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Balcony as summer residence

Balcony as summer residence

Create almost a cottage out of your outdoor space
Do you use your balcony as a refuge for a quick smoke? What a waste, and yet so many of us use our balconies for a puff or as a mere storage space.

We can do better than that. A balcony can be easily, and inexpensively, transformed into an urban retreat for those spring to fall months.

Of course, our long winters place strict limits on balcony use — unless you own a condo with a balcony and can transform it into a year-round sunroom.

Look at your balcony afresh — and imagine it as an extension of your living space. Easier said than done, right? Not really — it's no big deal if you know what you're looking for. And we've got expert tips to help.

Furniture makes the space liveable and functional. Don Fenwick from The Temperate Garden recommends a small bistro-style table and chairs to create a fun spot for weekend breakfasts — or cocktails in the evening. A wicker chair is also a good place to curl up with a good book on a summer day. The thing to remember with furniture, however, is where to store it for winter. Consider buying either furniture that can survive the extremes of our climate, or ensure that you have enough basement storage for winter months.

Fenwick also suggests creating a focal point on your balcony space. How about a solar-powered fountain? This option eliminates messy plumbing and wiring woes. Solar-powered outdoor lights also offer maintenance-free accent lighting without the danger of electrical cords. As well, they'll save on your hydro bill which is already suffering in the summer months if you have that environmental monster, the air conditioner.

David van Sertima from North Tower landscaping construction has an innovative approach to lighting. "I like to have them dramatic and hidden behind plants," he says. "I prefer to have the light coming from below and bouncing off the ceilings to give it more of a subtle effect, because otherwise you feel very much like you're in a fishbowl at night. It adds to the sense of lights, and if you use coloured lights you can manipulate it further."

Then there's the old balcony stand-by — plants. Why not try a different approach from big pots to bring the space alive?

"I like to imitate natural settings like Zen gardens," van Sertima says. "You can actually use custom-made panels that are almost like floor-level wider landscapes. I don't mean just pots, but something that imitates a small area of lawn or an actual bush because the pot is so low to the ground so that it can be made to look like part of the balcony. That helps to obscure the fact that you're in an engineered structure."

He also likes to do is use artwork and sculpture such as panels or privacy screens along with trellises, and then frames them with ornamental grasses, specimen palm trees and ferns. These provide a sense of greenery while obscuring the geometry of the balcony. Another suggestion: use a trellis to hang plants overhead. 

"The real trick is to combine what you see outside the window, outside the balcony, with your panorama, with the theme that you're putting in the landscaping," he says.

As with any gardening, there are considerations for light and shade, but also watering. Fenwick cautions would-be balcony gardeners to check the source of their water. "Can you connect a lightweight hose to your kitchen or bathroom tap or will you be schlepping watering cans across your fine British India carpet?" he asks. As well, issues of drainage may cause problems with building regulations.

Whatever your plans, just a little bit of effort can turn your otherwise lifeless balcony into your own private urban oasis.

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