When I was 11, my dad offered to buy me a rosebush for my Grade 8 graduation. I was elated. I turned the pages of the garden centre catalogue for weeks until it fell apart in my eager, pre-pubescent hands. I settled on a raspberry-scented floribunda named Blue Jay (the only sport reference I could understand) that I accessorized with surrounding perennials and spring bulbs in yellows and blues to complement the lavender-coloured flower. I waited anxiously for the first bloom, checking morning, afternoon and night until it finally opened.
When I moved downtown, I needed a new organic vernacular. Goodbye, sprawling green space of suburbia (mixed blessing, obviously); hello, balconies, rooftops and potting containers. I was discouraged by the lack of horticultural real estate. I flat out refused to transition from blue rosebushes and matching carpathian bellflowers to petunias. Being a grownup gay can be challenging.
But according to Claire, one of the Toronto Botanical Gardens’ master gardeners, what we can plant in pots is limited only by our imaginations. I attended a free workshop Claire hosted at the Toronto Reference Library, entitled Balcony and Container Gardening, and learned some practical tips on creating planters of my own.
“Before you even begin,” Claire says, “you have to decide whether you want to use your outdoor space for relaxation or as a place to entertain.” Does deck size matter? Says Claire, “Even the smallest balcony can be transformed into a tranquil oasis or vibrant outdoor living room.” I guess not!
Claire suggests considering the following when planning your container creation:
Check your building regulations
Does your upscale, super-trendy condo even allow gardening? Some balconies have weight restrictions or simply don’t permit aesthetic deviations. Can you put holes in your walls to hang baskets or a vine trellis? Will your neighbours resent sharing the other side of their wall with your Guernsey Cream clematis?
Scope out the location
Today, you’ve a lovely parking lot across the street; tomorrow, a towering resort hotel. That might affect your perennial shrub selection. In addition to light levels, wind may be a factor. If you need to anchor your cantilevered market-style umbrella, you’ll definitely need to choose planters that will stay put.
Choose planters wisely
All containers are not created equal. Claire likes the versatility of a wooden planter: “It is generally inexpensive, lightweight and can be painted to suit any style.” Terra cotta, on the other hand, is so porous that it’s prone to summer dryness and winter cracking.
Plan for care and maintenance
How will you lug your supplies up there? Is there an accessible water source (and can it drain without showering the downstairs neighbour in muck)? Make sure you allot time to dead-head spent blooms and fertilize — you’ll get only as much out of your garden as you put into it.
Go to town!
This is the fun part. Are you a free spirit who will let nature do as it likes, or will your planters make the gardens of Versailles look casual and unruly? Almost anything you can grow in the ground can be transferred upstairs. Personal preference: illuminated colour-change butterfly wands.
Armed with this information, I set out to plant my own balcony. My first stop is a local convenience store, which blossoms into a seasonal purveyor of greenery in the summer months. Those of us who lack cars appreciate the
proximity, but places like these also condense their stock to trendy varieties. The newest hybrids and container-hardy varietals are plentiful. Forget regular pansies — there are ice pansies now, which resist unexpected frost. And suddenly you’ve planted something edible, too.
Planting edible flowers or herbs is a win-win for functional aesthetics. Nasturtiums, pansies, marigolds, carnations, daylilies, lavender, hibiscus, impatiens and myriad other flowers, herbs and vegetables are tasty options that can thrive in containers as shallow as four inches. I consult my local garden hero, Shane (aka Garden Boy) at the famous Homo Depot on Gerrard St E for more information. I met Shane in the store when I was buying supplies for a kitchen renovation last summer. Right before the checkout, I popped into the garden centre and saw a cute boy in an orange apron. He’s been a go-to ever since.
Shane has served many a gay — singles, couples, those in booty shorts, even TV personalities — in the five years he’s worked at the Gerrard Square Home Depot, where “Garden boy, I need your hoe!” is etched in a stall in the men’s washroom. For serious.
According to Shane, this season’s trends amongst green-thumbed gays include orange cultivars and vegetables. While his clientele tends to avoid colour in favour of “matchy-matchy, verging on too-neat” plantings, he’s hopeful that this season will be more playful. Shane once planted the remains of a pineapple on his balcony and it almost bore fruit before the frost hit.
I rarely need encouragement to be playful, but I’m reminded when I choose two of the same orange marigolds. Marigolds are also pest deterrents, so they are a must-have in my baskets. “What are you doing?” Shane asks, handing me a four-pack of mismatched pansies to upset the symmetry. When selecting herbs, I simply rhyme off the chorus to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.” That way I don’t miss anything. Except maybe dill.
I choose coco-lined baskets because I like their look and the price is right, but I’ve heard that coco mulch is very porous and will require daily watering come July. If you’d like to reduce that evaporation, line the inside with perforated plastic to allow for some drainage.
I use planter’s soil, which is a “soilless mix” of fertilizers, minerals, vermiculite and peat moss. Regular dirt compacts and crushes the roots of plants without the aid of natural aerators (ie worms) to keep it light and fluffy. Next, I place the still-potted plants in position, arranging them until I am satisfied. Purple, silver or variegated foliage looks dapper next to the lush green leaves of basil or mint. Once the seedlings are popped out of their plastic shells, I fill the remaining space with mix, water thoroughly and crack a beer.
My serene balcony space is now an inviting retreat, ready for the summer. Come over anytime!