Now that air travel and short vacations are put on hold (no thanks to Covid-19), the desire to get away from it all has never been more real. Aside from booking a staycation, one cost effective way to boost your mental health is to transform your home into a lush jungalow – with the right plants for your balcony.

However, depending on the location, balconies can be a tricky environment for plants, especially if it’s situated in a hot and windy, or completely shady spot. So how do some people manage to create a tropical oasis on their balconies? The good news is, it’s not always about having a green thumb.

1. Choose the right plants

Choose plants that either adore heat, sun and more heat or those that thrive in shade, depending on the conditions of your balcony. Bougainvillea can be stunning on a hot, sunny balcony, as can agaves, cordylines (look for the reddish bronze ones or yellow and green striped ones), ornamental grasses of all kinds, cacti, succulents, air plants and herbs.

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For exposed balconies where strong winds are a regular feature, avoid keeping taller plants that will be whipped around in their pots and bashed against walls or railings, and also avoid those with larger leaves as they may not be able to withstand a windy storm.

One of the problems of potted plants is that any damage to your plant becomes super noticeable – the odd tatty leaf or bent stem, that would pass unnoticed in a garden, will make your potted plant look like a battle-scarred survivor.

2. Keep your plants moist

Potted plants dry out much faster than you’d expect. The less you water the soil, the more water repellent it becomes. And when you water most pots, the water actually runs down the sides and away from the root area. Even the rain doesn’t effectively wet the soil in most pots, as the leaves tend to direct the rainwater over the rim.

For optimal growth, most plants need repotting in fresh soil every year. A handful of water crystals added to each pot when repotting can make a huge difference to the capacity of the soil to hold enough water.

You can also soak the pots if they’re not too big. After an afternoon in a bucket of water, the potting mix may absorb water again instead of repelling it.

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3. Clean the leaves of your plants

Most gardeners water the base of their pot plants, which means new leaves often do not get watered down. Leaves that aren’t regularly ‘washed’ get mite problems. If you look at the leaves on plants under eaves more closely, you might see tiny ‘tracks’ or spots where mites have sucked the sap – and that is why your plants seem to shrink and fade.

All plants need to have their leaves washed at least once a week. Water the whole plant, not just the base and with a hose if you can, so you can spray under the leaves too.

4. Mulch!

Tease out coconut fibre till it’s loose and cushiony and tuck it round the plant. It won’t absorb moisture, so it won’t make the stems rot if you tuck it close in. What it will do is insulate the soil and prevent it from becoming too hard for moisture to penetrate when you do remember to water your plants.

Many people prefer the neat look of small stones. You can buy lovely small white or grey or black quartz rocks at many nurseries or collect your own pebbles to use as heat retaining mulch. However, do note that they’re not such a good idea where there are toddlers around.

5. Avoid small pots

Small pots dry out fast and can often retain too much heat during hot weather. Instead, gardeners should think big: Invest in one large pot for your plants or a hanging basket, instead of six small ones. Half barrels or large concrete planters are good too.

When planting out a large pot, remember that as well as placing that tall feature plant in the middle, there are a host of small ground covers and low alpines that will enjoy the free draining nature of a pot. They’ll also help maintain soil texture and humidity around the feature plant.

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6. Feed your plants

Well fed plants are healthier and they will cope better in Singapore’s tropical weather if they have big healthy roots. Slow release plant food is best for nourishment – and there’s a wide range on the market. For example, you can give your plants a treat of seaweed-based fertiliser every once in a while.

7. If you’ve got brown thumbs – admit it!

No one really does have brown thumbs and plants will thrive if we have the time to look after them. If you’re too busy to maintain a balcony of leafy plants, then stick to hardy and maintenance-free ones like bamboo, oleanders, ficus plants or even the common Devil’s Ivy.

The abundance of succulents and cacti can make a lush enclave too, as most of which have interesting leaf shapes in a good range of colours – some even featuring spectacular blooms.

Text: Now To Love
Additional reporting: Chelsia Tan