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Martin Wade Landscape Architects/Tom Arban Photography Inc.

Tom Arban Photography Inc.

Landscaper Martin Wade is taking balcony gardening up a notch.

Most of the designs he's creating for condo terraces in and around the Greater Toronto Area incorporate a vertical thrust.

These include his latest landscaping innovation - screens made from 3form, a polycarbonate that comes in hundreds of different colours, patterns and finishes.

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Traditionally 3form is used in interior design as room dividers. Think Japanese shoji screens but made of recycled plastic. By taking the 3form product outdoors, Mr. Wade is banking on its innate translucency to create sophisticated backdrops to his landscape designs. Often he incorporates a screen as a focal point within the design. Other times he uses one at each end of the terrace or balcony as bookends.

To give them an added visual dimension, Mr. Wade typically inserts plant materials between the polycarbonate sheets, such as bear grass, which is native to North America. The prairie plant grows to a height of six or seven feet, making it ideal for screens that need to be effective at eye level.

"It's a totally man-made product but it has this organic look to it," says Mr. Wade, owner of Martin Wade Landscape Architects in Toronto .

"It's also great because it extends a balcony or terrace's space upwards. Vertical elements like these backlit screens impart an illusion of depth which is important in areas where every inch counts."

Most balconies or terraces are small, and so creating an impression of increased space becomes important for condo and apartment dwellers who want to enjoy the outdoors even while living in a concrete box.

"It's not a new trend but it is a growing one," Mr. Wade continues. "A lot of people are choosing to live in downtown condos for lifestyle reasons versus living further out of the city core in a house with a garden. Their balconies and terraces have become their outdoor oases, and while space is usually limited they still want to enjoy them as they would a traditional garden. They see them as an absolutely essential part of their overall living space."

Mr. Wade's condo landscape projects typically range in price from $40,000 to $100,000 depending on the scope of the job. Size matters. A balcony that measured just 150 square feet recently received a $25,000 makeover.

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At the higher end is a condo terrace measuring 800 square feet that includes custom planters and a polycarbonate screen for privacy.

"The client does a lot of entertaining and wanted an outdoor space with a lounging area," he says. "The screens add a touch of glamour."

Mr. Wade usually designs balconies and terraces with the understanding that whatever goes outside will be seen inside. Creating the right visual effect is paramount, he says.

"This is especially true for people who might not use their terraces a lot but still expect them to be an extension of their interior spaces," Mr. Wade says. "Regardless of whether the condo terrace is used much or not, designing them allows us to explore new opportunities in terms of materials and details that we might not otherwise use for a traditional garden situation."

These include stainless-steel troughs filled with crushed glass and lit from below at the perimeter of the terrace to create an effect that the space is floating amid the stars at night.

"The reason we would not use a trough filled with crushed glass in an at-grade garden is that it would fill up with debris, leaves and soil, and becomes a constant maintenance headache. On a condo terrace, on the other hand, it creates a sense of wow."

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Besides the elemental considerations of wind, sun and cold, balcony or terrace gardens have their own set of challenges, such as area drains and window-washing hooks. And everything Mr. Wade creates on a terrace or balcony is never bolted down but screwed in and otherwise designed for portability.

"None of the features being introduced, be they planters, screens or built elements, can be permanently affixed to the structure. We always design them so they are freestanding or removable. We also always check with a structural engineer to see what level of loading the balcony or terrace has been designed to accommodate. In newer buildings there is usually not a problem introducing large planters, but we can't always just assume this to be the case."

But before starting any landscaping project on your terrace or balcony area, make sure to contact property management or the board of directors to find out whether you need prior approval, cautions Denise Lash, a Toronto condo lawyer who has handled cases in which projects ran contrary to building requirements.

"Most terraces and balconies are legally defined as common elements, and therefore any items or changes that are made on common element areas may require board approval and a Section 98 [Condominium Act]Indemnity Agreement," Ms. Lash says. "If you just proceed without contacting management or the board, you may be unpleasantly surprised to learn that all your beautiful landscaping may have to be removed."

"Typically what we find is that the condo board is concerned about what can be seen from ground level, so large plantings, trellises, gazebos or pergolas are often not allowed, or require special approval," Mr. Wade says.

"Features like water walls and screens are less obtrusive as well as unique. They definitely add a different dimension."

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