Longtime gardeners trade big spaces for patio oases

07/11/2014 7:00 AM

07/12/2014 7:33 PM

For years, Teddy Bair gardened on a grand scale, tending multiple garden “rooms” and a koi pond at his Tudor house in Minneapolis.

When he decided to move to a condo, his friends asked: “What are you going to do when you give up that garden?”

“Get a bike and ride around to see what everyone else has been doing for 20 years,” he told them.

Bair gave up his big garden, but he didn’t give up gardening.

Now he grows on a small scale on a balcony with a sweeping view of the downtown skyline.

“I get great comfort out of it,” he said of his garden filled with banana trees, coleus and other tropical plants. He can tend them and still have plenty of time to do other things. “I really don’t miss it,” he said of his former garden. “I love living here. Life is so much easier.”

Many longtime gardeners are making the same transition, trading big earthen plots for patio pots. Urban migration, the downtown condo boom and a wave of retiring baby boomers have boosted the number of balcony and rooftop gardens, both downtown and in suburbia.

People who have balconies are eager to use them, said Paige Pelini, co-owner of Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis. “More people are trying to grow in containers, from older folks who are downsizing and don’t want to give up gardening, to young renters craving anyplace they can grow something.”

Condo and apartment dwellers “have a yearning to be connected to the earth in one form or another,” said Scott Endres, owner of Minneapolis’ Tangletown Gardens. A rooftop or balcony garden can be a “wonderful bridge between your living space and the landscape that surrounds you.”

A rooftop haven

When Marge and Irv Weiser moved from their suburban Minneapolis house to a downtown condo in 2006, “some kind of garden was a must-have,” Marge said.

The couple traded their acre of land, with spreading gardens, for a rooftop and balcony overlooking the Mississippi River and the Stone Arch Bridge. The rooftop includes large planters, a bed of ornamental grasses surrounding a sculpture, pots with herbs and veggies and even a small cutting garden. “My husband loves to cut flowers and have them all over the house,” she said.

The rooftop garden is where the couple host friends for July Fourth, when fireworks burst across the skyline. The cozy balcony garden is where Marge likes to read, sip a glass of wine and listen to the water. In summer, “I have dinner there most every night,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave our house, but it’s the best thing we ever did.”

Tammy and Dan Sullivan also left a house with a large garden and fish pond about 10 years ago for a condo. They now tend a balcony garden filled with pots and hanging baskets, overlooking a wooded area.

“I’m a gardener at heart,” Tammy said. “I couldn’t give it up. Dan has some plants, too. Each of us has our little corner.”

From their garden, they can see wildlife, including deer and bald eagles. The deer can’t munch on her garden, but someone else can: Phoebe, the cat, who likes to nibble on ornamental grass.

“We’ve given up. We keep one sacrificial plant for her. She loves it there. She lives on our balcony,” Tammy said.

Bair and his husband, Harvey Filister, incorporated elements from their old garden into their new garden and inside their condo. A statue, formerly the centerpiece of their pond, is now a focal point on their balcony. A fountain and a flock of stone birds that used to stand outdoors are now in their dining room.

“I couldn’t get rid of all my garden stuff,” Bair said. And when he wants to see his old garden in all its glory, he still can, in a row of framed photos and magazine covers displayed above the washer and dryer.

Gone with the wind

Balconies pose particular gardening challenges. “There’s a different set of rules to follow,” Endres said. “You can have almost as much diversity as on the ground. It’s all about site conditions.”

Downtown locations are often windy, with extreme heat, so plants with tougher, fleshier leaves are more practical than delicate plants. “Succulents are awesome,” Endres said. “They can take the heat.”

After a couple of growing seasons, balcony gardeners learn what works best in their conditions.

“Even though the area is very small, each corner is different, with different little zones,” said Sullivan of her garden. “Some plants do better than others. Daisies don’t work on the balcony. There’s not enough sun. We have eastern exposure, so we get early-morning sun. By noon, it’s shaded.”

Impatiens thrive on her balcony, as long as they’re kept back in the shadiest corner, she said.

Bair, too, has learned through trial and error. Last summer, his first in the condo, he tried growing a formal boxwood hedge in planters. “But it all died,” he said. “So sad.”

This year, he went tropical, planting banana trees, hoping the large, fast-growing foliage will provide shade by mid-summer. “I’m anxious to see them at the end of August.”

For Bair, “wind is the big enemy. Look how beat up the bananas are,” he said, pointing to their battered leaves. He consoles himself with the thought that this is how they probably look in their native habitat. “In the tropics they have storms. I kind of like it that they’re not perfect.”

The Weisers face similar conditions. “Plants have to be much sturdier up here,” Marge said of their garden. “Last year, we tried something different in the big planter, but the flowers blew off.”

This year, that planter is filled with sturdier palms, ferns, sweet potato vine and ornamental grass.

Growing food

Those who want to grow veggies and other edibles on a balcony also face challenges — and new container options.

“Peppers seem to do really well,” said Pelini of Mother Earth Gardens. “They like it hot, and they don’t need consistent moisture,” unlike tomatoes, which must be watered daily. If you want to grow tomatoes, Pelini recommends compact varieties, which are less likely to get snapped and take up less space. Hanging baskets are another option.

“You’re not going to get the same production,” Pelini said. But if you’re OK with that, hanging vegetable pots can be an attractive addition. “The cucumber baskets are adorable — little pickling-size cucumbers. They’re really cute!”

Balcony gardeners who reap produce seem to get even more satisfaction than those who tend traditional plots, Pelini noted. “People feel a high sense of reward: ‘You beat the odds. You live in an apartment, surrounded by concrete, but you did it — you got some cherry tomatoes!’”

Whatever they grow, condo dwellers often have an intimate relationship with their gardens. “Another perk of a balcony garden is you are able to study and admire the beauty of each plant at close proximity,” Sullivan said. “Often the hummingbirds are just inches from your nose.”

Tips for gardening on a balcony or rooftop

Even if you’re a seasoned green thumb on the ground, you’ll find that a balcony or rooftop garden presents different challenges:

Size and scale: Although your garden space may be small, it doesn’t mean you should stick to small plants. Scott Endres, owner of Tangletown Gardens, suggests bigger, bolder plants that can hold their own, especially if you live downtown with big buildings, urban noise and the river. “Choose things that can compete with the scale of the surroundings,” he said.

Toughen up: Your favorite garden flower may not be sturdy enough for conditions on a balcony, which are often windy and hot. Endres suggests plants with tougher, fleshier leaves, such as mother-in-law tongue and succulents. Plants with big loose leaves, such as banana trees, will likely get shredded by wind. “That big leaf is like a big sail,” he said. “Canna has big leaves, but closer to the stem.”

Don’t skimp on soil: Plants have less soil in containers than in the ground, which is why the character of the soil is more important. “Get good quality potting soil, the highest you can afford,” said Paige Pelini, co-owner of Mother Earth Gardens. “The plants will need every bit of nutrients available to them.” And plants that aren’t nourished properly are more susceptible to outside stresses, Endres said. Soil that contains water-holding polymers can help plants weather the hot, dry conditions on many balconies.

Growing edibles: If you want to grow tomatoes on a balcony, they’ll need lots of water and attention. “Tomatoes can do well in the right container,” Pelini said. “But the drawback is they have to be watered daily.” If you’re heading out of town, even for just a weekend, make arrangements for them, or you’ll return to dead plants. “Either set up a drip irrigation system or have somebody come water your plants.” Peppers and eggplants are more forgiving of inconsistent watering.

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