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Don’t waste your balcony: How to choose furniture and plants for outdoor spaces

By George Hadgelias

The majority of renters say their apartment needs to have a balcony, favouring it over a secure parking sport as a must-have feature. So it’s a shame to have a balcony that goes to waste because it isn’t set up correctly.

A small balcony can feel like a blessing and a curse. No-one ever sneers at having an outdoor area but not knowing what to do with the limited space, other than use it to place your drying racks, can sometimes result in the space going unused.

Rachael Matthews of Hedge Garden Design & Nursery says the first thing to do is to ask yourself; “what do I want from this space?”

The temptation to use a small balcony like a deck and plan for a potted garden, reading nook, alfresco dining and sun lounger area isn’t practical nor will it make it a useable space.

Function, therefore, is key. Keeping it uncluttered goes hand-in-hand with that too. No one wants to feel like they’re sitting in a hoarder’s garage, having to pick their way around furniture with limited space to move around. In fact, keeping it simple and streamlined will help to make the balcony feel bigger – just don’t over-correct and go too sparse.

“Also to keep in mind is view and aspect,” Matthews said. “What are the weather conditions, and how will the balcony look like from the outside in, but also the inside out?”

How to choose furniture for a balcony

A big part of making the most of the space on a small balcony is choosing the right furniture. Multi-functional pieces work best as it will allow for flexibility in use of the space. Keep it slim-line and lightweight.

See-through pieces made from cane or mesh will help with visually expanding the look of the balcony, anything too big will look cluttered.

Keep thinking back to the function of the balcony. If you’re after an alfresco dining area, look for a long, slim table and maybe a few potted plants. If space is really tight, opt for two bench seats instead of chairs for seating as they take up less space and are easier to manoeuvre.

If you want to transform your balcony into a place for reading and relaxing, look out for an L-shaped bench seat that can be slotted into the corner, filled with comfortable cushions. Outdoor armchairs or beanbags will also work in this set up, but be wary of wide-legged chairs; they take up more space than is necessary.

How to set up a balcony garden

Part of the benefit of having a balcony, however small, is embracing the outdoors. What better way to do that than with a small balcony garden?

Matthews suggests pots lining the front of the balcony is an easy, attractive option.

“Obviously survivability is key,” she says. “Because the plants are out of the ground and often in areas susceptible to wind and more extreme temperatures, it can be harder for them to survive.”

Her solution is to place plants in taller pots with a minimum height of 35 to 40 centimetres. “The taller the pot the greater chance it has of surviving because it’s kinder on the roots, plants in the garden can expand their roots to find water, small pots limit this.”

In terms of the look of the plants, Matthews suggests texture is important. “Don’t go for flowers, they only bloom in one season and the rest of the year they look a bit bare and dull, and they can die easily.”

Instead, she suggests plants such as New Zealand native muelhenbeckia, “it’s light, frothy and is a survivor”, succulents, “perfect for city gardens, really robust and bold”, grasses, “they look great in the wind”, or even agapanthus, “I grow a lot of these in pots, they look good all year round with the bonus of flowering in summer”.

A small herb garden is another option, and it’s practical. But leave your basil, mint and coriander to live on the kitchen bench or window sill. An outside herb garden is for pizza or mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme and oregano.

“These will give your balcony a lovely smell, as well as providing texture,” Matthews said.

For a space-saving solution, a vertical garden is an option, but Matthews warns to keep these gardens going is expensive and because of the limited space in the pots, the plants tend to die quickly.

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