It’s spring! Well, it’s above freezing, which is good enough right now, and absolutely everyone wants to be outside again. Now that the weather’s turning, using your condo balcony’s starting to look great again. So here are some tips for taking another look at your condo balcony—the notorious “additional room” developers advertise—and setting up a space you’ll get the absolute most out of all summer long.
Set the guidelines
The board of your condo might have some specific ideas about what’s a go—and what’s a no—on your balcony. Before sketching out that fourteenth-story dream oasis, check what your building has already nixed. For most condo developments, paint is going to be off the table, and so will barbeques (unless you’re lucky enough to have a gas hookup built in)—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots of room to play.
Once that’s done, get to the brainstorming: What do you want out of your outdoor space? What do you wish you just had that much more of in your home, today? Think less about what you’d use if you were a different person—the aspirational stuff like that herd of adorable milk goats, or the tai chi you’re not going to do—but what you feel is actively missing in your life right now. It can be as small as a quiet nook to read with a cup of tea on Sunday mornings—as long as it’s the thing that’ll get you out there, and give you that little slice of satisfaction when you use it.
Lights, fabric, action! Do a little decorating
Next step? Set the scene, and build that space both practically and for the look you want.
With Toronto weather being so frequently wet, we don’t often think of fabric as an outdoor decorating tool, but luckily for us, most of the hardware stores in the city have. Generations of your parents’ friends with that cottage up north have brought us the miracle of outdoor rugs, which are usually latex-backed so they don’t slip or rot, UV-resistant, and comfortable for bare feet. A few rugs thrown down on that sturdy concrete—and some bright fabric over the glassy dividers that sort of let you spy on your neighbour—can really kick your balcony space into something warmer, brighter, and absolutely easy to store when you take it down for the winter. It’s also a great way to lay down some colour without having to use paint.
The other great way to put colour and texture into your balcony is with light. Fairy lights or candles are an affordable, easy way to make a space feel cozy and warm—or romantic, or a great spot for a little party. Both translate outdoors in a pinch: many balconies will have outdoor wall sockets accessible, and hurricane lamp-style candle holders are available at, you guessed it, most hardware stores to give you that soft light without wax and smoke going all over the place.
Outdoor cushions? Also a thing, and not just at the Thompson rooftop lounge. Twenty to thirty bucks at Ikea or Pier 1 Imports will get you bright, squishy, UV-treated outdoor cushions to scatter across your new balcony space with abandon, so sitting outdoors living the literal high life can be a lot more comfortable.
Picking out balcony furniture—a lot, a little, or none at all—is where your plan will come in. Toronto has an overflow of stores that specialize in just patio furniture. Treated wood is big for lawns and bigger outdoor spaces, but the balcony tradition seems to be rattan, which is light, portable, and wears the weather well enough to tentatively store outside, which is an important consideration for balconies we use about five months of the year: Can it stay outside? If not, where are you going to store it?
Modular furniture, where the frames will do fine in a Toronto winter and cushions or other components can come off to be stored inside, is always a great bet.
You’re outside—and you’ll want to feel like you’re outside. Whether it’s making sure you have the flowers for the proverbial smelling or raising some beans and tomatoes for dinner, one of the best uses of a condo balcony is for your own private, raccoon-free garden.
Think about what kind of exposure you get—south is a winner, followed by east, for sun-loving plants—and whether you’re high up enough for a lot of wind. At a certain height, blooming plants should probably be punted in favour of succulents, low-growing plants, or shrubs, which can withstand any gusts of wind that much better.
Toronto’s own Young Urban Farmers have great tips for ornamental or edible gardens for any kind of balcony space, including pointers specifically for condo balconies.
Once you’ve got your balcony set up to be inviting, fun space you want, make sure to enjoy it. Using your balcony doesn’t have to be a major production, or the experience to end all experiences. We inhabit our homes in little ways, and your balcony’s part of your home. Take lunch out there one afternoon, hang out with a coffee or glass of wine when friends are over, or move your laptop outside and do your usual email catching-up in the sun, with a nice breeze.
When it comes down to it, most of why most Torontonians don’t use their balconies as often as they could is because their balcony dreams don’t fit into their everyday lives. Make yours part of your life, day in and day out, and those small enjoyments will build into something beautiful.