A Rite of Spring!
One of the first rites of spring is the search for signs of it.
Morning light creeping into the bedroom a minute earlier each day, sunset delayed the same amount of time, air off the sea a little less chilly, apartment block shadows slowly shrinking the swelling tips of trees. Walking along West End streets smelling Sarcoccoca (Himalayan sweet box) in January then the luscious scented Skimmea a few weeks later, spotting crocuses and daffodils, March’s early tulip … and then there’s the balcony (yes, yours) … anything from an empty, barren 5’ by 9’ concrete wasteland to a cluttered, storage space increasingly visible as the season brightens. It’s no sign of spring.
Why not make it one by planting a garden?
“Me with two black thumbs? I kill everything! Don’t get enough sun! On 45 square feet? Have no time for gardening. Want something low maintenance!”
We’re not suggesting the Garden of Eden or the Stanley Park Rose Garden here, but a less-is-more, ‘adapt to the micro-climate of the west-facing 5th floor’ (or whatever you have) type of garden. The acreage may be small but how big was the Garden of Eden really?
Nature is generous but we’ll enter the jungle of plant choice in future columns. First of all: the balcony is a room. What do you want to do with it? Sip a glass of wine on it at the end of the day; something to provide a privacy screen from the curious neighbours; a meditation room; something to look at from the inside … or leave it as the cluttered storage space and infrequent barbeque pit?
A single item out of place makes a small room look cluttered, so sit and sip the glass of wine or the margarita out there and consider the possibilities … what landscapers call ‘structure.’ The small side table and two chairs may take up a full quarter to a third of the space reducing the working area even further. The illusion of space is the aim here so, if they aren’t already, shove the table and chairs to the end of the balcony closest to the door to broaden your sightline potentials. The gardening experiment can start at once without dirt, flower pots or fertilizers, by placing a vase of bright, cheerful flowers in a vase right beside you. Strong, warm colours establish immediacy of place and space where you are sitting. Though if you situate the same vase further away, those bright, warm colours telescope the sightline you are hoping to lengthen. If you like reds and oranges, keep them close, but for ‘distance’ – even if its only three feet away – try something cool, a neutral vase with paler blues and lavender-coloured flowers. You’ll notice the extended foreshortening immediately. The great garden writer Gertrude Jekyll once wrote, ‘Sometimes a bench on the landscape is there only for the eye to rest upon.”
If your plan is for Asian minimalism, a single bonsai situated at the far end can imply a forest or a single intriguing rock or ‘viewing stone’ positioned just so, you’ll have an echo from the Ryōan-ji Gardens in Kyoto, Japan. On the plus side for rocks: they don’t need watering. Bonsais are a different matter.
Internationally renowned landscaper John Brooks advised keeping the colour palette to three colours with white being one of them. For my postage stamp balcony I chose the Mediterranean combo of yellow, blue and white: generally yellow for closer items, blue for distance and white for highlights and intermediary transitions. Pots were kept to the same restrictions.
Keep larger pots close to the sitting area and gradate them to smaller sizes as the distance increases from the chairs. Follow this procedure when thinking of plants as well: larger-leaf plants closer and smaller leafed ones farther away. I found raising the pots with pillars or risers by matching increments as the pots grew smaller kept the garden at eye-level when sitting down. At the farthest end I added an additional table arranged with the smallest pots (again all in the same style and colour range.) This functioned the way a Japanese garden viewing stone intrigues the eye to gaze and linger beyond the sitting area. It sounds crowded but the effect was quite the opposite.
I developed and fine-tuned all these ideas on my 9 by 5 balcony and loved the result. To reassure you, this did not happen overnight – it was most certainly a work in progress for several years but eventually it settled and became a comforting little corner of Eden.
After ten years the condo we were renting was sold and it was time to move. When I emptied out the balcony I was shocked how tiny the area had always been. All the trompe l’œil had worked – the magician had been fooled by his own tricks.
And to answer how big was the Garden of Eden really?
Eden is where you find it.
Or plant it.