A balcony's bounty

A balcony's bounty
A simple fountain takes care of hummingbirds’ thirst. Home-grown fruit is a reminder of the past — a garden that was larger but required more work. (Lori Shepler / LAT)
A year and a half ago I moved from a house to an apartment. My old garden was large enough to sustain mature fruit trees and a dozen varieties of old-fashioned climbing roses. My new garden is a balcony roughly 5 by 12 feet. My friends worried how I'd make the transition. (So did I.) But we needn't have.

My new space has many of the elements I most loved in my old: home-grown fruit, a romantic tangle of flowers, herbs for the kitchen, visiting birds, summer vegetables, flickering lanterns, even a compost heap. It also has something I'd yearned for but never gotten around to before: a fountain. The restricted space hasn't downsized my imagination or reshaped my personality. (I'll never be a minimalist.) But I have learned to refine my priorities, and be open to doing things differently.

From the minute I unpacked the deck chairs I realized I could either have a patio — a place to eat, grill and relax — or a working garden. The rectangular space was too narrow to be both. The choice was easy: With the ocean three blocks away, evenings are usually too cool for outdoor dining. But the balcony, separated from the main room by sliding glass doors, is visible from the living, dining and kitchen areas: filled with plants, it would offer a view I could enjoy in any sort of weather.

My first resolve was to forgo impulse buying and choose my new plant companions via careful research — a plan that lasted a week, until I fell for a cerise 'Rose de Rescht' in a nursery. But part of the pleasure of gardening for me is the chance to experiment — and whim in this case turned out to be wisdom in disguise. 'Rose de Rescht,' which I'd formerly encountered as a 6-foot shrub, has much to recommend it as a small-space soloist. Its many-petaled pompoms aren't much larger than a miniature's, but they give off a powerful old-rose scent. Plus, the matte bluish-green foliage makes a soothing backdrop for other plants. Having found my rose, though, I faced another problem.

A newly acquired balcony should offer a clean slate, but I'd arrived with baggage: a potted 'Conadria' fig tree, grown from a cutting of one I'd planted in Hollywood, and an agave whose spiny arms reminded me of sea creatures.

My first challenge, then, was how to grow these sun-loving specimens — and my new rose — on an east-facing balcony shaded by another on the floor above. In winter, I noticed, heat and light reflecting from the buildings' stucco walls created warm corners that figs and roses appreciate. In summer more light could be obtained by raising plants to the level of the railing, where the sun lingers until early afternoon.

But enough light for tomatoes? 'Brandywine,' an heirloom variety I especially like, is said to tolerate coastal conditions. In search of maximum sun I tried to persuade the deep green seedlings to trail over the railing and down the hot outer wall. Results were inconclusive — a boring insect got loose in the plant while I was on vacation.

The cascade approach worked beautifully, however, for Japanese cucumbers. Without interference of a cage, they seemed to grow straighter. This spring, the balcony is trailing sweet peas and nasturtiums.

To raise the plants to trailing level, I use vintage iron nesting tables along with the occasional over-turned clay pot. One happy result: a completely different climate zone exists beneath the tables. Cool and somewhat damp thanks to the outer stucco wall, this understory has a woodsy feel — enhanced in my case by the shaggy presence of a 30-inch stone pine.

Sunlight filters through branches above and through the grillwork of the tables. Hellebore, Heuchera and Abutilon thrive here along with lady's slipper orchids, forming with the plants above them a vertical swath of variegated green.

Meanwhile, a new seasonal pattern has developed: Instead of digging over beds, I lift large pots. In early December, after the fig leaves have turned yellow and dropped, the bare tree goes from the railing to a less prominent position, at the base of a sunny wall. At about the same time the pink jasmine, climbing vigorously up an interlocking pair of U-shaped bamboo stakes, moves front and center to soak up sun during its long late winter bloom. The method seems to work: The fig bore its first crop last summer. Six figs might seem a paltry amount, but freed from the litter of fruit drop and the obligation to make jam, I had time to savor every one.

As far as color schemes go, my rose is obliging. Last year I played up its purplish-pink blooms with blue delphiniums set between the flowering rosemary and lavender in the herb section and deep violet petunias. This year the balcony has taken a fiesta turn: fuchsia and red geraniums, peach and red-flowered sages. The party is meant to attract hummingbirds, and lately a couple have taken to stopping by at dusk.

I haven't entirely given up on chairs, but the two that remain do double duty. Under one sits a covered tin box in which I recycle potting soil. There's an organic booster to aid this process sold by Gardener's Supply in Burlington, Vt., which I intend to try, but for the moment I mix old soil with compost and packaged chicken manure that I begged from a gardening friend. For planting annuals an even blend of recycled soil and newly purchased potting mix seems to work well. Under the other chair is my homemade compost bin. It's just a black 5-gallon plastic grower's pot. It sits on one plastic saucer and is lidded with another. I only compost plant waste, and I have to cut it up fine because of the small size of the operation, but it makes enough at a time for several containers' worth of mulch and compost tea. Initially I wondered if I'd mind the smells, but I haven't noticed any. The soil bin's lid is close-fitting, the compost largely flowers. And any earthy odors there might seem no match for the scents growing at nose level: alyssum, lavender, rose.

Now that I have more time to spend on individual plants, I've come to like pruning and grooming. I don't agonize as much either about specimens that fail to thrive. Out they go — or rather in — to the compost heap and the soil bin.

Sometimes I've even found time to relax. From my favorite chair by the balcony's south wall I admire the way the rose looks beside the agave — a classic California combination — and wait for the hummingbirds. A couple of times I've seen one drinking at the fountain. That's a dazzlingly simple model made from a length of hollow bamboo inserted into another larger piece (about an inch in diameter). This piece (the intake tube) is lashed between a pair of narrower bamboo stakes that rest on the rim of a pottery jar. The resting part was not so simple. The jar I chose was unglazed on the bottom, necessitating several coats of sealant; then, one pack of the pebbles I bought to camouflage the submerged pump were coated rather than tumbled. These made the water cloudy until I emptied and cleaned the jar. But that's another fine thing about balcony gardening: even the biggest problems are pleasantly small-time.