How do I have a cosy outdoor space on my roof or balcony?
You don't need a garden to enjoy being outdoors in your own space
Growing plants and having a pleasant outdoor space to sit and relax or entertain is not just for people in houses with gardens. You can also enjoy the fresh air from an apartment balcony or a little bit of roof space. Decorated balconies and rooves are a common sight across Europe but are starting to catch on here also, with the recent lockdown making people realise the importance of connecting with nature. London now has quite a few rooftop gardens incorporated into modern architecture, think the Sky Garden, a public space from which to view the whole city.
Key to deciding what to do with these spaces is to establish how much weight the roof or balcony can take. At the barest minimum you should be able to have some artificial plants and a sun-lounger or a trough of bedding plants hanging over the railings. The best scenario would be for the roof to take a good amount of weight to enable you to have a number of large plants and even trees.
If there is a weight restriction you can resort to artificial plants and trees with artificial grass, which can give you a lush private space. Don’t forget if you have a rooftop space and high winds are forecast any large trees and plants must be secured or weighted down. There is a huge selection of lightweight comfortable garden furniture available, don’t forget you have to carry it up several sets of stairs. Resin weave garden furniture is ideal, not only is it stylish, comfortable and light but is virtually maintenance free, if you buy from a reputable manufacturer it will last for many years. When it comes to garden furniture you get what you pay for, cheap furniture will not last very long as it rusts and the weave soon breaks and unravels. Some budget furniture is also not colourfast and can stain clothing once it gets damp. Furniture must also be secured if high winds are forecast. If you only have a small balcony you can get folding garden furniture which can be hung on the wall when not in use.
Before you go down the route of having fresh plants and grass check to make sure you don’t block up any drainage channels. Rooves are especially exposed so cutting down on the wind flow with screens or tall plants is essential, unless you particularly like sitting out in a constant breeze. Don’t use a solid structure which completely blocks the wind as this just causes turbulence and is more likely just to blow down. Choose something which slows and filters the wind, such as open trellis, trees or one of those gorgeous fretwork screens which are starting to become more popular. Bamboo is a great plant for screening as you also get the gentle soothing rustle of the leaves. Trellis screens are a great way of introducing climbing plants.
As the roof is exposed and usually experiences full sun, you could take inspiration from Mediterranean gardens which would cope very well with these conditions. These plants usually have leaves which are silver, hairy, thick and fleshy or narrow and strap-like, all of which either reflect the sun or reduce the rate of evaporation, so reducing the amount of water the plant loses. These plants have also evolved to require much less water so are very low maintenance. Many of these plants, such as rosemary, lavender and thyme also have a beautiful fragrance and you can use them in your cooking.
When it comes to choosing plants remember that a small space does not necessarily mean small plants, they can look a little messy. Choose a base layer of large plants, they look more dramatic and can provide focal points, then start by filling in the gaps with medium height plants, gradually becoming smaller towards the front. If you want a minimalist look try the Himalayan Birch, Betula jacquemontii, with it’s gorgeous white stems. Other spectacular plants include bamboos, cloud pruned conifers, the tall slim Italian Cypress, Cupressus sempervirens ‘Totem’ or simple small leaved evergreens clipped into simple geometric shapes.
When it comes to choosing containers there are plenty of lightweight ones available. When it comes to a traditional style there are perfectly acceptable imitation terracotta or stone designs. For a more modern chic look go for the geometric fibre clay imitation lead planters or the funky colourful designs from Elho. Choose something large with a large base so it doesn’t blow over, a tall narrow pot with a small base will be unstable in high winds. For a more coherent stylish look make sure all the containers are of the same design.
If you want to enjoy your space into the evening you will need some source of heat. A lot of apartments have clauses which ban the use of live fire so you may just have to make do with soft, warm snuggly throws. There are plenty of different styles of solar lighting so there is sure to be one to suit your style. They have come on a lot in recent years, no longer are they the dim feeble glow which hardly lasts any time.
Finally, the main element in making your small space somewhere you can entertain family and friends is the BBQ. Although you probably can’t have a gas or charcoal grill, Weber do a great electric alternative, the Pulse. Although BBQ purists will turn up their noses, they are a great little grill and can produce fantastic results. Check out the video and blog where we compare burgers cooked over charcoal, gas and electric.
If you don’t want to go to the expense of buying a whole new lot of gear to decorate your space just take out items from indoors; a rug, piles of cushions, bean bags and some throws can make a space an inviting spot to enjoy some fresh air. Give your houseplants some fresh air in summer to complete the outdoor garden feel.