In addition to having a master's degree in sustainable development, Susette works in water conservation and sustainable landscaping.
Beautify Your Balcony With a Hanging Garden
Why don't people in the U.S. use their balconies? I see so many different types and sizes of balconies with decorative (or not) railings, and only a few people in the U.S. seem to know what to do with them.
I've lived in apartments nearly my whole adult life, some on the ground floor, some on upper floors, some with balconies, some not. My first upstairs apartment just had a little porch in the back next to stairs leading down to an alley. The porch was small, but still big enough for a few plants. This was in the late '70s.
Later I started traveling and saw balconies overflowing with flowers. Literally! Beautiful waterfalls of flowers! Well worth trying here in the U.S.
If you are looking to beautify your balcony—to make it a show-stopper even to passersby—this article will help you discover how, whether you live in the United States or elsewhere. It will include:
- What a hanging garden could possibly look like
- Which type of planters to use for different balcony railings
- Plants that work for different conditions of sunlight on your balcony
- How to take care of your plants
At the bottom is a little description of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, if you're curious about those and whether or not you could copy them.
Decorative Hanging Gardens of Europe
Modern photographs of balconies all across Europe and the Far East show balconies filled with flowers spilling over the side. Even old apartment buildings have them. It's one of the features of Europe that isn't talked about much, but is photographed and appreciated, especially if one travels and then moves to a country without them—like the United States. Such balconies could be good role models for yours.
What Exactly Is a Balcony?
For those who aren't sure what a balcony is, it's any high platform that extends outside a building and is protected by a wall or decorative fencing of some kind. The platform must be sturdy, i.e., well supported, so it doesn't fall and so it can carry weight, like humans walking on it.
The sturdiness of the supports will determine how much else you can put on the balcony when your own weight is added. The apartment house above has concrete columns supporting its balconies, so they should be able to carry a lot of weight.
The type of railing or fencing the balcony has will determine what kinds of plants you can hang over it and how they should be grown. The European photo above shows an iron railing with pots hanging from the ceiling and plants growing through the bars from planters set just inside the railing. This is one way to create a hanging garden. There are others.
Ideas for What Your Hanging Garden Could Look Like
Hanging gardens can supplement any upright potted plants on your balcony, or dominate in their own right, without taking up much room. They can include:
- Multiple plants hanging from the balcony ceiling
- Plants flowing down from a box fixed to the top rail
- Plants growing up to the top rail and spilling over it
- Plants growing between the rails and trailing down below the balcony
They can be mono-colored or multi-colored, composed of:
- Plain green hanging plants, like pothos or ivy
- Decorative-leaved plants, like begonias or variegated bougainvillea
- One solid, mass color of flowers
- Bright, flowing waterfalls of mixed colors of flowers
- Or an alternating mix of plain green leaves and colored flowers
Hanging crystals, decorative bird cages, or feeders can enhance the scene. And wind chimes or a balcony fountain can add a pleasing sound. All of this will make you feel good every time you step out for fresh air.
The question now is, based on the kind of fence barrier you have and the amount of light your balcony gets, how do you choose the right plants? What would work best, look most attractive, be the easiest to take care of, and look good to others as well? Let's start with the type of railing.
How to Grow Hanging Plants Over a Concrete Balcony Wall
This kind of wall has no rails for a plant to climb. Therefore, you'll want to use plants with a sturdy trunk and flexible, viney branches. The heaviness of this wall makes it really good for growing heavier plants like bougainvillea or wisteria.
You would use two or three deep pots with a plant in each, placed near each end of the balcony. Let them grow up and direct them over the wall, pruning off any branches that try to grow into the balcony space. Most of the plant will grow out toward the sun anyway, so you shouldn't have much of a problem.
You could also use hanging planters, as shown in the first photograph in this article, but their airiness would not be quite as good a match for a heavy-looking wall.
- Two 5-gallon pots with saucers (10-gallon pots would also work)
- Potting soil
- Two well-established, woody climbers
- Pruning shears
- Thick string
- Repot the climbers into their 5- or 10-gallon pots, firmly pressing the potting soil in place.
- Position them so the side with the most growth is against the wall.
- Prune all branches on the balcony side to within 5–6" of the trunk.
- Loosely tie remaining branches together up to the top of the wall.
- Guide them over the wall.
As the plants orient toward the sun, they'll start to grow in that direction themselves and won't need to be guided anymore.
How to Hang Plants From a Metal or Wood Balcony Railing
This type of open railing is great for climbers and trailers. The shape of the top rail is key to deciding how to plant. For example, any railing with an angular top would hold window boxes better than rounded tops would.
- Metal Railing: Metal fencing with either vertical or horizontal railings, are especially good for window boxes—plant boxes attached to the upper railing. Although you can get window boxes made of many different materials, I find the wooden boxes to be the most attractive. Window boxes are great for primroses, nasturtiums, alyssum, and other such trailing annuals. You'd need special brackets to hook the boxes on, but they're easy to find in any hardware store and easy to apply (see video below).
- Wooden Rail: When balcony barriers are made of wood, there's always the worry that plants might rot the rails. Try using a long box planter for your plants, and attach a trellis made of chicken wire or string for vines to grow up and over the top rail. This will provide a little space between the main plant and the rails. Plants with tendrils, like sweet pea or morning glory, will especially need a trellis.
- Box Planter: Other types of plants, like vinca or trailing rosemary, can just be planted in a long box planter on the balcony, then allowed to grow between the rails, out over the side and down, as in the European balcony photo above. Remember to pinch off anything that starts to invade the balcony space itself.
- Long box planter and trellis (if needed) OR window boxes and brackets
- Potting soil
- Plants of choice
- Pruning shears
- Heavy string
- Screwdriver for brackets
I give several sets of step-by-step instructions below, depending on whether you want to install a box planter without a trellis, a box planter with a trellis, or window boxes.
For Box Planter Without a Trellis
- Position box planter where you want the plants to be.
- Repot plants into planter and press potting soil firmly around plants.
- Guide plant branches between railing bars.
- Prune back branches that keep trying to invade the balcony, or tie them onto a bar until they grow outside by themselves.
For Box Planter With a Trellis
- Position trellis between box planter and railing.
- Tie trellis to railing in several places.
- Repot plants into planter and press potting soil firmly around plants, or scatter seeds, if growing annuals.
- If plants already have tendrils or coils, wrap them around the trellis or tie them in place to start them climbing.
- Once they've climbed to the top and started hanging over the side, you can tie some of the outside ones to the railing bars and the others will use them to climb down.
For Window Boxes
- Fasten window box brackets where you want the window boxes to be, following instructions on the bracket package.
- Insert each window box into its brackets.
- Repot plants into the window boxes, with the thickest growth facing out, and press potting soil firmly around plants.
- Guide any branches down outside the railing, tying a few main ones to the railing bars (if long enough). That should help guide the others.
Brackets to Use for Window Box Rail Planters
How to Grow a Hanging Garden With a Glass Balcony Railing
The biggest benefit to having a balcony with a glass railing is that you have an unobstructed view through the glass, which implies that there's a view out there worth seeing. In that case, you'll want to enhance the view, rather than hide or replace it.
For glass barriers, therefore, you could mainly use hanging planters with, perhaps, a window box or two (if the top rail is big enough to fasten one onto). You wouldn't want to cover the glass too much, and whatever plants that do, you still want to be attractive, since you'll be looking at the outside of them through the glass.
This kind of balcony rail is good for growing trailing or hanging perennials, especially airy ones like pothos or begonias, or for growing a plant that repeats a color or mimics a plant you can see beyond the glass. This will add depth and better connect you with the outside.
Be aware that you won't have to rely on a railing's structure or strength if you hang plants from the ceiling, which makes that a great option for weak railings. If your location is windy, be sure to fasten hangers securely.
Looking at the conditions of light availability, here are several plants you can grow, depending on the location of your balcony.
Hanging Plants for Shady Balconies
Plants that work best on shaded balconies don't grow well in sun—they dry up fast and their leaves burn. Most of them like moist air, so balconies shaded by trees are perfect—the trees will provide moisture with their transpiration (tree sweat). If your balcony is shaded by another building, you will have to add moisture somehow—through a balcony fountain, a ceiling sprayer, or by hand-spraying every day.
Trailing houseplants work well on such a balcony. That includes all the plants pictured above, plus plants like string-of-pearls (beads), any of the hanging ferns, Wandering Jew (inch plant), or donkey tail. With each photo, I've included the scientific name so you can look up its exact requirements on the internet.
I have deliberately not included the ivy family, since they are considered invasive in many parts of the world, including the United States, but ivy can work well on balconies. In fact, any otherwise invasive vine works well on balconies, since balconies keep them contained.
Decorative Trailing Plants for Semi-Sunny Balconies
If your balcony gets some sun, but not in the heat of the day, you can use outdoor shade plants like vinca or nasturtium, or semi-sun plants like clematis. You can also use indoor plants that are variegated in color and require some amount of sunlight, like begonias. The photos above show samples of trailing flowers that would work well on a light-sun balcony.
Outside Hanging or Trailing Plants for Sunny Balconies
Full-sun balconies can accommodate a wide variety of hanging and trailing plants, including some normally thought of as vegetables—sweet potato vines are a good example. Some jasmines, trailing rosemary, and sweet peas are good hanging plants for full sun, in addition to those pictured above.
Remember there are many varieties of vining plants, so it's best to ask for help from a salesperson if you buy them at local stores (or do your research online if you plan on ordering plants). Be careful of the really woody climbers, like roses. Those climb, more than trail, and will grow weak if they're left to hang.
Balcony Plants for Bees, Birds, or Butterflies
Flying critters can be attracted to balconies as easily as to gardens on the ground, if you offer what they like. The common jasmine above is an example. Many of the other plants already pictured above will also attract bees, birds, or butterflies. Look for a vine with a scent—morning glory and honeysuckle are other good options.
If you're looking for specific birds, like hummingbirds, then you can always add a bird feeder of some type on a plant stand or hanging from the balcony ceiling.
How to Care for Balcony Plants
Caring for balcony plants is different from caring for houseplants and gardens on the ground. Because they are planted in relatively shallow containers and subject to wind, their foliage dries quickly and so does the soil. Here are some tips for their care:
- Water twice as often as you normally would.
- Plants that are native to the tropics prefer moist air, so spray regularly or add a balcony fountain to keep the balcony air moist.
- Prune some plants to encourage them to grow outside the balcony, not inside.
- If you have a long planter box that grows woody vines, you might want to add little flowering annuals to screen the trunk(s).
- Check the requirements of your plants before adding any fertilizer. Ice plants don't like it, for example. Neither do sweet peas.
- If you're in an area that freezes in winter, be sure to bring any tropical-type plants inside when it starts getting cold.
To get a good idea of how often to water, use a moisture meter to test the soil before watering. After a while, you'll get an idea for the frequency needed and won't need to use it all the time. (I still use one for indoor houseplants, though.)
Transform Your Balcony Into a Relaxing Oasis
Care for your plants well, and they will care for you in surprising ways. You'll see and feel some of it looking up at your balcony from the street, as you approach your apartment or house. And you'll see and feel more of it while peacefully sitting on your balcony looking out.
Be With Plants
“Your intuitive powers increase when you are with plants because your mind is silenced and you become more aware in the present moment.”
— Sanchita Pandey, Lessons from My Garden
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
You may have wondered what grew in the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon (speculated to have been in modern-day Iraq) and if you could use those gardens as an example to copy. These gardens are said to have been built by three different kings, two of them for wives who missed their homeland. It's never been archeologically verified that there really was such a garden, but a few ancients did write about it.
In the 19th century, someone engraved what they thought the gardens must have looked like, based on historical descriptions dating as far back as 290 BC. The engraving depicts a massive garden made of multiple climbing terraces of plants and trees.
The True Marvel Was Its Construction and Irrigation
Rather than the plantings themselves, it shows that the garden's main claim to fame was probably the construction and watering of it. How did they get water up that high in a dry country like Iraq?
That focus would unfortunately not make it a role model for hanging balcony gardens, since you could just bring out a watering can for your plants, however high your balcony.
“Plants do not speak, but their silence is alive with change.”
— May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Sustainable Sue
Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on May 20, 2021:
@Mr. Happy—Apparently quite a few people are asking what a balcony is, according to Google's search engine. Thanks for your comments. Here in California, balconies are great in fall too. And with trailing flowers—the few times I've seen them here—they're awesome!
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on May 20, 2021:
"For those who aren't sure what a balcony is" - I was a little surprised at first seeing this sentence but then, I thought about it and realized that indeed, many apartments here in North America do not have balconies. I grew-up in Europe so, I am used to balconies (and flowers in balconies).
I do love your article! You have so many great idea.
At the moment I just planted herbs because I use them for cooking. So, I put basil, English and French thyme, rosemary, cherry tomatoes, ghost and jalapeno pepers .. these are on a sunny patio. On my shady balcony I have salads and spinach since they do not do well in very sunny/hot spots.
Yes, balconies are great in the summer and they are that much better with herbs/flowers around! Thank You for the article.
All the best!