conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Terrace transformed
Brewers Hill condo boasts award-winning container garden


April 2008

Lush gardens are no longer possible only on solid ground. Balconies and terraces are being transformed into a new kind of backyard for millions of apartment, condominium and townhouse dwellers across the country, and the Milwaukee area is no exception. Some imagination and creativity are the basic ingredients to creating what can be an outdoor room filled with flourishing greenery perfect for entertaining and relaxing.

Susan Marrinan is one of those condominium dwellers. She is a busy attorney for Snap-on Tools and lives in a condominium in the Brewers Hill area of Milwaukee with little green space around her. It hasnít stopped her from enjoying an opulent space filled with an abundance of potted or container plants containing trailing vines and beautiful flowers, however.

Pass by Marrinanís condominium on the corner of Hubbard and Vine, and you can see why it was the winner of the Mayorís Landscape Award for Best Balcony Design. Catherine Cowling, owner of LLC in Milwaukee, is the talent behind Marrinanís gorgeous garden.

Terrace gardens have skyrocketed in popularity as people discover that you can use many different kinds of plants because they are in pots or containers. You may even use small shrubs and dwarf trees to create a mini-suburban landscape above the ground. Balcony gardens even offer the opportunity for growing flowering fruit trees and container-grown herbs and vegetables. "Basically, you can use any plant that will grow in a container in the warmer months and that can include tropical plants," Cowling explains.

Lack of time

When Marrinan purchased her condominium, she knew she wanted to dress up the balcony, but was certain that she did not have the time or the know-how to do it. "I found Catherine through my realtor. She has done a terrific job and Iím so pleased," she says. "I knew I wanted a variety of color and some privacy. Beyond that, I left it up to Catherine."

Cowling had the basic instructions from Marrinan, but she chose the plants herself. "Susan left me with free rein, which was fun. We decided on an Italian garden setting, using a lot of plants that you might find in a garden in Italy," she says.

Some of the plants Cowling used on Marrinanís 15-by-30-foot balcony space include Lambís ear (a fuzzy-leafed perennial), Dianthus, morning glories, ground-cover Sedum, vines, topiaries and a variety of annuals and perennials. "We used some three-dimensional trellises that can be put into a large pot. It really creates some privacy, just like an outdoor room," Cowling says. A spiral staircase joins the two levels and is perfect for lovely trailing sweet potato vines and morning glories.

Benefits and drawbacks

There are multiple benefits to container gardening, primarily convenience, which can be a big factor for people with a busy lifestyle. The drawback is there is a bit of maintenance attached to a container garden. "Many people donít realize that because the plants are in containers, they tend to dry out more quickly. You need to maintain a schedule," Cowling says.

Cowling estimates she spends several hours a week taking care of Marrinanís balcony garden, watering and pruning. Of course, the maintenance factor is directly proportionate to the number of containers you are using.

Micro climate

If you get bored with the arrangement of your balcony garden, you can feel free to change around the plants any time. The mobility of container gardening also makes it easy to rearrange and resculpture your garden and to add new elements of interest and beauty. If a plant does not work well in your garden, you can always remove and replace it. And, as the seasons change, you can replace plants and decorations. Of course, in Wisconsinís climate, you canít grow plants in December, but you can use some decorative elements.

Before you select plants for your balcony garden, try to determine what plants will grow well on your balcony, based on the amount of sunlight and shade they will receive. Toward which direction does the balcony face? Is the balcony recessed? If it is open, will there be too much scorching sunlight? These are all factors that should be considered.

Tricks of the trade

With container gardening, you can use time-release fertilizer and automatic watering systems that can help you tend your plants while you are away. "There is such a wide variety of pots available, you can use almost anything. I donít recommend leaving your plants in the plastic containers they are in at the nursery, however," Cowling says. "These containers dry out quickly."

To keep plants from drying out, Cowling suggests placing a sponge in the bottom of the container that will retain moisture. "An old master gardenerís trick is to put a diaper in the bottom of the pot. You can also use coconut matting, which retains moisture," she says. As for fertilizer, she fertilizes with liquid fertilizer once a week and also uses fertilizer stakes periodically.


Container gardens can cost as much or as little as your budget will allow. They can be more economical than a large in-ground garden or more opulent. Initial setup costs may be a little more, but once the appropriate containers and materials are purchased, costs are minimal. You will be buying fewer plants, less media and less fertilizer than for traditional gardening, according to Cowling.

Container and balcony gardens can be a great alternative for seniors who may not be able to maintain a traditional garden anymore. Flowers as well as herbs and vegetables can be grown in containers. Sometimes a single tomato plant may be enough to satisfy the craving for fresh vegetables.

Overall, Marrinan is quite happy with her garden. "I have had very little input into the design and upkeep of the plants. Catherine deserves all the credit," Marrinan says. "Itís a really wonderful thing to enjoy when I come home after a long day."


This article was featured in the March 2008 issue of