Establishing a Balcony Garden – weight loading, planting near railings, bylaws

(Question)

I need some info/assistance in fighting our condo board who has decided that planters should not be allowed on terraces due to 1/weight loading and 2/that all planters close to any terrace or balcony wall poses a risk as it “reduces the effective height of guardrail (aka railing). This would mean that no balconies anywhere could have planters over 6 inch high near a balcony railing/wall. I can’t imagine this is the case am looking for info to dispute this. They also mentioned the load of wet earth being a problem and am wondering if I can present to them some stats on lighter versions of soil – wet potting soil or wet soilless mixtures. Not sure if you can help in any of these areas but i would hate to lose all the greenery on balconies in our city. Thanks.

(Answer)

Thank you very much for posing this interesting question about terrace/roof-top/balcony container growing. You have asked some serious questions about weight bearing regulations and the required distance from railings for planters.

Unfortunately, we cannot provide categorical advice on this topic. But to help you get started with your research, the most relevant website for your question on the bylaws on weight-bearing may be the Toronto bylaw on Green Roofs:

https://www.toronto.ca/city-government/planning-development/official-plan-guidelines/green-roofs/green-roof-bylaw/

There you will find a link to:

  • The Toronto Green Roof Construction Standard, and
  • A link to a guide on the construction standard. To request a copy of the Supplementary guidelines email sustainablecity@toronto.ca

However, this question will require the expertise of an engineer to figure out the proposed load of your container garden. It is really above our expertise which focuses on gardening. The proposed load will be determined by the size of the container, the type of container (fiber glass, resin, ceramic), plus the amount of soil each holds. How heavy the soil will be when wet, plus the type of plants that will be planted (trees, vines, vegetables, flowers or grass) will also be relevant when calculating the load.  Then your engineer will have to figure out the load that your balcony can support.

Something worth knowing is that there are containers with water reservoirs that will prevent leakage (which can be an issue for terrace gardening). The weight of containers when they are filled and planted is given by the different vendors (who you can find online). You can also find the weight of different container soils online, although most soil is sold by the volume and not the weight.

The safety objection is worth exploring.  Railings are 42” high by law. If there is a planter placed against the railing, the railing may have to be built higher than that to prevent a child from being in danger if they stand on the planter. The issue of how close you can place a container to balcony railings, is covered by the bylaw which you can read at this link. Your Condo Board may see this bylaw as supportive of not wanting plant containers too close to the guardrails: https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/municode/1184_447.pdf

Condo owners don’t actually own their balconies. The following advice comes from a commercial website, so although it is very clearly written, I cannot validate it. They write that since balconies are located on the façade of the building, they are considered to be common areas. That means their appearance and use is subject to the rules laid out in the condo corporation’s bylaws. Not complying with these bylaws can lead to confrontation with your board, neighbors, and, in extreme cases, result in fines or mediation. https://www.newinhomes.com/blog/balconies-and-bylaws-what-condo-owners-should-know

The Toronto Master Gardeners have answered a number of questions in the past on balcony growing. You may find it useful to go through these past answers posted on our website. For example, in a previous question on balcony gardening, one answer suggests that “Before deciding on what type of planters to use, be sure to check your building regulations – check if planters or trellises can be attached to walls or railings and consider weight restrictions if you’ll be using large planters; wet soil is heavy. Consider plastic or fibreglass containers rather than heavier clay, concrete or metal. And be sure all containers have drainage hole. Consider how you’ll do the watering and if the neighbors’ balcony is directly below, ensure drainage goes the right direction in the event of overflow.”
https://www.torontomastergardeners.ca/askagardener/balcony-gardening-5/

I do hope this information is helpful to you.