When a new season arrives one thing is sure, it will signal a change and in natural terms, quite a drastic one. Most people would site Spring as the time of year that we think about planning our garden, sowing seeds and taking to the outdoor life. The autumn, however, opens up many possibilities of its own. To begin it's the perfect time to plant those permanent plants that are long term features in the layout of the garden. Trees, shrubs and even drifts of herbaceous planting, all benefit from being autumn planted as the summer ends and while the soil is still warm. This gives new additions to the garden and the length of the dormant seasons to put its roots down and get a strong start come the following spring.
These perennial plantings are the back-bone of any garden and lay the foundation for the seasonal edibles and flowers to lock in around them, filling out the garden in all its glory. This concept should also be applied to all balcony gardens no matter what size. The arrival of autumn is definitely not an excuse to pack up go and go inside for the winter.
First and foremost the autumn colour that we will be surrounded by is one of nature’s greatest displays, a balcony garden should contribute to this, so when planting backbone plants always bear in mind what autumnal party tricks these plants might have.
A small tree or two is a must, a dwarf Apple such as ‘Discovery’ will not only bear fruit but will colour up beautifully in the autumn. Small ornamental trees like a Japanese Maple are classic autumnal subjects, and good husbandry of watering and nutrient supply will mean they will sit quite happily in a container. On my balcony, I have a Nyssa sylvatica, a naturally large tree which belongs to the Beech family. It was gifted to me and I was told categorically it had no chance of growing in a container. It’s now in its 15th year in a pot and the only real trouble it’s given me was when I carried it upstairs when I moved into my current flat. It nearly buckled me but it was definitely worth the effort.
Many shrubs will sit in a container too, my old Roses, so generous with their floral displays through-out the summer have one last trick before they bow out for a rest for winter. Bright yellow autumn colour is a crowd-pleaser every year and my balcony garden would not be the same without these wonderful plants. Other shrubs that do the job are Dogwoods, which follow a bright autumn colour with brightly coloured red stems. Cut down hard in early spring they rise again to repeat their qualities the following year. Cotinus or the Smoke Bush is a hard plant and fills out a corner of a balcony comfortably giving a spectacular autumn feel in successive years with very little fuss.
Climbing plants planted not only for their horticultural characteristics but as windbreaks around the railings. They are also an opportunity for autumnal shades. My summer Jasmine goes a decent deep yellow when the cold sets in and even a grape in a pot, trained along the railings with the produce of a stunning deep red autumn colour. Just one word of warning though, keep them tamed with regular clipping as they may well take over.
Permanent planting is both possible and fundamental to a garden built at height and grown in containers, but that's not all, there is one more thing you may be able to add to the balcony. If it is surrounded by any type of green back-drop, try to frame some of this backbone planting to connect to this external plant life. My balcony sits up in the crown of some trees and by leaving gaps in the climbers that grow along the railings, I can visibly extend my garden out into the trees beyond. The whole effect I liken to a green corridor and this can also work by framing houseplants in the window of my front room with the balcony garden which then features the wider landscape.
Further under-planting into the containers not only adds a feature to the garden but it helps to maintain the health of the larger plants. Both my roses and small trees are underplanted, the roses sit on top of Herbs such as thyme and lavender. Alpines such as Campanula cascade grow over the lips of the containers and I even underplant with strawberries. This creates a little micro-climate all of its own, it helps retain moisture around the roots and humidity around the plants. It'll also keep weeds from coming in and competing with my chosen plants so all round it's a win-win. Further to this, I like to feed these stalwarts of my balcony garden with Bocking 14 Comfrey pellets, top dress with compost and give the occasional liquid feed with seaweed extract. This along with my attentive nature to their irrigation requirements seems to keep these fantastic plants happy.
Of course, autumn is also a big moment for seasonal changes. The summer bedding, tomato crops, peppers and chillies are all coming to the end of their summer work. The chillies I can bring indoors but it’s off to the compost bin with all the other seasonal plants. It's now time for me to fill my many hanging baskets and pots with spring bedding. Like all dedicated gardeners I love the anticipation of what lies ahead, so I get my head into bulb catalogues and plan the future. Planting bulbs in October will be one of the most worthwhile projects you can do on a balcony garden.
Once planted you have at least four months of successional flowering that will come your way from late winter to early summer. Snowdrops for February, Crocus and Daffodil for March, Tulips and Daffodils for April and Allium and Tulip for May and that's just a sample of the world of bulbs. Colour can be added cover the top of the bulbs in the form of Pansies, Forget-me-nots Wallflowers and Primrose. Some of these will flower through the autumn and winter but it’s in spring when they flower profusely, and the bulbs explode through and you realise that your autumnal efforts were all worthwhile.
Planting spring bulbs in containers is an enjoyable easy job but the change-over of seasonal planting provides an opportunity to refresh the soil in my baskets and containers. Most soil will be removed with the summer bedding plants and edibles. The roots tend to fill the containers, but I knock off as much soil as I can back into the container and then top up with fresh peat-free potting compost and throw in a few organic fertiliser pellets for good measure. I also prop up the containers on the deck with a couple of house of bricks, protecting the roots from frost and avoiding waterlogging.
Of course, it’s easy to feel that growing fresh food on the balcony is no longer possible now the dark months are looming. However, there is plenty you can do. I like to play around a bit and rainbow chard planted in the middle of a container or basket surrounded by pansies or primroses gives me both colour and edible leaves for the kitchen. I also keep a large trough which contains a reservoir in its base. This is great for growing food as the soil acts as a wick and pulls up moisture by capillary action making it less likely to dry out. In here I grow spinach, rocket, salad leaves, oriental mustards and mizuma. Being in London I can grow these pretty comfortably, but I may lose out a bit when the daylight is at its shortest but until that happens fresh salad will continue to grace the kitchen.
So as the winter beckons on the balcony garden, far from being something to be forgotten, it is a hive of colour and activity in the autumn. I’ll be checking on it regularly, picking over any dead leaves, staking anything that's getting blown around and of course, one of my favourite jobs will be making sure my small feathery visitors get plenty of food and water. I have to look after them, as they make it all worth-while.