Gardening tips: how to turn a small terrace and balcony into a year-round treat

Elegant wooden decking, evergreen planting and subtle lighting enhance the spectacular view from this London balcony.
Making a great outside space from a small terrace and a tinier balcony presents a challenge, even for the most creative garden designers.
 
“All roof gardens and balconies are tricky because there are so many construction issues to consider, such as drainage, weight load and street access,” says garden designer Charlotte Rowe, who was called in to work her magic on the sixth floor of a warehouse development near Tower Bridge for a couple who wanted year-round space for entertaining.
 
“For this project, we had to use a furniture hoist to bring in the planting and the planters. Everything had to be made bespoke for it all to fit properly.”
 
With spectacular local views such as the Shard as a backdrop, the key is to keep the design simple, says Rowe, with clean, sharp lines and a small, select evergreen plant palette that, with the aid of a built-in irrigation system to offset high-rise drying winds, is easy to maintain.
 
“The clients wanted both seating and dining areas on the terrace, which is only three-and-a-half metres deep and nine metres long. We created separate rooms by turning the decking around, so that for the seating area, opposite the sitting room indoors, we placed the decking down the depth to make the space appear deeper.
 
“Then we ran the boards along the width of the dining area, as well as making a square ‘rug’ by contrasting the decking beneath the coffee table. We do that a lot, not just to delineate spaces, but because a long expanse of decking is just plain boring.”
 
Another device Rowe used to differentiate the two areas was to use slatted panels of Western red cedar — the same wood as the decking — for the benches in the seating area, then paint the same-sized raised bed in the dining area a contrasting off-white.
 
“For the trellis boundary walls, we kept the slats close together at the bottom, and then went wider at the top, not just to soften the effect, but also to allow in a bit more light. It’s a trick we use a good deal,” she adds.
 
A bank of clipped rosemary, set with a trio of olive trees, provides a fragrant headrest for the built-in benches that have leafy corners of clipped Pittosporum tobira Nanum and cushions of waterproof fabric from John Lewis.
 
As well as lighting the olive trees, and setting lights in the decking between tall planters of box domes, Rowe ran a line of lighting along the base of the sitting room glass doors to avoid the gloomy “black mirror” effect when the clients look out at night.  
 


Beneath the terrace, one floor down, is an even trickier space that the clients wanted not only to be transformed, but to have a strong focal point. In a space just 2.3 metres by 3.4 metres, this is a tough call for any designer. “It’s not a large enough balcony to sit out on for any length of time, but it was on constant show from the interior, so needed to look good,” says Rowe.
 
“The back wall was a horrid metal with a mirror slapped on it. We had to be careful, because the other side of the wall was a communal staircase, so we could only add a façade.
 
“The client wanted some kind of mirror to make the space appear larger, but I’m not crazy about clear mirror in gardens. I suggested making it a subtler dark grey and encasing it with trellis, so it became a dark mirrored panel that was still able to reflect light.”
 
Against the wall, Rowe placed a dark grey aluminium bench stashed with two matching cube stools beneath, designed by Jennifer Newman. Rowe’s solution for a strong focal point was to build a tall, slim polished plaster fireplace at one end that could be ignited at the flick of a switch, and to flank it on either side with two narrow olive tree pillars.
 
As a finishing touch to the fireplace, she added a skeletal animal head, complete with antlers, that matched the head already positioned on the sitting room wall indoors. “Why not have a touch of ancestral home, outdoors, even if it is in the heart of the city?” says Rowe. Why not, indeed.

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