By James Lewis, Extension Master Gardener Intern
Photos by Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Soaring above the horizon of Arlington County are thousands of high-rise apartments* with balconies that can easily be transformed with Northern Virginia native plants into beautiful little gardens in the sky. Not only can balconies be converted into private oases with flowers blooming throughout the spring, summer, and fall, but they can also serve as an attraction for essential pollinators like butterflies and bees, providing them with nectar and pollen.
Long-blooming annuals have traditionally been preferred for balcony gardens, but native perennials work just as well for those who are able to devote more time and attention to the maintenance of a garden. Perennials have an advantage over annuals in that they will last from year to year. Choosing plants with attractive foliage is essential, since flowering periods for natives are not as lengthy as those for non-native summer annuals.
First and foremost, it is essential to determine the amount of sun a balcony garden receives each day. That single factor enables a gardener to choose the combination of plants that is likely to thrive. Does your garden bask in full sun? Or part shade? Or shade? There are options for each balcony that will convert a barren outdoor space into a welcoming breath of fragrant fresh air high above the bustling streets below.
Extension Master Gardeners recommend the planting concept of “thriller, filler, spiller.” Thriller (T) is the largest and most dramatic of three plants in a pot or planter. Filler (F) is a medium-sized plant that fits nicely with a spiller (S) that is low-growing to prostrate and often spills over the side of the container. Most will bloom at various times in the spring, summer, and fall. However, there are plants with beautiful foliage that never bloom. Often they will endure the harsh winter, if they are covered on the coldest days.
Following are examples of three suggestions for pots/planters of Virginia native plants that are likely to grow well in balcony gardens. The plants are identified as T, F, and S for thriller, filler, and spiller as previously described. Latin and common names identify each plant.
T: Dryopteris marginalis (marginal wood fern)
The fern is a beautiful evergreen that does not bloom. Both foamflower and stonecrop sedum bloom April to May. Their small blossoms are airy, star-like jewels. Each requires relatively little maintenance. The heart-shaped, semi-evergreen leaves of foamflower and the sprawling, succulent foliage of the sedum will continue to provide interest, along with the evergreen fronds of the fern, through the remainder of the year.
S: Sisyrinchium angustifolium (blue-eyed grass)
The saucer-shaped pink flowers of the wild geranium appear in April and May, while the blue-eyed grass will bloom with delicate blue flowers a little later from May to June. The ‘Autumn Bride’ alumroot produces its airy white blossoms from August to September. The combination of the three plants creates an appealing contrast of velvety leaves, lobed leaves, and grass-like foliage. All require consistent moisture.
S: Symphyotrichum ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ (heath aster)
The full-sun plants create a colorful combination of the coneflower’s orange, the butterfly weed’s yellow-orange, and the aster’s white blossoms. They bloom at overlapping times from late spring through early fall and can tolerate drier soil.
All of the plants described above can be found in local nurseries specializing in the sale of native plants, and there are also many nurseries that offer the plants for sale online. For the names of nurseries in Northern Virginia and further afield, please refer to the list on the Plant NOVA Natives website: https://www.plantnovanatives.org/native-only-sellers
*There are approximately 7,300 apartment balconies in Arlington County, according to official statistics compiled by the county. (Office of the County Manager.)