How to transform your balcony garden into a blooming oasis

man working on plants on balcony garden

Jane Canaway

Posted March 17, 2020

Six expert tips for creating a blooming high-rise balcony garden.

As Melbourne’s population swells, the hallowed quarter-acre block is now eyed off as a site for five homes – or 50 if it’s part of an apartment block. 

The 2016 Census revealed more Australians than ever are living in apartments – 1.2 million of us – and inner-city Melbourne recorded the most apartment dwellers in Australia: 33,496 residents plus more than 4400 visitors. Victoria has also recorded the largest national growth in new high-rise apartments built each year – an increase of 601.2 per cent from about 2000 dwellings in 2003-04 to more than 13,000 in 2017-18. 

While this is a good use of space, the loss of greenery can affect our health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that spending time in green space actively reduces depression and anxiety, while looking out to green spaces can improve mental focus and attention span. In fact, humans seem so programmed to be in nature that even looking at fake green plants helps hospital patients recover faster and experience less pain. 

Benefits of greener cities

From a climate perspective, trees and greenery help reduce the urban heat-island effect, while dark roofs and black bitumen absorb heat, increasing city temperatures. Nevertheless, a 2017 report into tree cover found 44 per cent of Victoria’s urban municipalities suffered a significant loss of canopy since 2013, while hard surfaces increased statewide by 3 per cent. 

But all is not lost. Even those with a small courtyard or balcony can cool their own private space by growing a few plants. Which is why the 2020 Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show had been planning a special balacony garden design competition to showcase clever hacks for small spaces. "Although many of us live in apartments or units, that doesn't mean we can't enjoy a lush or prosperous garden," says Marcus Gale, event director of the now cancelled garden show.

While MIFGS has been cancelled and the public won't get to see the clever designs conceived by the six finalists in the Ryman Healthcare Balcony Garden competition, the finalists have some great tips for making small balcony spaces blossom.

tables and chairs on a balcony surrounded by plants

It's time to use your green-thumb with our expert balcony garden tips.


Six expert tips for creating a blooming high-rise balcony garden


Include a power point and water source

Patricia Morrison, who moved to Melbourne from Brisbane after winning last year’s Boutique Garden competition, lived in an apartment for two years and started thinking about how to make these spaces more plant-friendly – like having access to water. As well as practical elements, such as a retractable washing line and fold-out table, she focused on edible plants. 

Plant edibles

“The first thing I thought about was having drawers for growing herbs, like an outdoor kitchen.” Storage cupboards for garden tools sit under raised garden beds for espaliered fruit trees. Fairy lights add a festive touch while the whole garden is topped with a green roof of native plants. 

Don’t put plants where they can blow over or fall off

Patrick Belford, of Inner City Nature, says the main challenge of creating a beautiful garden balcony is coping with the extreme elements.

“In my mind the main component of any garden is plants, so if you can grow thriving plants you’ve got a garden,” he says. “But on a balcony it’s all got to be in a container so you’re entirely responsible for the welfare of the plant: it may miss the rain so you’ll still have to water it; it may be windy or get blasted by northern sun, or only get sun at end of the day when it’s really hot, so keeping plants healthy is a real challenge.”

Use self-watering pots with wheels

To cope with those conditions, Patrick has devised a self-watering pot that takes the mystery out of knowing when to water. 

He also suggests putting plants on the walls and using soft furnishings that can be easily moved. 

low shot of sky and apartment building with multiple balcony gardens

The modern balcony garden looks great and increases sustainability mindfulness.


Keep the space versatile and uncluttered

Eltham-based finalist Ben Hutchinson says the tiny space demanded for the competition was his greatest challenge. “You’ve got to be really clever to not make it too cluttered. You don’t want to obstruct the view.”

For his design entry Ben cladded one wall with reclaimed timber “to make it a little warmer than concrete and glass” and used decorative pots. “I’m keeping it nice and simple,” he says. 

Choose plants wisely

The central focus of his design was a vertical wall garden using native Australian plants in a self-watering system. Plants include strappy lomandras and dianellas as well as groundcover wildflowers, such as everlasting daisy Yellow Button (‘Desert Flame’) and cobalt blue dampieras. 

Best balcony plants

This depends on orientation and exposure to sun/shade, wind and rain. 

  1. Lithophytes grow naturally on rock faces, so endure extremes, although not all take full sun. Try dendrobium orchids, elkhorn and staghorn ferns, rainforest succulents.
  2. Strappy plants are often tough; try fine-leafed lomandra ‘Mist’ or dwarf dianellas ‘Little Jess’ or ‘Petite Marie’.
  3. For colour in the sun, few plants beat cascading ivy geraniums. 
  4. Ferns for lush texture in shade.
  5. Create shade and privacy with a pot of bamboo, bird of paradise or trellis of jasmine.