If there’s one thing we’ve learned after spending an unusual amount of time at home, it’s that having access to nature is invaluable. If you’ve dreamt of having a beautiful garden but assumed you didn’t have the green space to make it possible, we’ve enlisted a green-fingered professional to teach you how to transform a balcony or concrete patio into a luscious green retreat.
Welcome to The Curiosity Academy, Stylist’s new learning hub where you can access workshops, how-to guides, new research and learn the most up-to-date skills from the UK’s most in-the-know people.
If your home comes with minimal outdoor space, you may think that a flourishing garden is an impossible feat. But there are plenty of ways to bring more greenery into your outdoor living situation, even if you’re a city dweller working with a concrete balcony or patio.
As our attention turns to alfresco living and warmer days start to appear on the horizon, we’re all too aware of how valuable having an outdoor space of ones own to enjoy all the benefits that nature offers is. To help you create your own green haven at home, Alice Vincent, gardening writer and author of the memoir, Rootbound: Rewilding a Life, has some expert advice and techniques for building an urban garden in even the smallest of outdoor spaces – even for those people who lack a single green finger.
You may also like
The retro plants to fill your home with right now
Know what you want from your city garden
“What do you want to use your garden for?” is the first question you should ask yourself, Alice advises. “Is it for entertaining? Is it for growing vegetables? Is it for sitting quietly in?”
Don’t overlook the importance of purpose. Granted, you may simply know you want to be able to sit outside in the fresh air without having to walk to your local park, but when you imagine yourself sat in your own personal garden, what else do you see? Is someone else there with you? Are you tending to particular plants? Do you feel like you’re in another world entirely or are there still touches of familiarity around? You can use the same principles that you would use when you’re attempting to create a certain atmosphere in a room of your house.
“There’s no point making a beautiful vegetable garden if it transpires that you’re not really going to be able to give it that time,” Alice says. In short, don’t be afraid to dream big, but don’t forget to be practical about your longer-term commitment to the space.
Your plants won’t survive without light
Light is the most important thing to consider for all plants, Alice explains, and it’s something that’s very easy to take for granted. “That’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand is that light is crucial. Plants turn light into food.”
“In England, in the northern hemisphere, houses will not have the same level of light some of these plants are used to from where they originate.” It may sound a little obvious to say out loud, but the same principle really does apply to the plants you keep outdoors, too.
Alice recommends placing your plants in a position that will allow them to receive as much light as possible, ideally south-facing. That means you should be mindful of any fences or railings that might block access to light, as well as considering where you place any furniture you might need as well. Rain levels will of course play a part, too, but your first port of call will often be the lighting.
“Your plants will be the ones that will tell you whether they’re happy and so if you see any scorching or long stems with few leaves, that means it’s not getting enough light.”
Play with the height of your plants to transform your balcony or patio
“If you want to create the illusion of a lot of greenery, people often underestimate the importance of heights,” Alice says.
So you’ve found the plants you want to use to create your garden, now what? Don’t just rely on lining them all up on the floor or on a windowsill. You’ll be able to create a real wow-factor by playing with the vertical position – this is something that will transform a smaller space from somewhere that is housing a few plants, to a space that feels like a full, luscious and dynamic garden.
Use hanging planters or plants of different scales to create an illusion of a garden rather than just placing plants in corners is a tried and tested method Alice used on the balcony of her previous flat. Don’t be shy about using unconventional surfaces or methods to create height variation, too. If you’ve got some spare plant pots lying around, for example, flip one upside down and use it as a platform to raise another plant a little higher to play with the available space.
Playing with height really is the key to making the most of smaller living spaces!
Adopt a colour scheme
There’s more to the world of outdoor plants than the colour green! Particularly when you start experimenting with flowering plants.
If you are a total beginner when it comes to gardening, choosing which plants to buy can be overwhelming. So, Alice suggests deciding on a few colours that you like and limiting yourself to plants that fit that colour scheme which will make your garden more visually appealing.
“In my garden, there’s no yellow, there’s no orange and there’s not a lot of white either. By sticking to cool colours, there’s less of a confused look and it will look more beautiful.”
It also makes your buying decisions easier as you can automatically rule plants of certain colours out. Again, treat your garden design with the same consideration that you would with any of your rooms indoors, and make purchases not just for the sake of upping the greenery, but for the shapes and colours that suit the space you’re working with, too.
Make practical, sustainable purchases
“To start with, you’re better off just buying three to five of the same plants rather than buying one of everything,” Alice’s advises for creating a garden that feels coherent and pulled together.
“Don’t be afraid to pick up ten lots of lavender and that is maybe one of two or three plants you grow in your garden because you will have a better sense of unity.”
Gardening can be expensive so Alice suggests creating a budget of how much you have to spend on your garden each month, avoiding purchasing plants you will not be able to properly care for.
“Make the most of what you can,” says Alice. “If you can only afford to spend £5 a month on your garden, just make sure that you get the most expensive thing you can afford for that.”
You can save in other areas, like storage. When Alice started out, she used tin cans and vegetable crates as pots for her plants and often bought bulbs from the supermarket. “The alternative is storming into a nursery, putting down £100 and bringing a load of stuff home that you might kill really quickly.”
One of Alice’s best tips is to buy big containers for your plants, as big as you can fit in your space. “[In a small space], the plants will dry out so quickly, so you’ll be able to plant more and as a result, they’ll be lower maintenance.”
Keep an eye on the calendar
The most important time of the year for your plants is when the clocks change, explains Alice. “That kind of separates the year into autumn and winter and then spring and summer.”
“The minute the clocks go forward and we get into spring, that is when you need to think about feeding and watering. Your plants are going to be actively growing so you’re going to be busy.” In autumn and winter, your plants will require less maintenance, whether you’re growing a garden indoors or outdoors. Although outdoor plants can be susceptible to frost, rain and pests all year round so do look out for that.
Although it’s a pain to learn when you’re first starting out, every plant does have slightly different needs and so during the spring and summer, take the time to learn how much feeding your plants will need. There are loads of useful resources online, from the Royal Horticultural Society to the helpful plant guides and advice on Stylist.co.uk.
The best outdoor plants for beginners:
- Fatsia Japonica: also known as the ‘paper plant’, Japanese aralia and castor oil plant. This is an evergreen plant with big, glossy leaves which also flower in the slightly cooler months.
- Sedum (stonecrop): these big flowering plants are hardy and beautiful. They’re particularly fond of the sun, too.
- Erigeron: a plant from the daisy family with a long flowering period, which means you’ll enjoy its white, purple or pink blooms usually from May all the way to October.
- Plectranthus verticillatus (Swedish ivy): with beautiful heart-shaped leaves, these hardy plants can survive in partial shade and are particularly partial to a patio or balcony.
- Soleirolia soleirolii: with many other names such as baby’s tears, the friendship plant and mother of thousands, this plant spreads quickly and works well in hanging baskets.
If you’re after more gardening tips, you’re in luck! Alice has a book - How To Grow Stuff: Easy, no-stress gardening for beginners - with loads more of advice on how to create the garden of your dreams. You can also read more gardening content on Stylist.co.uk.
Alice Vincent, gardening writer
Alice Vincent is a gardening writer and the author of two books, Rootbound: Rewilding a Life and How to Grow Stuff: Easy, No-stress Gardening for Beginners. She also shares gardening content on her Instagram page, @noughticulture, where she has over 38,000 followers.
Recommended by Alice Porter
Getting green fingers: how to keep your favourite houseplants alive
5 plant care accessories that are actually worth investing in, according to an Instagram expert
9 low maintenance houseplants that are perfect for beginners
The ultimate guide to buying, owning and caring for houseplants