What makes for a good balcony garden? Is it the variety of plants? How healthy they are? The visual impact?
Probably the answer is all of these. But it's difficult sometimes to score highly in all three categories at once. Playing safe and only choosing plants which you know will do well often means a balcony with just the old favourites - pelargoniums, surfinia and, here at least, plumbago. Creating visual impact often means restricting the plants to just one or two colours. Going for variety can mean that half your plants are experiments that don't work and end up looking tatty.
I'll cheerfully admit that my balcony definitely comes into the "variety at the expense of looking tatty" category, especially at the moment. It's the end of the season and even the plants which did well are looking as if they've had too much sun, fought off the pests for too long, and put out more blooms than they've got strength for. Those tell tale brown stems are starting to appear, and dead-heading no longer produces the same amount of flowers as it did a couple of months ago. And most of the experiments have just given up and died. Work on the balcony now consists chiefly of tidying up and pulling things out.
But while I was on holiday I came across some balconies whose owners had clearly gone for a different approach - visual impact at all costs. And some of them were stupendous, despite being incredibly simple and confining themselve to the old favourites. I loved the mass of pink ivy-leaved geraniums growing on the balcony in the top picture, and the strong colours of the ever-present surfinia too. And the salmon coloured zonal pelargoniums reminded me that my own, though they've been wonderful for several years, are now past their best. It's time to take cuttings and start again.
These begonias weren't quite so interesting, but better than the photo shows - as ever it's the problem of photographing red.
But my favourite was a balcony with no flowers at all - just leaves. A whole set of containers full of coleus, in an amazing variety shades and patterns. I've been meaning to grow some coleus for ages but not got around to it. Next year I certainly will.
For me these single-colour, single plant balconies aren't what gardening is all about. It's just exterior decorating - though I admit that the condition of the plants on these balconies showed that their owners certainly knew how to keep them healthy. But it's a get-plants-from-the-garden-centre-and-throw-them-away-at-the-end-of-the-season approach which would, as far as I'm concerned, take all the fun out of it.
So my balcony will probably never smack you in the eyes like these did. A pity, because I enjoy the visual impact of plants too. But it would mean giving up too much. I'll stick with looking tatty.