Balcony Gardens: A Small Space to Unwind

Balcony garden

   In urban areas, many people live in apartments or houses that don't have a garden. In recent years, as work styles have diversified and more people are looking for ways to enrich their daily lives, people in cities have turned to their balconies as a place to grow plants and feel the earth between their fingers. For those without access to a proper garden, balcony gardening is gaining ground as a way of connecting with nature. Let's take a look at how this hobby has developed in Japan.

The Pleasures of Gardening: A Growing Hobby

   Daily life has changed drastically in Japan over recent years. As people's working environments have shifted and concepts like working from home and four-day working weeks have become more commonplace, many people are placing more importance on time spent relaxing at home. Consequently, a large number of people have turned to gardening as a way of making the most of this time. However, the majority of people in urban areas live in apartment buildings or other housing complexes shared with lots of other people, so the main place to do any gardening is the balcony or veranda attached to their apartment. These are usually quite compact, but for people in Japan, with its culture of appreciating the changing of the seasons through plants and flowers, they offer a place to unwind, recharge, and enjoy the calming effects of nature.

Balcony Gardening and Its Edo Period Roots

   Incorporating and admiring nature in your home has long been a part of Japanese culture, from tending to potted bonsai trees to the half-indoor, half-outdoor, pocket-sized tsubo-niwa gardens grown in the middle of people's houses. Then, from the 18th century onwards, gardening culture began to spread more and more among the common populace, including those who lived in the rows of long houses of the time called nagaya, which were narrow and cramped. As a result, potted plants became more and more common, and are even depicted in ukiyo-e woodblock paintings from the period. One flower that exploded in popularity during this period was the morning glory, which has become a beloved hallmark of the summer season and remains a common sight in many households even today.

A Parody of Hachi no ki by Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769–1825) from the Clarence Buckingham Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
This ukiyo-e painting shows pine, plum and cherry tree bonsai plants.

Shinpan Ueki Zukushi by Utagawa Yoshitora, from the National Diet Library's NDL Image Bank. This omocha-e (a woodblock painting aimed at children) shows a variety of potted plants from the period.

A Place to Relax and Commune with Nature

   Some plants that have long been popular in Japan, like morning glories in the summer and wisteria in the spring, remain familiar sights today in many balcony gardens. But people don't just use this space for flowers; some people like to keep small fish like ricefish and goldfish in large pots or water tanks, which they decorate with aquatic plants. This adds an extra touch of elegance, and allows the wonderful workings of nature to be enjoyed all the more thoroughly. What's more, the sight of floating aquatic plants and darting fish has a calming effect and gives the space a refreshing feel in the summer.

Examples of balconies decorated with Japanese flowers like wisteria.

Fish aquariums alongside plants can make your balcony feel all the more special.(Photo courtesy of fuga7207.)

Many people keep ricefish in large pots.

   More and more people have also started growing climbing plants to create so-called "green curtains" to block out the sun in the summer. One plant that's especially popular for this purpose is a vegetable called goya (bitter gourd), as it's easy to grow and you can eat the results, but other climbing plants like morning glory can also be grown in this manner. Green curtains not only provide shade, but they can also help cool down their surroundings by converting the water absorbed by their roots into vapor, which removes some of the heat from the nearby air. Summer temperatures in urban areas have risen in recent years, so with people looking for any small way to stave off the heat in their day-to-day, growing green curtains has seen a growing interest. After all, they're a good way to make practical use of your balcony and they look attractive, too. What's not to love?

Green curtains grown from plants like goya and morning glory can act as great sun shields. They're easy to grow too, so it's no wonder they're popular.

   Of course, people don't just grow these long-standing, traditional Japanese plants on their balconies. Low-maintenance succulent plants like cacti and certain types of herbs (ones that don't attract bugs!) are also popular choices — especially for people who lead busy lifestyles and want to incorporate nature into their lives without taking up too much valuable time.

Serene Green Living Rooms and Balconies

   With more people looking for ways to make their homes more comfortable, one recent interior design trend is to treat the balcony as an extension of the living room, giving the whole space more of an open feel. Placing a variety of decorative plants both inside and on the balcony, with matching flooring, can make the living room look like it extends out through the window, bringing nature into more of the home — a look that many nature lovers covet.

Placing plants both inside and on the balcony creates a spacious, leisurely feel. (Photo courtesy of Actus.)

A balcony with a row of large potted plants. You can move plants like these indoors or change their positions depending on the season. (Photo courtesy of noriko sugimoto.)

   Sitting in your favorite chair and reading a book or sipping tea while surrounded by plants is a lovely way to relax, and offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.
   Gardening used to be associated more with looking at plants and enjoying their appearance, but in modern Japan, the focus has shifted to practical and environmentally friendly innovations like green curtains, as well as ways of using plants to make your home feel more comfortable. In Japan's urban areas, balcony gardening is a hobby that shows no sign of wilting.