Real Estate

Beautiful balconies

Creativity turns outdoor spaces into chromatic gardens

A balcony is a small space, just a concrete rectangle. But it also can be a blank canvas and, with some resourcefulness, can host a diverse and thriving garden.

Janet Creelman moved to Palo Alto's Channing House seven years ago from Menlo Park, where she left behind a garden.

"I've always been a gardener, all my life," Creelman said. "One of the big attractions of moving into Channing House was that I could have a garden."

Two of the plants in Creelman's balcony garden predate her and her husband's move to Channing House.

"I brought both (the Japanese maple and the rhododendron) with me from my previous home," she said. "People sometimes say they regret that they left a plant they really loved in their home garden. I say you should at least try to transplant them and put them into a pot."

Creelman said she specifically chose an east-facing apartment at Channing House so she could continue to grow many of her favorite plants in the morning sun.

"I try to have plants that bloom year-round, by planting successively," she said. "I start with narcissus, daffodils and tulips. I have really pretty morning glories, that are just about finished, and I am about to plant a bunch of bulbs."

In addition to the limited sun, wind is another constraint on Creelman's balcony garden. She said she is selective about how she organizes her plants and keeps those sensitive to the wind in pots low to the ground.

Creelman also said she enjoys the ease with which change can be made when gardening in a small space with containers.

"It is fun to experiment when you have pots," she said. "If something doesn't look good, you can just be ruthless and throw it out."

Like Creelman, Carol Gilbert also left behind a garden in Menlo Park when she moved to The Hamilton in Palo Alto almost 10 years ago. Gilbert's home now has two balconies, where she continues her life-long love of gardening.

"I come from a long line of gardeners. My grandfather had wonderful gardens," Gilbert said. "My parents as well, they were both specialists in fuchsias and begonias. Neither of which I grow!"

Gilbert said she really enjoys the close proximity of her garden.

"I'm able to go out there and keep everything groomed within an inch of its life," she said. "I enjoy gardening (on my balcony). I like having the color out there."

Typically, Gilbert said she uses the space on her balcony for flowering plants, but she has tried using edible plants.

"I have a kumquat tree that will actually have quite a bit of fruit in three to four months," she said. "I did tomatoes one year, but they get so ugly."

Gilbert said the appearance of her balcony garden has changed throughout the years, as she tried out different color schemes and designs. First, Gilbert said she started with a primarily blue-green theme for her pots, because the trim on her balcony is dark green.

"All of the pots and saucers were (blue-green). But in the winter, when not as much is blooming, it was not colorful," Gilbert said. "So I reorganized and replaced some of my pots with Talavera ceramic, which is hand-decorated in lots of wild patterns and colors."

Height, like color, is varied in Gilbert's garden.

"You can make the most of your space by incorporating shelves, flower boxes, hanging baskets, as well as potted plants," she said.

The biggest constraint on her garden after space limitations is the sunlight, Gilbert said.

"All my potted plants are in saucers, and all the saucers are on stands with wheels and casters," she said. Mobile pots allow plants to be rotated for even sunlight exposure and also facilitate changing the look of the garden.

One of Gilbert's balconies does not have water access, so she said she chose to plant bromeliads there, which like to be periodically misted and have a small amount of water placed into their cups.

In addition to a small coiled hose, misting bottle and hand trowel, Gilbert said another tool she uses frequently in her balcony garden is actually a turkey baster.

"I also keep the turkey baster out there, because you never want to leave saucers with excess water," she said. "It's not good for the plants and is a breeding ground for mosquitoes."

Gilbert said that in spite of the small size, a balcony garden allows for creativity.

"You can tuck in solar lights, wind chimes, garden figures, hummingbird feeders. At one time or another I had almost all of these things (in my garden)," she said. "But I do not advocate becoming a gnome person. You can go too far."

Editorial Intern Kimberlee D'Ardenne can be emailed at

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