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How to Garden Like a Frenchwoman: 10 Ideas to Steal from a Paris Balcony

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How to Garden Like a Frenchwoman: 10 Ideas to Steal from a Paris Balcony

August 9, 2018

Making elegance look effortless, actress and script writer Diane Valsonne transformed a narrow Parisian balcony into a chic garden. When we dropped in on her in the 10th Arrondisement the other day, she shared 10 ideas to steal to add charm to any small urban garden.

Photography by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.

French Doors

A pair of French doors swing open to connect the flat’s living room to the balcony garden.
Above: A pair of French doors swing open to connect the flat’s living room to the balcony garden.

Bring a balcony garden indoors with double doors (or floor-to-ceiling windows). A pair of side-by-side doors hinged on the outer edge of the doorway’s frame are French doors, often used to enter an outdoor balcony, patio, or garden.

Iron Railings

From a wrought iron railing hang balcony planters filled with herbs and flowers.
Above: From a wrought iron railing hang balcony planters filled with herbs and flowers.

European iron makers have been creating beautifully ornate railings to adorn facades in France and Spain for centuries. Painted black, a lacy iron railing is a classic backdrop for plants and outdoor furniture.

Every Inch Matters

Many of Valsonne’s favorite plants come from Bleuet Coquelicot, a neighborhood shop where flowers of all colors spill out from the tiny storefront onto the sidewalk. See more of it in Shopper’s Diary: Bleuet Coquelicot in Paris.
Above: Many of Valsonne’s favorite plants come from Bleuet Coquelicot, a neighborhood shop where flowers of all colors spill out from the tiny storefront onto the sidewalk. See more of it in Shopper’s Diary: Bleuet Coquelicot in Paris.

You can create a layered look by thinking of a balcony as a space with three separate zones for plants: a facade (where trained vines can grow up the wall), a floor (where potted plants can cluster), and a railing (for window boxes full of herbs and sun-loving flowers).

Railing Planters

Along the balcony railing, Valsonne hangs planters full of herbs and flowers. For similar planters, see 10 Easy Pieces: Black Balcony Box Planters.
Above: Along the balcony railing, Valsonne hangs planters full of herbs and flowers. For similar planters, see 10 Easy Pieces: Black Balcony Box Planters.

Plant a mix of herbs and flowers in railing planters so you always have something to snip for dinner or for a vase.  As the season progresses, replenish and replace plants as necessary.

Mix-and-Match Containers

Valsonne’s eclectic collection of pots and railing planters is unified visually because they are all made of clay.
Above: Valsonne’s eclectic collection of pots and railing planters is unified visually because they are all made of clay.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with a wide range of plants. Figs, fennel, tomatoes, herbs, cutting flowers, and wisteria are some of the plants Valsonne grows. She mixes edibles and ornamentals in a single pot and encourages vines to grow just wild enough to lend the balcony an untamed, bohemian air.

Frame the View

Bushes of cherry tomatoes grow against the facade of the building.
Above: Bushes of cherry tomatoes grow against the facade of the building.

Valsonne allows wisteria tendrils to curl around door frames and windows to frame the picturesque neighborhood views.

Valsonne tends her garden daily, snipping and pruning as necessary to keep plants in check.
Above: Valsonne tends her garden daily, snipping and pruning as necessary to keep plants in check.

Support System

Wisteria vines grow up metal pipes, giving the plants a support system and preventing damage to the building’s facade.
Above: Wisteria vines grow up metal pipes, giving the plants a support system and preventing damage to the building’s facade.

Vines and climbers can get heavy as they mature (especially if stems become woody). Dense foliage adds to the weight. Install a sturdy trellis, arbor, or pergola and train vines to grow on it.

Drought Tolerant Plants

Potted olive trees (left) send up new growth.
Above: Potted olive trees (left) send up new growth.

A balcony garden’s pots and planters will dry out fast, particularly if they get several hours a day of full sun. Water plants once a day (or better yet, install a mini drip irrigation system to manage the chore for you) and choose plants that can withstand a little neglect. Olive trees, citrus trees, and other plants that hail from dry, Mediterranean climates are good choices, as are succulents and cacti.

Color Coordination

Complementing the green colors and textures on the balcony, Gaillardia pulchella (blanket flower) adds a punch of bright color. A packet of 100 Blanket Flower Seeds is 99 cents at Nature’s Finest Seed.
Above: Complementing the green colors and textures on the balcony, Gaillardia pulchella (blanket flower) adds a punch of bright color. A packet of 100 Blanket Flower Seeds is 99 cents at Nature’s Finest Seed.
Keep the color palette simple and unified on a narrow balcony; choose a single color (such as red) and add blooming plants here and there to complement the greenery. Valsonne’s red cherry tomato bushes echo the same theme.

Air Circulation

Valsonne’s open-air living room.
Above: Valsonne’s open-air living room.

Throw open windows and doors to invite cool breezes (and scents from herbs and flowers) to come indoors.

See more balcony garden ideas in Garden Design 101 guides, including ideas for Decks and Railings. We’ve borrowed plenty of other garden ideas from Paris, as well. See more:

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