Gardening

The Best Plants for Every Balcony, Fire Escape, or Windowsill

No matter how sunny, windy, or shady.

June 15, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

There’s no magic size to turn a balcony into a lush miniature oasis. Even a space that’s too small to fit a table can be used to grow a variety of plants, if, that is, you keep a few important things in mind.

Firstly, be aware of your microclimate. This is the rather small (or, micro, ha!) climate of the area you’re planting in, as opposed to the climate of your larger region. For example, the higher you’re up in a building, the more your plants are exposed to wind, which not only damages plants but also dries them out—something to consider when picking more delicate plant varieties. Similarly, you’ll need to determine how much sunlight your balcony gets and select plants that need full sun, can withstand partial shade, or need shade.

You’ll also need to make sure that your balcony can support the weight of potted plants. While this may seem like a given, the weight of multiple potted plants (filled with dirt and lots of water) can start to add up. Generally, a couple of window boxes or half a dozen gallon-size lightweight containers filled with potting mix are usually fine. However, if you use terracotta or ceramic pots, weight can be an issue and it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: Be realistic about your ability to water the plants regularly. While there are several automatic watering systems you can use to keep your indoor plants alive when you are away, outdoor plants are a different story, because they dry out much faster. If you’re planning an extended trip and don’t have a plant sitter lined up, you should choose herbs or succulents that can survive a few days without watering.

Here are suggestions—not an exhaustive list, as there are far too many choices—for balcony plants with an extended bloom period. All the better to enjoy.


Plants That Need Full Sun

  • Petunias bloom from spring to fall and they come in many beautiful colors and shapes—single and double blooms, ruffled or smooth petals, some even with stripes—that it’s sometimes hard to decide which to plant.
  • Or, try yellow or orange French marigolds which start blooming in the summer and into the early fall.
  • The same applies to pelargonium, which is the botanical name for geraniums; they prefer full sun but tolerate light shade.
  • Multi-colored lantana is a tropical perennial but can be grown as an annual in colder climates.

Plants for Partial Shade or Shade

  • If your balcony is shaded by another building or a tree, especially during the hot afternoon hours, tuberous begonias are always dependable. They bloom from mid-summer through fall and come in a large spectrum of colors and plain, ruffled, or toothed flower shapes. Note that the tubers of begonias are toxic to cats and dogs when ingested.
  • Other choices for shady balconies for flowering plants are New Guinea impatiens or fuchsias, which bloom repeatedly.
  • The big, heart-shaped leaves of caladium in white, pink, red, and green are just as attractive as the flowers of this shade-loving plant that blooms from spring to fall.

Cascades of Flowers

  • If you love plants that spill out and over their container or have a sprawling growth habit, check out blue or purple trailing lobelia, which can grow in full sun to partial shade and blooms all summer long.
  • Sweet alyssum is another plant for full sun to part shade that blooms in the spring and again in the fall.
  • Verbena—not to be confused with the culinary herb, lemon verbena—needs full and blooms spring to fall.
  • Another profuse bloomer is the trailing petunia ‘Million Bells’, which is covered with small flowers from spring to fall.

Pretty Climbers

  • Vines are not only attractive as a tall backdrop, but they can also shade other plants that need it. Probably one of the easiest flowering vines to grow is morning glory, an annual that comes in several color choices, including red, white, blue, pink, and purple.
  • Mandevilla is a tropical perennial with trumpet-shaped red, pink or white flowers that is usually grown as an annual, and prefers partial shade.
  • Passionflower also prefers partial shade, and while its flowers only last for a day, it blooms repeatedly on and off.
  • Sweet potato vine is not a flowering vine but is grown for its striking foliage in a wide range of colors, ranging from an almost neon-colored yellow-green to purple, bronze, copper, and black.

When Watering Is a Commitment Issue

  • If you cannot water your plants daily, consider planting culinary herbs such as lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, or oregano. If left uncut, they will bloom.
  • Or, you can grow drought-tolerant succulents such as aeonium, Burro’s tail, hens and chicks, or ice plant. These are perennials so they will last for more than one summer but in cooler climates, they need to be overwintered indoors. Make sure you have the indoors space for them.

When Autumn Rolls In

Even with the best of care, regular fertilizing and watering, most container plants, especially annuals, tend to look a bit tired at the end of the season. Think of them as being exhausted from having run a summer-long blooming marathon—it’s no fault of yours or theirs, just a natural occurrence.

Fortunately, by that time, mums in all colors will have appeared at the nurseries, and you can replace your potted summer plants with these much hardier ones. Unlike your tender summer annuals, mums will last even through the first light fall frosts, allowing you to usually enjoy them up until Thanksgiving.

Which plants have you grown successfully in a small space? Tell us your favorites below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Smaug
    Smaug
  • Nadia Hassani
    Nadia Hassani
Writer, editor, and translator

5 Comments

Smaug June 15, 2021
Actually, geraniums is the botanical name for geraniums; it's quite unfortunate that it has become a popular name for pelargoniums. True geraniums are largely procumbent plants that spread fairly quickly, popular in my area are G. Sanguineum v. Lancastrense and GxCantabrigiense "Biokovo".
It is important to note that, because of surrounding buildings, conditions on a balcony or deck can change quite suddenly and drastically as the sun's angle changes over the course of the year, you need to keep track of how it's changing.. I don't know about NYC, but at least in warmer areas morning sun is much to be preferred to afternoon sun.
A good group to consider is epiphytic plants that in nature grow in small pockets of soil in tree crotches and so forth- Christmas cactus, staghorn ferns, hoyas and tillandsias are some popular types, but there are many others. For the brave at heart, Malaysian rhododendrons are a showy choice, and any number of orchids (ground orchids such as cymbidiums and bletilla striata are also good choices). These plants generally like a lot of air circulation and have at least some tolerance for their soil pockets drying out
 
Author Comment
Nadia H. June 15, 2021
@Smaug: The annual or zonal geraniums in the article are Pelargonium x hortorum so they are indeed Pelargoniums and different from true geraniums such as the Geranium sanguineum you mention. - Good point about watching how sun exposure changes throughout the year before making your choices for balcony plants.
 
Smaug June 15, 2021
????As I said, they are pelargoniums; what they're not is geraniums. Popular names for plants are frequently untrustworthy, but that one is particularly pervasive and misleading; best not to perpetuate it.
 
Author Comment
Nadia H. June 16, 2021
@Smaug: Old habits die hard. Because the name is widely used in the nursery trade, I also added the popular name as a reference. Thanks for clarifying!
 
Smaug June 16, 2021
NH 'Tis true that the usage is very common. I confess that I have a history of plaguing Food 52's writers about use of language, but I think it's important. If professional writers are perpetuating poor usage, who's left to fight? Of course there are always questions- for instance, if you start a question with " 'tis ", is the T capitalized?