If you’re chafing about the city’s dearth of green spaces, but you’re blessed with a balcony, you could make your own garden. It could be your little contribution toward greening the city. If you haven’t tried it before, you might be pleasantly surprised by how much joy a tiny space brimming with leaves and petals can bring you, and how absorbing it can be to spend a few hours pottering around with your plants every week, learning and experimenting all the while. And it’s not just the thrill of seeing sunbursts of color out your window, it’s also the satisfaction of watching something grow with the aid of your tender loving care.
Gardening is all about trial and error. However, before you rush out and spend a small fortune at a garden center, consider the following important points.
* A green light to greenery?
Phone your real-estate agent to find out if any restrictions apply. Even the simple act of drilling a small hole in the wall can cause problems if prior clarification is not sought. If weight restrictions are in place, I recommend using lightweight fiberglass containers (often labeled “FRP”). Although these are more expensive than conventional ones, they are light and durable. To complement these, use lightweight soils such as vermiculite, perlite or karu-ishi (pumice stone) that are available at any good garden center in different particle sizes.
* Priming your patch
Soils in Japan are predominately acidic, but pre-packed earth suited to various kinds of plants is available in 12- or 20-liter bags and is fine for small-scale flower- and vegetable-growing. However, many gardeners make their own soil blends using a mixture of perlite, peat and vermiculite for trees and shrubs. Camellias and rhododendrons, for instance, are best grown using a peat-perlite mixture. In Japan, the use of foreign peat moss is widespread, though green-minded gardeners in Europe now use alternative soils such as vermiculite to help prevent the loss of natural peat bogs and their rich ecosystems. Cacti can be grown using the above materials, but with more pumice for added drainage.
* A place in the sun
Is your balcony south- or north-facing? This helps determine how much direct sunlight will reach your plants each day, which is important because though some will thrive in both sun and semi-shade, others are sensitive to too many or too few rays.
* Spice up your life
Growing herbs is a fun way to garnish your home-cooking with your own produce. Mint, curry plant, thyme, oregano, rosemary and sage are some that are easy to grow in pots. Most herbs like a sunny position and require well-drained soil. However, mint will tolerate light overhead shade, especially during the long hot summers and as it grows best in humus-rich soils, it’s best to mix leaf mold into your regular soil. Do keep in mind that mint is vigorous: Cultivars should be grown in separate pots.
* Non-stop greenery
Evergreens can be used to block out an unsightly view, to create a windshield and also to complement deciduous plants in winter. Silver queen euonymus and golden euonymus are two pleasant sun-loving evergreen shrubs from Japan (hence their botanical name of Euonymus japonica) with variegated foliage.
Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus preacox) is an early-summer flowering, clump-forming evergreen perennial with deep blue or white flowers. This will grow in sunshine, but will thrive on as little as three hours a day. Aoki (spotted laurel; Aucuba japonica) grows well in deep shade and the female plants bear attractive berries in winter.
Camellia bushes are evergreen and will grow in full sunlight or dappled shade. Camellia japonica and C. sasanqua and their cultivars are two indispensable members of the tea family for your balcony garden. No other group of plants has such a long period of flowering. Flowers of C. sasanqua and hybrids with the common Japanese camellia flowers start blooming from October and continue through to March. Then the common Japanese camellia takes over and extends the flowering period till April.
Perennials such as giboshi (Japanese hosta) have very attractive foliage and bloom from May through September. Some varieties, such as “Honey Bells,” have scented flowers. Suji-giboshi (Hosta undulata) is an inexpensive and fast-growing variety with attractive variegated foliage. Hostas will tolerate light shade, and variegated cultivars can be grown in the sun.
Another popular perennial is the variegated fuiri-amadogoro (King Solomon’s seal; Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum), which bears white drooping flowers from May to June. Autumn-flowering tsuwabuki (Farfugium japonicum) is an indispensable evergreen perennial with large yellow flowers in November and December. Oni-yabu-sotetsu (Japanese holly fern; Crytomium falcatum) is a pleasant evergreen to grow in pots. It will tolerate sun or shade but does require ample water.
* Take a deep breath
Fragrant plants are delightful to grow and although herbs are naturally fragrant, there are other scented plants too, such as robai (Japanese allspice or wintersweet; Chimonanthus preacox) and sweet box (Sarcococca confusa), a low-growing evergreen that will tolerate dark shade. Tiny but delightfully sweet-smelling white flowers are borne in early spring.
Spring bulbs such as hyacinths and daffodils are easy to grow in pots. One of my favorites is a scented daffodil known as “Geranium,” which has white outer petals and orange ones in the center. Lilies and especially the popular “Casablanca” are delightful bulbs to grow. Tulips, though unscented, will reward you with good displays in spring. New tulip and lily bulbs should be bought every autumn.
* A year in the life
Nichi-nichi-sou (Madagascar periwinkle; Catharanthus roseus) are colorful annuals that will thrive in shade. During the long hot summers, the tropical “flame-nettle,” or coleus, is easy to cultivate in sunny spots on your balcony. The coleus grown in Japanese gardens is an annual. Cosmos are also ideal annuals to decorate your patch in autumn.
* Small is beautiful
Japanese maples are delightful plants to grow in containers or as bonsai. Their delicate foliage is attractive, and their autumn color is wonderful. Iroha-momiji (Acer palmatum) is the most common of the Japanese maples. All maples like fertile, well-drained soil. The early-spring flowering ume (Japanese apricot; Prunus ume) is easy to grow, and selective pruning will help keep the tree small.
* And beside a green thumb?
There are a few essential tools for balcony-gardening, namely a trowel (stainless steel is best), secateurs, a watering can with a course rose, gardening gloves, a plastic or wooden box for potting and mixing soils and a hand brush.
* Not too much, or too little
If there is a faucet on your balcony, watering is made easy for you, though even if you have to carrying the can from a sink, never skimp in summer. Still, be careful not to over-water as rapid deterioration will follow. From March through October, plants should be watered daily, and when summer really arrives, twice per day may be necessary. If any potted plants should dry out, fill a bucket with water and submerge the pot for a couple of minutes. Cacti, poinsettia and tuberous begonias should be brought indoors during the winter, and will then require very little water.
* Terminal tips
Mokusaku-eki (wood vinegar) is a charcoal extract that is popular and can be used as a substitute for harmful chemicals to control aphids. Remember fertilizer is nutrition, not medication. Light and frequent applications are better than heavy doses. Natural fertilizers such as abura-kasu (oil cake) are inexpensive alternatives.
Finally, you’ll soon realize that garden centers in Japan tend to sell plants when in season, or flowering, as the case may be. Hence it is difficult to buy hostas in winter, or autumn-flowering plants in spring, despite the fact that most are sold in pots. A good tip is to wait until your garden shop’s specimen has passed its prime, then move in when the price will usually have plummeted . . .
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