The Joy of Gardening
It's the first day of March as I write this. For those, like myself, who live in the northern climes, the ground is still frozen and the air is chill. The first rumblings of spring are starting to show, however, and it's the time of year to plan out our gardens. The seed displays are out in the stores, the catalogs are in our mail, and our fingers itch to dig into the deep, sun warmed loam.
Growing up on a farm, we always had a huge garden - well over an acre in size, at its largest point. Nearly half of it was potatoes! White potatoes and red - one year, we even had blue - row upon row of peas, corn, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, lettuces, cabbage and so much more. It was a lot of work to maintain, but between the garden and farm animals, we didn't have to buy much at the grocery store!
Then I moved to the city, and gardening became a thing of the past. It was many years before we even lived in one place long enough to start a garden, never mind somewhere with access to land.
I want to clarify, however, that when I talk about gardening, I'm not talking about flowers. There's plenty of information out there on how to grow flowers on your balcony, but what about veggies? There's something very special about being able to put together a salad with greens freshly picked, just minutes ago, or having vegetables with your meal that are so fresh, they burst with a crunchy sweetness unlike anything else! Of course, it sure doesn't hurt to save some money on your grocery bill, too!
Apartment living does not have to be garden-free living. If you're fortunate enough to have a balcony - even a small one - it's surprising how much you can grow!
So if you're itching to get your hands in the dirt, save a bit of money on the grocery bill, have concerns about the safety of your food, don't have access to a garden plot, but do have a balcony, this is for you!
(updated May 20, 2012)
(updated with photos from 2012 harvest, and to remove dead links)
(updated to include photos from our 2014 balcony gardens)
Evaluating Your Space
What have you got to work with?
Photo of one of my rail planters, taken March 22, 2012 - clearly I won't be planting anytime soon!
The first thing you'll need to determine, long before you start your balcony garden, is what do you have to work with? Here are just a few things you will need to take into account.
Physical space - what are the dimensions you have available? Keep in mind that you need to be able to move around your containers, as well as be able to shift them, as needed. Do you have a sturdy railing? Perhaps you can place rail planters on them, or hang them on the outside of your rail. Is there a fire exit that needs to be kept clear? Do you have a roof/ceiling/overhang above your balcony? Is your balcony made of concrete or wood? The weight of soil filled containers can quickly add up, and you want to be sure your balcony can hold it. How many walls do you have? Are you allowed/able to attach things to them? What else do you use the balcony for (bbq, storage space, tables and chairs...)?
Light - how much natural light does your space get? Are you south facing, with full sun for most of the day, or north facing, with only indirect light through most of the day? Do you get only a few hours of directly sunlight at sunrise or sunset? Knowing how many hours of light your space gets will help you decide what plants you will be able to grow. Some plants require many hours of full light, while others do better in indirect light or shade. Take the time to determine how the light and shade hits your space throughout the day, and keep in mind that this will change throughout the growing season.
Your growing zone - go online, check out some seed catalogs or hit the books to find maps of growth zones for your region. When you figure out what zone you live in, you can use that to decide what seeds or plants have a growing season compatible with it. Remember, however, that on a balcony, you can break some rules! It's possible to create micro-climates that will allow you to grow plants that prefer a warmer or cooler zone, and there are ways you can extend your growing season. Use your region's zone as a guide to determine what you can grow, but know that you can push the limits a bit.
To give you an idea of what to look for, here is a comparison of balconies we've had most recently.
Before moving to where we are now, we lived in an apartment with a large balcony. It was very long, but fairly narrow. At one end was a storage space. At the other was a wall with a narrow opening at the rail (just big enough for a cat to fit through, we discovered) that lead to our neighbour's balcony. The floor was concrete, as was the ceiling, with stucco on the apartment wall and brick side/storage walls. We had a narrow steel railing. We had a bbq and a patio table, and needed to keep access open between the patio door entrance and the storage area. We also faced north-northwest and had no direct sunlight at all, and indirect sunlight for a couple of hours, at most, at sunset.
We discovered that our balcony was oddly unsheltered. We were on the third floor (of a 19 floor highrise), which was low enough that street grit blew onto our balcony - enough that my thoughts of having a drying rack for our laundry were firmly rejected. We also would find cigarette butts and used matches on our balcony regularly. No one in our household smoked. These were from people who tossed them off their balconies above us.
With this space, I did try to grow some seedlings we got for Arbour Day (jack pine and white spruce) on our patio table. They died. We simply didn't have enough light and, though we had three walls, gusts of wind frequently knocked down the containers I had the seedlings in. I figured that we could probably grow flats of lettuces successfully in that space but, in the end, decided it wasn't worth it.
Then we moved to our current townhouse. It is on the 2nd and 3rd floor of a 3 level complex, and our balcony is on the 2nd floor. It is quite large and almost completely square in shape. We have the townhouse wall in the back, a half-wall on each side, a wooden railing in the front, and a fire escape near the rail in one wall. The top of the wood railing is about 6 inches wide. The balcony is made of wood, and the floor is covered with waterproofing and outdoor carpet. The walls are covered with siding. We face south and get full sunlight from sunrise to about an hour before sunset, when the light is finally blocked by a tree and other buildings.
In this space, we have a bbq, a patio swing and a patio table (recently added), plus we have to keep a path clear to the fire escape. It is also where we store extra bags of soil and gravel, as well as a spare propane tank for the bbq. Plus, we want to keep the middle clear for activities. This leaves me with the patio table top, the rails and the sides not taken up by the bbq. We are also not allowed to attach anything to the walls directly.
We discovered two problems with our location. First, with the amount of direct sunlight we get, the containers can actually get too hot, and the roots can start burning. Containers need to be rotated regularly, and watered more often. This was expected. The second problem was more of a surprise. Wind. No matter what direction the wind is coming from, our balcony seems to act like some sort of funnel. There is no corner unaffected by the wind, which can swirl around with surprising violence. There is also no roof, so there is no protection from hail or driving rains. This means anything we grow has to be able to withstand a lot of direct sunlight (though I can create shade, if necessary) and be hardy enough to handle the elements.
Taking the time to evaluate your space is a vital first step that will help you decide what you can grow, where and how to grow it, and save you from spending money on containers and plants that won't work in your location.
Photo above, taken March 22, 2012, shows my two rail planters spaced far enough to fit our barbeque in between without either being affected by the heat. They can be easily slid from side to side if we need to.
Photos of our 2010 Balcony Garden
What you grow decides how you grow!
Figuring out what containers you need.
Now that you've evaluated your space as much as you can this early in the game, it's time to decide what you want to plant. This will also help you figure out what size of containers you will need, how much and what type of soil, etc.
Some of the easiest edibles to grow are a selection of herbs, lettuces and salad greens. Many do not require particularly deep containers, so you can get creative in using your space. These are a great choice to start with, especially if you want to increase the amount of healthy greens you eat, but find that store bought greens tend to spoil with shocking speed (I've had a package of herbs go fuzzy and slimy overnight!). Root vegetables can also be grown in containers, so long as they are deep enough.
Some food plants can be started indoors to lengthen the growing season (the middle of March is a good time to start most seeds indoors). If you don't have the space, it may be well worth the extra cost of buying at a local greenhouse, instead.
With some types of plants, it's good to evaluate whether it's worth growing yourself. Potatoes, for example, can be an excellent plant to grow in a container, but when you balance the cost of materials and soil needed, it is unlikely to be worth the investment for plain Russets, which are already so inexpensive in stores. If you want to grow heirloom varieties, however, it might be well worth the investment.
Spend some time going through seed catalogs and their company websites. Some of your favourite vegetables might be available in dwarf varieties that would be great in containers, and some companies now specify if certain varieties of vegetables are good for container planting. Don't forget fruits and berries! Quite a few varieties would do quite well in containers.
Other things to keep in mind are extra materials you many need to invest in. If you want to grow climbing plants, such as cucumbers or squash, you might need to invest in a lattice backing, poles, or some other method of giving your vines room to grow.
For a new balcony garden, start with just a few containers and plant varieties. Your first year will be a learning experience, and you will discover things about your growing space that you missed when first evaluating your space (like we did, with our wind problem!). Choose plants you know you and your family will enjoy and eat on a regular basis.
Once you have a list of potential plants to grow, it's time to do a bit of research. How much growing space do individual plants need (when growing in containers, you won't need to take into account the recommended space between rows), and how deep do their root systems go? What are their growing habits? Some varieties of plants, like spinach or Bok Choi, have a tendanc to bolt (shoot up and go to seed) if they get a lot of sun and warmth. Will you be able to give them the shade and cooler temperatures they need, or should you look into different hybrids that are less likely to bolt?
The next step will be the largest monetary investment in your balcony garden, but for many of these items, they will last you for many years. It's time to get your containers!
Choosing your containers and gardening methods.
When you have a limited area to work with, it helps to be creative in using every inch of it! For plants that don't require deep pots, you can take advantage of this and try some unusual and innovative growing methods. Here are a few ideas and suggestions.
Turn it upside down!
Some plants can grow quite well hanging upside down. If you have a roof over your balcony you can hang planters from, or are able to attach brackets to your walls, this is a great way to increase the space you have available. Tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers and peppers are among the plants that can be grown upside down.
Hang it up.
If hanging upside down isn't an option, perhaps you can still do hanging baskets. Herbs, lettuces and strawberries can do quite well in these.
Keep in mind that you will need to be able to reach the baskets for watering, so you will either need to mount them within reach, or invest in tools that will help.
Make use of your walls, if you have them or can attach things to them.
One handy trick is to attach roof gutters directly to your walls. Several can be mounted, one above the other, providing planters for shallow rooted plants such as lettuces and some types of herbs.
Other options include stepped planters (or planters resting on the rungs of a step ladder), lattices, or towers, such as strawberry pots, with openings in the sides to plant into.
On the rails. There are long, narrow plant pots specially designed to fit over rails that are either 6 inches or 4 inches wide (our balcony rails are 6 inches wide at the top). For other rail types, you can get brackets that hang on your rail and hold the pots on the side, rather then on top. These have an extra bonus, in that you can hang your pots on the outside of the rail, or both sides, giving you a bit more space.
Raise it up. For those with mobility issues, keeping your pots on small tables can be useful. If bending is a problem, low tables similar in height to a coffee table can be enough. For those in wheelchairs, a higher table with room enough to wheel under, with shallow pots or trays to plant in, can work quite well.
Go deep. For many plants, you just have to go big! Larger containers with depths of 12 - 24 inches work well for most plants. Potatoes can be grown in rain barrels or plastic garbage bins - start with a smaller amount of soil and add more as your potatoes grow, and you will soon find yourself with a remarkable amount of potatoes from just two or three plants!
As you can see, getting the materials for a container garden can be a significant investment! Another reason to go slow in the beginning, and start with just a few pots. There's no rule that says you have to use actual plant pots to grow in! Storage bins, plastic buckets and other creative containers can be used. For some plants, you don't need a container at all - just use the bag your soil is in! Lay the bag flat and cut X shaped holes, spaced appropriately for your plant of choice, then transplant your seedlings into the openings. Make sure the openings have room for watering.
Check out garage sales and reuse and recycling centres for containers suitable for planting. For short term use, you can also use cleaned and cut down 4L milk jugs or 2L pop bottles.
The type of soil you get will depend on the plants you grow, so do a bit of research on that, as well. When preparing your containers, make sure there are drainage holes, or that you can add about 2-3 inches of gravel and sand at the bottom for drainage.
With containers, you will need to water and fertilize them more often then in a garden plot. Choose your plant food with care, and follow the directions carefully. You may also want to consider building a compost bin with red worms - they will happily eat up your vegetable waste, and reward you with a rich soil in return!
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Okay, so you've chosen what you want to grow. You've invested in pots and soil. You've either started seeds indoors, picked up transplants, or are ready for direct sowing. The weather has finally co-operated, and it's time to get your hands in the dirt! Your new balcony garden is finally in.
Over the next few months, you will get to enjoy tending your garden and watching those tiny seedlings and transplants grow into beautiful, healthy plants. At least you hope they turn out healthy!
Some things you just won't have much control over. Like the weather. The photo you see here was taken in June! Some years, summer just doesn't bother showing up. There are things you can do to protect them from the elements (including taking your pots inside, if all else fails and if you have the space), but there are always limits. With a dry year, you can at least keep watering your containers, but there's not much you can do if it's too cold, too rainy or too hot.
With containers, you will generally need to water more often, and turn the pots so that all sides get equal amounts of sunlight. You may wish to put larger pots on small wheeled platform to make that particular job easier! If you are south facing, turning the pots will also prevent roots from burning as the south facing sides absorb the sun's heat. With some plants, like lettuces and carrots, you can do successive sowings every few weeks to extend your harvest.
Some plants are good for eating quite quickly - young beet leaves are great in salads, along with most lettuce types. Read up on the types you've planted, so you know when it's safe to start harvesting, and what the best method is. Herbs are usually best harvested earlier in the day, after the dew dries, but before it gets too hot. You can harvest young Joi Choi (a hybrid Choi that resists bolting) whole, or leave them to grow larger and harvest only a few leaves as needed. Keeping plants trimmed to prevent flowering keeps the leaves from growing bitter, while some, like chives, have edible flowers that you will want to encourage.
You may even want to deliberately let a few plants go to seed and collect them at the end of the growing season. Most vegetables and herbs will produce viable seeds, but you might want to double check your varieties, as some hybrids will revert with successive generations. I have had great success collecting seeds from my Joi Choi, as well as oregano and thyme.
As you tend your plants, you will learn what varieties grow well in your space and which won't. On our current balcony, I've learned that I can grow oregano well, but not basil. Joi Choi does well, but not carrots. Lettuces grow well at the start of the season, but successive sowings don't seem to work out well at all.
You may wish to keep a notebook to record what plants you tried to grow, what containers and soil you used, and how well they did. You may even wish to keep a photographic record of your plants - and if photography is a hobby, your balcony garden can provide ample opportunities for excellent photographs throughout the year!
Get to Know Your Bugs
Meet Felix. Isn't he a beauty? He really enjoyed my thyme blossoms.
Okay, so you don't need to know your bugs by name! Or even by type. One thing about gardening you're sure to deal with, however, is bugs.
That's a good thing.
Most of the time.
Most of the insects that visit your balcony garden are doing them good, or are at least neutral. Some types, like ladybugs, eat other types that harm your plants, like aphids. Felix, here, wasn't going to do my thyme any harm, but I wouldn't want him around if I had tomatoes or fruit trees.
Most of the time, you can let nature take its course, and just worry about washing your plants well when it comes time for eating.
May 20, 2012 - finally planting! - The Victoria Day Weekend is planting weekend.
For the climate I live in, this is the weekend after the last danger of frost, and most people finish putting their gardens in. Weather willing, many have already put out their hardier plants by now.
I didn't have space to start seeds indoors, so I bought a few transplants. There are some new ones this year, and I hope they turn out. I've also got some seed packets out as well.
Preparing the Planters
The first order of business is to prepare the planters with new soil and a thorough watering. In the photo are my two rail planters that actually fit my balcony rail. I do have another, but accidentally bought one the wrong size. By the time I realized it, I had already planted in it!
This would be the time to thoroughly mix in any slow acting fertilizers you might be using.
Lettuce and Beets
I bought a tray of four head lettuce transplants. For the space they need, I put two in each rail planter. I also seeded some beets in between and in the corners. Beet greens are edible, and they are good companion plants for lettuces. Both beets and lettuce can be successively sown to extend the growing season.
This is a new one for me - English Lavender. Because of the expected size, it got its own large pot. I am hoping to have lavender flowers to dry for use in my Christmas crafting this year.
Bell Pepper - - and friend?
Another new one for me is green bell peppers. I personally cannot eat peppers, no matter how delicious they smell or tempting they look. They make me gag. Odd. My husband enjoys them, though, so I wanted to try growing some for him.
When digging this pot out to prepare it for transplanting, having already pepared it a while ago, I discovered something growing in it. I honestly can't tell if it's a weed or not, so I've left it to see what it is.
Gardening can be a mysterious adventure!
Red Cabbage and Dill
My planter here is a fairly large storage bin. When it comes to larger containers, storage bins can be a much more economical substitute for large planters. Holes were drilled in the bottom, and the lid is kept under it, upside down, to catch the drainage.
These are both plants I've grown before, but never in containers. Part of the reason I chose red cabbage is not only for eating, but to use the leaves as a natural dye. Dill makes a good companion plant for cabbage, as it helps keep away the insects that will eat them. Not much of a worry on my balcony, but that's okay.
I love to use the fresh young leaves in cooking, and I hope to have enough to dry as well. The seeds are good for cooking and pickling, too. Leaving dill long enough to go to seed does entail the risk of self-sowing. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I don't think my mother has sown dill in years, but she still has some come up in her gardens every year!
I have a second, slightly smaller storage bin I used to sow purple carrots. I tried them last year with not very much success. I'm hoping this year will be better. This bin has 3 rows of carrots sown.
Spearmint, Oregano and Joi Choi
I've tried different types of mints before, but this is the first time I've tried spearmint. I'm looking forward to using it in drinks, and to dry some leaves for tea in the winter.
With the mint, I've sown seeds collected from previous gardens. On one side is some oregano and on the other is some joi choi. Joi choi can grow quite large, but I plan to harvest it for eating before it grows to full size.
Forget Me Not
My younger daughter helped me with the planting this year, plus she seeded her own special pot. This past winter her cat, Harley, suddenly fell ill. We took her into a veterinary hospital, but it turned out to be massive kidney failure, and she had to be put down. The veterinary hospital sent us a card with condolences and a packet of Forget Me Not seeds. I don't normally do flowers at all, but my younger daughter enjoys flowers a lot, and she planted these seeds in memory of Harley.
A Word on Water
Container and raised bed gardens tend to need more watering then regular garden plots. For a balcony garden, this adds an extra challenge to gardening. If you have access to a rain barrel for watering, consider yourself blessed!
A good watering can that gently waters your plants is a must, but when watering planters that are on tables, rails or walls, you'll want to avoid one that's too large and unweildy. A smaller watering can will need frequent refilling. My usual habit was to keep a full watering can on my balcony, so that when I do water may plants, the water temperature matches them. When I was done watering all my plants, I'd refill the container and leave it full for next time.
The best time of day to water plants is early in the morning, before it gets too hot, or later in the evening when it starts to cool down. On the hottest of days, though, when the plants start drooping, they'll need some fresh water to perk them up. The size of my watering can means frequent refills, and frequent refills from my kitchen sink not only means many trips through my home, but after a few trips, the water gets quite cold. With the hot summer days, that cold water can really shock the plants and their delicate roots.
This year, I've found a solution to my problem, and it's thanks to a change in packaging from our brand of cat litter! Instead of the 18kg cardboard boxes we used to get, it now comes in plastic containers with a molded handle at the top. After a thorough cleaning, I now have 4 of these, with lids so no bugs get in and drown, about 3/4's filled with water on our balcony. One of them was enough for all the planting and transplanting we did, saving us many trips into the house for refills! The only down side is that they are too tall for our kitchen sink, so they have to be filled in the bathtub upstairs. Even so, keeping these containers of water on the balcony is going to be very handy!