Gardening Without Ground

  • 01 of 05

    Intro to Gardening Without Ground

    3 Coleus in Pots
    Three Coleus in Pots. © Kerry Michaels

    For many people, hardscaped areas might be the only outdoor places available to create a garden. Rather than limiting, this lack of earth can open up a world of possibilities. Whether your area is a small terrace off the back kitchen, or a rooftop or balcony, there are a number of practical and design considerations to bear in mind when taking a barren hardscape from boring to beautiful.

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  • 02 of 05

    Design Considerations

    Urn with Begonia and Creeping Jenny
    Urn with Begonia and Creeping Jenny. © Kerry Michaels 2013

    One of the primary design considerations for any garden – especially a garden carved out of a barren, hardscaped area – is how you plan to use the space. Defining the purpose for the garden will drive design and plant choices.

    • Do you want to entertain friends or is the area to be a private refuge?
    • Would you like an edible garden from which to cook outdoors or inside
    • Do you simply want to block out the neighbors?
    • How important – or an impediment – is the view?
    • Are there obstructions that cannot be...MORE overlooked, such as an air conditioner or gutters?
    • What are the size limitations of the area?

    You can delineate garden rooms in even the smallest of terraces or balconies. For example,

    • Freestanding vertically planted walls, fencing, or trellises can be used to separate one area from another
    • Obelisks, furniture, and rugs might divide garden areas
    • Tile or stone paths can send you in a new direction

    Your responses to these questions will drive your design decisions. If you want the area to simply be a place to sit with coffee before work, you’ll want to focus on necessities – a chair, a table, and a few plants in containers to soften the hardscape. On the other hand, if your intention is to mimic a larger, on-the-ground ground garden, you’ll want to create different rooms, delineate movement

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  • 03 of 05

    Practical Considerations

    Large garden pot at Thuya Garden
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels


    Once you have decided the purpose for the space, determine how you will get containers, plants, furniture, and ornaments to the area and the impact of weight, climate, and weather in the space. Ask yourself:

    • Do you need permission from the landlord or association if you live in a condominium or apartment?
    • Do you need a structural engineer to ensure the area can sustain the weight of heavy plants, vessels, and ornaments?
    • Is the area windy?
    • How does the light bounce off of walls and how will...MORE that affect plants?
    • Are there spaces in complete shade?
    • How will the snow or beating sun impact each of the items in the area?

    The importance of understanding weight, weather, and climate conditions before designing a terrace, balcony, or rooftop garden cannot be overstated.

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  • 04 of 05


    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Containers are the key players when gardening on hardscape. Unlike gardening in soil – where weight and watering restrictions don’t typically apply – weight is a primary consideration when contemplating a terrace, balcony, or rooftop garden.

    • Choose lighter vessels such as fiberglass or plastic.
    • Limit the number of containers you use.
    • Understand if your choice of plants for each container requires soil and compost or is a lighter soil mix preferred? If a light soil mix is recommended for the plants,...MORE the vessel might need to be heavier to withstand fluctuations in wind and weather or the need for frequent watering. If garden soil and compost is preferred, you might need to choose a lighter vessel.
    • How fast will containers dry out?
    • How will the water drain?
    • Will water drip onto a neighbor’s terrace or ruin the hardscape materials on a terrace?
    • Is there a water source in the space or will you have to carry water to the plants and how far, if so?
    • Will you need drip irrigation?

    Answer these questions ahead of designing your space and you will eliminate many problems later. When gardening on hardscape it is best to err on the side of caution than risk structural damage to the area from heavy materials.

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  • 05 of 05

    Choosing Plants

    Banana, Fuchsia
    Large Container. © Kerry Michaels

    Trees, shrubs, and other large plants such tropical canna or bananas play a prominent role in terrace, balcony, and rooftop gardens, as they go a long way toward creating the feeling of an in-ground garden. Depending on your design intentions, the plants might bear fruit, expose bark in the winter, provide shade, or soften an area with varying textures. The large plants you select for a terrace, balcony, or rooftop garden will depend upon obvious factors such as height at maturity and light...MORE requirements, but – as mentioned – soil and container options are also important considerations.

    Once you have taken into consideration all of the above factors, designing a balcony or rooftop garden may present even greater opportunities to build the garden of your dreams than one at ground level. This is especially true in an urban area. With a little foresight, whether your space is a balcony, terrace, or rooftop, something about the confines of a space can indeed open up a world of possibilities.