For years, Teddy Bair gardened on a grand scale, tending multiple garden “rooms” and a koi pond at his Tudor house in Minneapolis.
When he decided to move to a condo, his friends asked: “What are you going to do when you give up that garden?”
“Get a bike and ride around to see what everyone else has been doing for 20 years,” he told them.
Bair gave up his big garden, but he didn’t give up gardening.
Now he grows on a small scale — on a balcony with a sweeping view of the downtown skyline.
“I get great comfort out of it,” he said of his garden filled with banana trees, coleus and other tropical plants. He can tend them and still have plenty of time to do other things he enjoys. “I really don’t miss it,” he said of his former garden. “I love living here. Life is so much easier.”
Many longtime gardeners are making the same transition, trading big earthen plots for patio pots. Urban migration, the downtown condo boom and a wave of retiring baby boomers have combined to boost the number of balcony and rooftop gardens, both downtown and in suburbia.
While many condos don’t have outdoor spaces for gardens, people who do have balconies are eager to use them, said Paige Pelini, co-owner of Mother Earth Gardens. “More people are trying to grow in containers — from older folks who are downsizing and don’t want to give up gardening, to young renters craving anyplace they can grow something.”
Condo and apartment dwellers “have a yearning to be connected to the earth in one form or another,” said Scott Endres, owner of Tangletown Gardens. A rooftop or balcony garden can be a “wonderful bridge between your living space and the landscape that surrounds you.”
When Marge and Irv Weiser moved from their house in Golden Valley to a downtown condo in 2006, “some kind of garden was a must-have,” said Marge.
The couple traded their acre of land, with spreading gardens, for a rooftop and balcony overlooking the Mississippi River and the Stone Arch Bridge. The rooftop includes large planters, a bed of ornamental grasses surrounding a sculpture, pots with herbs and veggies and even a small cutting garden. “My husband loves to cut flowers and have them all over house,” she said.
The rooftop garden is where the couple host friends for July 4th and during the Aquatennial, when fireworks burst across the skyline. The cozy balcony garden is where Marge likes to read, sip a glass of wine and listen to the water. In summer, “I have dinner there most every night,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave our house, but it’s the best thing we ever did.”
Tammy and Dan Sullivan also left a house with a large garden and fish pond about 10 years ago for a condo in Eagan. They now tend a balcony garden, filled with pots and hanging baskets, overlooking a wooded area.
“I’m a gardener at heart,” said Tammy. “I couldn’t give it up. Dan has some plants, too. Each of us has our little corner.”
From their garden, they can see wildlife, including deer and bald eagles, Tammy said. The deer can’t munch on her garden, but someone else can: Phoebe, the cat, who likes to nibble on ornamental grass. “We’ve given up. We keep one sacrificial plant for her. She loves it there — she lives on our balcony.”
Bair and his husband, Harvey Filister, incorporated a few elements from their old garden into their new garden, and inside their condo. A statue, formerly the centerpiece of their pond, is now a focal point on their balcony. A fountain and a flock of stone birds that used to stand outdoors are now in their dining room. “I couldn’t get rid of all my garden stuff,” Bair said. And when he wants to see his old garden in all its glory, he still can — in a row of framed photos and magazine covers displayed above the washer and dryer. (Bair’s garden was a Star Tribune Beautiful Gardens contest winner in 2006.)
Gone with the wind
Balconies pose particular gardening challenges. “There’s a different set of rules to follow,” said Endres. “You can have almost as much diversity as on the ground. It’s all about site conditions.” Downtown locations are often windy, with extreme heat. In those conditions, plants with tougher, fleshier leaves are more practical than delicate plants. “Succulents are awesome,” Endres said. “They can take the heat.”
After a couple of growing seasons, balcony gardeners learn what works best in their conditions. “Even though the area is very small, each corner is different, with different little zones,” said Sullivan of her garden. “Some plants do better than others. Daisies don’t work on the balcony. There’s not enough sun. We have eastern exposure, so we get early-morning sun. By noon, it’s shaded.” Impatiens thrive on her balcony — as long as they’re kept back in the shadiest corner, she said.
Bair, too, has learned through trial and error. Last summer, his first in the condo, he tried growing a formal boxwood hedge in planters. “But it all died,” he said. “So sad.”
This year, he went tropical, planting banana trees, in hopes that the large, fast-growing foliage will provide some shade by mid-summer. “I’m anxious to see them at the end of August.”
For Bair, “wind is the big enemy. Look how beat up the bananas are,” he said, pointing to their battered leaves. But he consoles himself with the thought that this is how they probably look in their native habitat. “In the tropics they have storms. I kind of like it that they’re not perfect.”
The Weisers face similar growing conditions. “Plants have to be much sturdier up here,” Marge said of their garden. “Last year, we tried something different in the big planter, but the flowers blew off.”
This year, that planter is filled with sturdier palms, ferns, sweet potato vine and ornamental grass. The couple hire Tangletown Gardens to design and install their gardens. Usually Marge visits the store and chooses a color palette — “sometimes blues, sometimes yellows … a little different every year,” she said. But this year, she “left it totally in their hands — I said, ‘Surprise me,’ and it was the best.”
Those who want to grow veggies and other edibles on a balcony also face challenges — and new options.
“We’ve been bringing in more container varieties — there’s more demand,” said Pelini of Mother Earth Gardens. One supplier, Rush Creek Growers of Spring Valley, Wis., produces smaller varieties of vegetables, designed for growing in containers.
“Peppers seem to do really well,” said Pelini. “They like it hot, and they don’t need consistent moisture,” unlike tomatoes, which must be watered daily. If you want to grow tomatoes, Pelini recommends compact varieties. “Smaller plants are less likely to get snapped and take up less space,” she said.
Hanging baskets are another option. “You’re not going to get the same production,” Pelini said. But if you’re OK with that, hanging vegetable pots can be an attractive addition. “The cucumber baskets are adorable — little pickling-size cucumbers. They’re really cute!”
Balcony gardeners who manage to reap some produce seem to get even more satisfaction than those who tend traditional plots, Pelini noted. “People feel a high sense of reward — ‘You beat the odds. You live in an apartment, surrounded by concrete, but you did it — you got some cherry tomatoes!’ ”
Whatever they grow, condo dwellers often have an intimate relationship with their gardens. “Another perk of a balcony garden is you are able to study and admire the beauty of each plant at close proximity,” said Sullivan. “Often the hummingbirds are just inches from your nose.”
And while Bair tends a lot fewer plants than when he had his big garden, each one gets more attention. “I know every leaf on every one of those plants.”