of perfection the day we photographed, is ‘French Lace’.

When asked about the cultivar names for her vivid petunias, zinnias and dianthus, Gill looks at me with puzzlement. Like me, she isn’t too careful about keeping the labels once the spring bedding plants are planted. We concur that it really doesn’t matter, for it’s the colour that counts!

One annual that we do know the name of is Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria’, for we both adore its blue flowers, which continue until first frost. Gill grows sweet peas from seed each spring, setting them on a trellis at the western end of the terrace. They receive full morning sun but afternoon shade, which protects their roots from becoming overheated.

Alongside the sweet peas is Passiflora caerulea, the passion flower vine. Each exotic blossom is shortlived, but more are produced in such profusion that the vine is rarely without colour during summer.

Deadheading is one of Gill’s favourite pastimes and key to keeping her container-grown plants sending out new blooms – and it’s absolutely essential for sweet-pea success.

In springtime, Gill’s pots house flowering bulbs – some purchased anew each fall, some returning from a summer spent in Ralph’s community garden plot, along with more of his roses and some seasonal vegetables. Gill and Ralph also have a small rear balcony where plants can rest out of sight.

The combination of care, a secret balcony for resting plants, and a backup community plot are the elements that keep this terrace alive and beautiful for the many months when Ralph, Gillian and their family really do sit and smell the roses.

Originally published in BC Home & Garden magazine. For regular updates, subscribe to our free Home and Garden e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the magazine.