5 of the Best Plants for a Balcony — Beautiful Picks for Small Spaces (and Even One Vegetable!)

Luxury urban balcony designer Thomas Little offers up his best balcony plants for high-end design

balcony garden with hydrangeas and a blue garden sofa
(Image credit: Kellyann Petry. Design: Urbangreen Gardens NYC)

We’ve all seen those gorgeous garden balconies on Pinterest with abundant greenery cascading over containers, a cute café table, morning coffee – you get the picture. But with a huge range of plants out there, where do you start?

We’ve taken this question straight to balcony design expert Thomas Little to get their professional advice on the dos and don’ts of balcony planting, and their pick of the best balcony plants for container gardening.

With top alternative plant picks for balconies of all shapes and sizes, creating your very own apartment Eden has never been easier (or tastier) according to Thomas!

thomas little
Thomas Little

Thomas Little is a New York-based green space designer who specializes in urban spaces, working across a mix of residential and commercial landscapes. 

1. Best for full sun balconies: Russian Sage

Russian Sage plant

(Image credit: Cstar55/Getty Images)

As with all planting, it’s super important to choose plants that will thrive in your balcony’s position. If your balcony will have flowers in pots in full sunshine then hardy plants used to dry climates are an ideal starting point – especially if you live in the hotter Southern zones.

According to designer Thomas Little at Urbangreen Gardens in NYC: 'For a full sun balcony, you need to choose plants that can withstand intense exposure to the sun and often, wind. Plants that thrive under these conditions are native to coastal areas, mountainsides, and many parts of the Mediterranean. Some choices for a full-sun balcony include Russian Sage, Salvia Indigo Spires, Hyssop, Lavender, Cat Mint, and Lantana.'

For us, Russian Sage is a must-have and a great alternative to traditional lavenders. Growing around two to three feet tall depending on your variety, its soft lavender-colored flowers smother the wispy stems come summer and give you a beautiful wash of color all season. Plant them in containers with a nice gritty soil and don’t forget to cut them back hard in early spring. 

2. Best for small balconies: Little Bobo Hydrangea Paniculata 

a grey paved terrace with green shrubs and hydrangea plants

(Image credit: KellyAnn Petry. Design: Urbangreen Gardens NYC)

Don’t let a small space hold you back from creating your own slice of paradise. When it comes to balcony planting there really is something for every shape and size and, according to expert Thomas Little, dwarf varieties are where you need to start.

'To preserve as much space as possible on your balcony for seating or other needs, I recommend specifically selecting dwarf varieties of plants,' Thomas suggests. 'For example, Little Bobo Hydrangea Paniculata, Spirea ‘Gold Mound’ or Korean Lilac ‘Little Miss Kim'. Some additional space-saving plants we often use in our garden design work are Alberta Spruce and any and all culinary herbs such as mint, basil or thyme.”'

Little Bobo Hydrangeas are perfectly suited to smaller shady balconies. Known for their compact footprint, these plants produce an abundance of flowers compared to their size. Use them as cut flowers in your home’s floral displays or even wait until fall and dry the blooms for long-lasting arrangements all winter. 

3. Best for year-round colour: Sedum

a balcony with sedum

(Image credit: Paul Dyer. Design: SAW)

In planning your balcony garden, it’s easy to get caught up with iconic show-stopping plants like patio roses, peonies and dahlias. But creating a space that will look good all year long through a diverse range of plants is crucial to a successful balcony design.

To accompany your summer blooms and spring bulbs, look for small evergreen plants that will give year-round greenery when the others have died back. Thomas’s particular favorite – sedum.

'For North-East planting (zone 7), I recommend choosing sedum,' he suggests. 'I prefer two types: ground cover, and Autumn Joy (like this from Fast Growing Trees) for a more upright plant. Autumn Joy gets about three feet high and produces showy pink blooms in fall and attractive snow-catching seedheads in winter. Alternatively, plant Angelina ground cover sedum at the edges of planters to spill over and provide year-round evergreen interest. 

'Finally, as an alternative to these two varieties, I would suggest the north-eastern classic Sempervivum Hens and Chicks. This sturdy little performer does well in pots, and brings detail and uniqueness to the garden in its rosette-like profile.'

4. Best for shady balconies: Rhododendrons

A rhododendron bush

(Image credit: Alamy/SJ Images)

There’s only one plant on Thomas Little’s mind when it comes to shady balconies: rhododendrons. They're one of the best flowers for pots in shade. 'Plants that will thrive in a balcony in the shade are any and all manner of rhododendron,' he says. 'You can opt for dwarf varieties for space saving needs but my favorite rhododendron is Roseum Elegens (you can find it on Amazon). It’s a high performer, tough as nails, if you keep it fed it will flower heavily and happily in a container for years.'

But when it comes to rhododendron care and maintenance, there are a few things to watch out for. 'If you’re using rhododendrons on your balcony, bear two things in mind,' Thomas warns. 'First, they don’t love wind and will suffer from extensive leaf scorch in the colder winter months. Prevent this from happening with the application of sprayable anti-dessicants in fall. Secondly, while some rhododendrons can handle lots of sun, try to position them where they will receive gentle morning sun and spend at least half the day in shade if possible.'

We’d also recommend paying attention to your compost selection. These plants love acidic soils, so choosing a compost with a lower PH is crucial to keeping them happy!

5. Best edible balcony plants: Cucumbers

a cucumber plant growing

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Long gone are the days when an allotment was the only way to grow your own fruit and veg. In fact, plant expert Thomas thinks a balcony is the perfect place to grow all manner of edible plants with a little vegetable container gardening. His favorite? Cucumbers.

'Cucumbers are fantastic options as they include bush varieties which take up less space and give a higher yield,' he advises. Who knows, maybe you can even try and make your own dill pickles! 

But if cucumbers aren’t your deal, there are plenty of other options. 'Cherry tomatoes are best suited for container culture and will perform well on a balcony,' he says. 'Also consider mint in its own container, basil, lemon verbena, and Chicago hardy fig.'

Matilda Bourne