Gardens in the Sky

By staff February 1, 2004

Going into your garden can be extremely relaxing, even when it's a tiny haven 100 feet up in the air. Just ask long-time gardening enthusiasts John and Sue Michel, who turned an ordinary 10-foot by 20-foot patio into a lush rooftop terrace at their new Library Mews townhouse in downtown Sarasota.

Hundred-year-old Chicago bricks and a babbling pond, complete with wild cabbage, water irises, mare tail and fish, give the terrace an Old World charm. Walls covered with white allamanda, red passion vine, pink bougainvillea and bleeding heart impart privacy and a sense of permanence. Palms, ferns, viburnum and golden dew drop supply greenery and texture. Gerbera daisies, bachelor's buttons and rain lilies provide color; flowering shrubs and rose bushes contribute beauty and fragrance; and milkweed, Mexican petunia and red salvia attract butterflies. "Sue is the gardener," says John. "She fertilizes regularly, waters daily and prunes when needed." A gourmet cook, John needs only to wander out to the terrace to harvest the aromatic rosemary, mint, oregano, basil and chives that Sue lovingly tends.

The secret to John and Sue's containers' healthy abundance is simple. "We applied the same principle here that we did in the much larger garden of our Tampa home," says John. "We only used native plants. They're best suited for our climate and much easier to care for."

Successful container gardening doesn't require tremendous skill. Good quality container-grown plants are readily available, so there's no need to start from scratch. And, like furniture, containers can be rearranged to create new looks, with pride of place given to those plants that are performing best.

Many types of urban oases can be created with container-grown shrubs, dwarf trees and flowering plants. You can create great bursts of color with lantana, periwinkle, ixora, crotons, dwarf bougainvillea, and salt-tolerant bromeliads and orchids; and wonderful scents with climbing roses, cape honeysuckle and jasmine. Fruit trees, herbs and vegetables offer the high-rise dweller the opportunity for delectable, albeit limited, edible crops. Try small citrus trees and vegetables requiring vertical growth such as tomatoes, peppers and running beans.

Since the plants are far removed from their natural in-ground habitat, however, creating a balcony landscape calls for a glorious mix of the artificial and the authentic.

The plants themselves are only part of the equation. Shops and garden centers offer an ever-increasing range of containers from magnificent Italian olive jars and handsome French urns to wire hanging baskets, wood planters and trellises, and lightweight plastic pots. Junk shops and garage sales are also a rich source of items that can take on a new life as planters. Experienced gardeners find inspiration in the versatility of these containers, while those with little or no previous knowledge delight in the wonderful effects they can achieve.

Doris Rosebraugh, a landscape designer and plant consultant who teaches container gardening courses at Mary Selby Botanical Gardens, offers the following guidelines for planning the design of a balcony garden. Check for these important features: easy access to water and maintenance equipment, wind direction, patterns of shade and sun, salt-prone locations, wall areas suitable to create vertical space, and wind breaks with trellises and sturdy stands (these may need to be anchored in place).

"Weight, size, soil and watering are major considerations for balcony containers," Doris cautions. "Short, squat containers and troughs work best. But keep in mind that the size of a container limits the ultimate size of a plant. Plan for the mature plant. Give special attention to potting mixes and water schedules."

Soil in containers needs to be fairly light but also rich because the plants are closely packed in with roots competing for precious nutrients. To provide the right mix, Doris recommends Miracle-Gro with a blend of peat moss, vermiculite and nutrients.

Watering is crucial to healthy container plants. Containers generally require more frequent watering than do flower or vegetable beds. In the ground, plants can send out roots that adapt to the particular conditions. But in a pot, and more so in one not directly exposed to fickle water gods, the plant is at the mercy of its keeper. Potted plants can dry quickly in the sun and wind. Small pots can dry out totally in as little as a few hours. Deciding how much time and effort you want to put into maintenance will help you decide what types of containers and plants to use. To help conserve water, Doris suggests massing plants. "Larger displays can be spectacular and when set windward, tall plants will protect more tender plants."

Faster than you can say "instant gratification"- containers brimming with plants of interesting texture, color, scent and form can bring a little romance, a lot of intrigue or a touch of Zen and a great deal of beauty to your secret garden in the sky. 

RESOURCES: Doris Rosebraugh Landscape Designs, 371-8014; Menninger's Seaside Plants of the World, available in libraries.

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