Beauty on the Balcony
Vast acreage and spacious suburban yards give homeowners plenty of opportunities to contribute to the world’s much needed greenspace and the Center’s mission inspiring the conservation of native plants. Urban apartment dwellers can also successfully grow many natives in containers on balconies and patios, bringing nature a little closer.
Numerous plants native to Texas are quite happy to become tenants because their traits allow them to thrive in pots. Native plants are more drought resistant than many non-natives, and using them in a landscape — no matter the size or form — discourages the introduction of invasive species.
Almost four in 10 Texas households are renter occupied, according to the Texas Apartment Association. Also, the 2022 Berkadia Market Forecast predicts that 18,600 rental units are expected to open in Greater Austin in 2022, creating a 6.8% annual apartment inventory growth. More residents are looking for suggestions to substantially green their outdoor rental spaces and grow plants that have a rich local history. Wildflower Center experts highlight their fall favorites and how to care for foliage in full sun, shade and hanging baskets:
CONTAINER PLANTS FOR SUN
Full sun is common for outdoor extensions of rental residences. Amy Galloway, lead horticulturist, says gardeners can choose sun-loving plants that are easy to care for and ones that make a flourishing statement.
Flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus) is a pretty substantial shrub that usually grows about three feet high, but can reach five feet, according to Galloway. The drought- and cold-tolerant plant has a long blooming period, showing off its gorgeous red-orange tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds. It is also a larval host for butterflies.
Flame acanthus is deciduous, losing its leaves in winter, but Galloway sees that as an advantage — allowing gardeners to observe the structure more easily before pruning to shape the plant to their liking. Dormant pruning of this plant encourages more compact, dense growth. The perennial likes a well-drained soil, but there is generally no need for fertilizer.
Hummingbirds also appreciate coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), a twining vine with tubular red-orange flowers. The plant’s red berries attract quail, goldfinch, American robin and other birds. The plant is popular with bumblebees and butterflies, as well as the snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), a moth with a black-and-yellow banded abdomen whose flight resembles that of a hummingbird.
Provide a simple trellis for this semi-evergreen to climb, and fill an outdoor pot with high-quality, organic potting mix.
“Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) is one of my favorite full-sun grasses that does well in containers,” says Galloway. “The little seedheads look like eyebrows or crescent moons. The foliage of the small, perennial ornamental grass is only about four inches high but its blue-green seedheads grow on stems one to two feet high. That makes them look delicate, but they really stand out. When the wind blows, they move, adding serenity to your space.”
Skippers (who use the plant as a larval host) and grain-eating birds will fly in to dine on this drought-tolerant grass. Birds also use the dried thatch as nesting material. All is good with well-drained, organic potting material.
CONTAINER PLANTS FOR SHADE
Director of Horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya recommends chile pequin (Capsicum annuum), a perennial hot pepper, for its versatility as a container plant. The plant tolerates “full sunlight or quite a bit of shade,” according to DeLong-Amaya. The pepper is resistant to disease and pests, requires little or no fertilizer and is content in a decent, well-draining potting medium. She also says to use organic fertilizer, if fertilizer is needed.
“In the ground, a mature chile pequin will get about three feet tall and just as bushy. In a pot, it may stay a little smaller. The plant has little white flowers that aren’t particularly showy. But if it’s on a balcony, you’ll be able to see them up close,” says DeLong-Amaya. “The fruits start out green and turn bright red. They are adorable and I like to cook with them.” (Chile pequin fruits are also a treat for mockingbirds and other native birds.)
DeLong-Amaya suggests planting chile pequin in a pot that is 20 to 24 inches across and equally tall. Chile pequin is cold hardy in the ground in Austin, allowing it to resist injury from low temperatures. But it might have a tough time overwintering in an unprotected pot, so it is often advised to bring the plant indoors or cover sufficiently. “Since it is dormant in winter, I like to combine it with other plants that have foliage and flowers at different times. We call it ‘timesharing’,” says DeLong-Amaya.
She suggests baby blue eyes (Nemophila phacelioides) as a “friend” for chile pequin in shady locations. Another companion plant is pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa), which generally opens its large pink-white flowers in the evening, each lasting only one day (of course). Inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), a perennial native grass with bright green, bamboo-like leaves and large attractive seedheads, is another good selection for pots in shade.
Big hanging baskets add instant voluptuous greenery and brilliant color to an ordinary balcony or bare patio. Hanging pots don’t take up valuable table space or precious floor area. Sure, it’s easy to grab a few non-native ferns and hang them on a shepherd’s crook or wall-mounted arm, but with just a little more thought about conservation, hanging baskets can become mini native plant habitats. They also add just as much beauty, if not more, to an outdoor space.
“Hanging baskets can also be bird attractors,” says Senior Horticulturist Julie Marcus. “Every year a little wren nests in my hanging baskets and butterflies may lay eggs on balcony plants.”
One of Marcus’ favorite plants for hanging baskets is frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora), often used as a groundcover but will drape nicely over a suspended pot. The plant is a nectar and larval source for butterflies. Frogfruit, a perennial semi-evergreen, will survive over winter in a basket if brought indoors during freezing weather. Cut it back and reduce water until the next growing season.
“We tell kids the blooms look like frog eyes and they love that. It’s a fun plant,” says Marcus.
The horticulturist also recommends woolly stemodia (Stemodia lanata), native only to coastal and southern Texas and Mexico. The plant’s fuzzy leaves help it tolerate sun and wind and add texture to a hanging basket. Tiny little purple-white flowers bloom primarily in spring, but also intermittently during the summer.
Marcus uses straggler daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis), a 6- to 12-inch-high groundcover, as a lawn substitute in a section of the Wildflower Center. The plant tolerates partial sun or shade and has low to medium water requirements. But Marcus says the plant, with its tiny yellow daisy flowers, is attractive to small butterflies, looks great in a hanging basket and just needs to be occasionally trimmed. As with all container plants, check frequently for water needs; hanging pots can dry out more quickly than in-ground plants, especially in windy areas.
Be a good plant person. Most container gardening in multi-family complexes will definitely delight neighbors. But always check with property management for the weight limitation of a balcony in case you decide to fill a massive pot with tons of heavy soil. Also, make sure there are no leaks onto the balcony below when watering plants.