Creating a balcony sanctuary in your condo or apartment

Creating a balcony sanctuary in your condo or apartment

Want to turn your balcony/patio/terrace into a super-cosy refuge? No matter what size your space, a few smart ideas and a little imagination can take it from meh to awesome. We talked to Shabeen, Brittany and Francesca, three design-savvy Toronto condo and apartment dwellers with envy-inducing balconies. They gave us some great ideas for creating an outdoor sanctuary you’ll want to hang out on all summer long – and beyond!

1. Fancy up the floor.

Most balconies come standard with a very unexciting cement floor, but that's not something you have to live with. Shabeen swears by IKEA's Runnen deck tiles – they snap into place and can easily be removed for winter or if you move out. The wood version has a lot natural appeal, but you can also go with their fancier click-into-place patterned porcelain tile.

Outdoor rugs are also a great addition, adding texture and colour and defining spaces (if you have enough room for dining and seating areas, of course). Overlap patterned rugs for a bohemian look, and faux grass feels great on bare feet.

2. Go green.

Studies show that greenery and nature help us relax, and while our three balcony gurus have very different styles, they all agree on one thing: adding lots of plants makes a space feel welcoming.

Pick plants you like, obviously, but also factor in what will do well on your patio. If you've got full sun all day long or you're always in the shade of the building next door, pick the appropriate plants. Tomatoes love sun, hostas thrive in shade, and both do well in containers. And don't forget to factor in wind level. If high winds are an issue, delicate flowers won't survive, but hardier ornamental grasses can be a lovely alternative, and they make soothing sounds as the wind moves through them. Or try herbs – they’re easy to grow, inexpensive to buy and you can eat them!

Try this: next time you cook with green onions, save the white bulbs and plant them for a gift that keeps on giving.

Don't have a green thumb? Faux plants have come a long way since your grandmother’s plastic peonies. Even the most affordable options look pretty real, and require zero work (bonus!), apart from an occasional dusting.

3. Think vertically.

Add sconces and shelving to hold candles and plants, and hang weather-resistant decorative elements like mental sculptures or Victorian ceiling tiles on the walls. Use fences, walls, pergolas and lattices to grow plants and maximize what your small space can do, and throw in hanging plants and green wall panels to keep your floor space free.

Brittany created a lush garden vibe on her balcony with a herb wall – a freestanding (vintage IKEA) structure that has lots of easy-to-grow mint, sage, rosemary and lavender (not only does it look good, it smells amazing). You can do the same with inexpensive lattice from Lowe's and some climbing plants like clematis or honeysuckle, both of which do well in shady spots.

4. Buy modular.

Shabeen originally bought her outdoor furniture when she lived in a condo with a bigger terrace. Planning ahead for potential moves, she chose a modular sectional couch, and reconfigured it to work in her current outdoor place.

“I only had to put one piece in storage,” she says. “The modular design gives me the flexibility to create a completely different configuration, which is great. Squeezing in a massive couch wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.”

Shabeen's private patio retreat.

Shabeen's private patio retreat.

5. Upsize your stuff.

Even if your space is teeny-tiny, the furniture you put out there doesn't have to be.

“One big piece you use all the time is better than three smaller pieces that just sit out there,” says Brittany. “Think realistically about how you'll use it. A lot of people default to the 3-piece bistro set, and then it goes unused because they don't eat outside or it’s not comfortable to sit on for any length of time. But if you buy one big, super-comfy lounge chair you use for reading, having coffee, watching Netflix, it’ll get more use.

She bought a herself a wicker egg chair for just this purpose, a splurge to make her more comfortable during quarantine. She wanted a cosy spot where she could read and watch TV – and she doesn't regret the purchase for a moment. It's getting lots of use and bringing her a lot of comfort (physical and emotional) during a tough time.

The same size rule applies to plant containers, too. In a tiny space, you may gravitate towards a bunch of small containers, but going bigger can actually be better. Go for the largest pots your balcony can accommodate. Not only does it make more of a statement, it gives plants plenty of room to grow so they'll be healthier in the long run.

6. Bring the indoors out.

Who says you have to stick to “outdoor” furniture? If you have an area that's protected from the elements, indoor items can work great. Brittany uses a vintage wooden dresser she picked up for free and spray-painted a glossy black. Not only does it add charm to the space, it offers lots of storage, too.

Brittany's cozy egg chair

Brittany's cosy egg chair

7. Protect your privacy.

Room dividers, trellises and romantic white sheers can all make your balcony feel like an exclusive little enclave. Shabeen chose a reed screen since it provides privacy while still letting in light and air. But before putting something like that up, you may want to check with your condo board to ensure they’re okay with how it looks.

“Not every condo board will be okay with someone blocking off their patio, so I made sure to run the idea by them first,” she says. “I got a green light, but it's a good idea to be proactive about getting permission.”

8. Throw in pops of colour.

Paint a chair cherry red, throw around some teal cushions or incorporate bright blooms to add visual interest. Incorporating small, colourful elements makes it easy and inexpensive to change things up season to season (or even week to week, depending how quickly you get bored). Brittany loves her set of cheery yellow pillows, which she leaves outside all season. If there's rain in the forecast, she stores them in an inexpensive zip-up waterproof bag she picked up on Amazon.

Bright gerbera daisies and splashy throw pillows add a splash of colour on Francesca's terrace.

Bright gerbera daisies and splashy throw pillows add a splash of colour on Francesca's terrace.

9. Get hygge with it.

You've probably heard of the Danish approach to comfort and cosiness, and it doesn’t take much to turn your terrace into hygge central. Comfy seating is a must (try a hammock for one for a really tight space), as are appealing textures, plush pillows and a cosy blanket or two for curling up on cooler nights.

On a recent trip to Europe, Francesca was inspired by outdoor cafes that provide blankets to customers in cooler weather. (Quebec City restaurants do it too – it helps extend a pretty short patio season.) Having “outdoor” blankets means she can enjoy being outside longer in the evenings and throughout the spring and fall. (There's nothing more comforting than reading a great book with a big mug of tea while you’re wrapped up in a soft blankie.)

Want to add some hygge to your life? Francesca recommends The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living.

10. Light it up.

Sparkling string lights add atmospheric magic, making your space feel like a charming outdoor café. Francesca uses them along her fence to add a sense of comfort (more hygge!) and finds they give off enough light to read by at night. Solar lights are an ecofriendly alternative, and a great option if there's no electrical outlet outside. Shabeen finds that the light from inside her condo illuminates the space just right – she just enhances it with a bit of warm candlelight.

How will you design your balcony retreat?

For all three women, their outdoor spaces really are a sanctuary – for reading, working from home, sipping coffee al fresco, and enjoying time with friends (post-COVID, of course!)

“I have my coffee outside every morning now,” says Francesca. “Since the quarantine started, it’s become a ritual with my neighbours where we sit out on our respective balconies and talk for a little while before starting our days.”

And while all three have different approaches to patio design, each space achieves the same thing: extending their living space and providing them with a wonderful retreat where they can rest, relax and unwind.

Read more: Moving during COVID: 8 steps for staying safe

Join 18,000 subscribers and get market news, insights & expert advice delivered straight to your inbox