For a long time it seemed like annual flowers and herbs were the only type of patio plants that could be grown on a balcony. This assumption—among many others—is what had me always longing for a piece of earth of my own. One that would allow me to grow whatever I wanted without restriction.
And while there are still some restrictions, it seems that people have found a way to over-winter over all kinds of plants on their patios. Like the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you have balcony plants you’d like to keep alive during the cold season, read on!
Keeping Patio Plants Safe During the Winter
If you’re keen to widen the scope of your gardening, I’ll teach you how to keep that favourite perennial or shrub safe over the cold winter months. I’m not going to lie, though. It does take a fair amount of work and dedication, but if you really want to do it you have an excellent chance of making it work.
First, let’s discuss how certain garden plants are able to survive the winter. In contrast, we’ll learn why container plants are so susceptible to the elements.
First and foremost, moisture—or the lack thereof—has a lot to do with the problems that balcony gardeners face. Especially those who’d like to overwinter some of their plants. It may sound counterintuitive, but frost can penetrate the soil where there are air pockets and damage the roots. If the soil has enough moisture, then water fills up those air pockets instead.
Once winter has set in and the ground freezes over, plants in the earth are able to send their roots down below the frost line. Container plants don’t have the ability to do this. As a result, their roots die back to a point where they’re unable to recover.
The Right Soil, and the Right Plants
Another thing that plants in the earth have going for them is the sheer bulk of soil surrounding the roots. This helps to regulate the temperature and protect the root systems. A container plant, on the other hand, is so much closer to the elements on all sides and requires much more assistance to keep it alive.
Choosing the right patio plants will aid in your chances of success as well. Keep your growing zone in mind when considering which plants to purchase. Your chances of success will increase exponentially if you can find a plant that can withstand a drop in hardiness of up to 2 zones.
For example, if you live in zone 6, try to find something that’s hardy to zone 4. If you have your heart set on a particular plant but it’s not particularly hardy, speak with someone at your local garden centre. They may know of a different variety that’s better suited to surviving the winter.
Pots and Planters
An equally important consideration when deciding to overwinter patio plants is selecting the right pot. Glazed ceramics and terracotta have a tendency to crack in the cold weather. Basically, the material absorbs moisture and is then affected by freezing and thawing temperatures.
Terracotta will also leach moisture, and you want to make certain to keep as much water in the soil as possible. Your best choice for a winter-safe pot is plastic. It’ll hold the moisture and not be affected by the elements. Darker colored plastic can also draw in heat from the sun. This can help to keep your plant’s roots warmer on the coldest days.
Ok, so you’ve done your research, you’ve selected a good pot, and chosen a hardy plant. You had a wonderful growing season and now winter is approaching. What can you do to make sure that gorgeous plant of yours makes it through the harsh winter?
Your plants don’t have the natural insulation that garden plants benefit from. Furthermore, they can’t extend their roots far enough to escape the permafrost. As a result, you’ll need to provide that insulation for them.
Insulate Patio Plants Well!
If your balcony is on the larger size, you can build a storage box for some of your patio plants. This would generally be done for something larger like a fig tree. Alternatively, you could put several smaller pots into the box as well.
A simple plywood box, lined with insulation like bubble wrap, layers of cardboard or crumpled newspaper, can make all the difference, in the world. Most larger hardware stores such as Home Depot or RONA will even cut the wood to size for you. All you really need is a bit of space, a hammer and some nails.
Something to keep in mind, however, is that you still need to check moisture levels. As such, this box shouldn’t be sealed or buried under heavy objects. You’ll need to have easy access to the plants inside on a regular basis to ensure that the soil doesn’t dry out.
If you don’t have the tools to build a box, or simply don’t feel like doing so, buy a ready-made storage box. This could even pull double duty by housing some of your supplies. There’s also bench-type seating with storage space underneath. A piece that can do double duty is always appreciated in small spaces.
Alternative Insulation Options
If you don’t have the space for a storage box, you’ll need to provide your plants with another source of insulation against the cold. Some examples of different readily available materials you can use are:
- bubble wrap
- plastic bags
- old sheets (especially heavy cotton or flannel)
- old curtains
Wrap the pot or pots in several layers of your chosen material. If you have several pots that you want to overwinter, consider clustering them together in the most sheltered spot you can find.
If you aren’t sure where the best part of your balcony is for storing plants, try going outside on a windy day to conduct an experiment. Wet your fingers so that you can feel the air more intensely against your skin. Stand in different areas of your balcony and hold your fingers at about the height of the containers.
When you find a place that feels more protected than the rest, you’ve found the best spot for keeping your plants safe.
Cardboard as Protection
Lay down several layers of flattened cardboard to protect your pots from the freezing ground. This may not be as much of a concern if you balcony is wooden, but cement or open grate will definitely need a layer of insulation underneath the pots.
Cluster your pre-wrapped plants together on the cardboard. Then stuff crumpled-up newspaper into the spaces between the pots as an added barrier against the cold. Lay or tent cardboard overtop of the containers for an added layer of protection.
Once this is done, wrap the whole thing loosely in a wind-resistant tarp. Do keep in mind that you’ll need to remove the tarp in order to water your patio plants on warmer days You don’t need to water as much as you would during the summer as your plants are in their dormant state. But as mentioned previously, moisture is very important for keeping the root system alive.
Prune and Snip Before Winterizing
Before you put any plants to bed for the winter, you should research to see what kind of fall maintenance they require. Unless you’re wrapping up a shrub or berry bush, the plant will most likely need to be allowed to die back and cut down to soil level. Some of your plants may even require maintenance in late winter. For example, blueberry bushes will need to be pruned in late winter while they’re still dormant.
If you’re prone to forgetting, like myself, you may want to write down what’s required for each plant that you are planning to winter over. Then create a schedule for yourself, using a garden planner, day planner, or even just a regular calendar.
During the winter months, check out the weekly forecast and take note of days that are supposed to be above average temperature. This will help you plan out in advance when it’s best to water your patio plants. It’s also a lot more pleasant to do outdoor gardening work when you’re not being blasted in the face by gale-force winds, hail, or snowstorms.
I realize after reading all of this, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed at the whole idea. You may even be wondering if it’s really worth all that work. It is, I promise you.
Know that with careful planning and dedication, a whole new world of plant life is now at your fingertips. Isn’t it wonderful to think that all of those plants you’ve had to pass by in the past may no longer be out of your grasp? With the right care, you’ll be able to grow just about anything.