Make a garden on your balcony
If you are a metropolitan living in an apartment building, and you always wished to have a small patch of land where you could grow some vegetables, you might need way less than you think to realize your wish. If you have a balcony with 5-6 hours of direct sunlight, you can grow vegetables and herbs in containers. If you stick to organic practices, you will be able to have some tasty greens and even some fruits.
Container gardening is a great opportunity for growing food in an urban setting. If you have never thought that you could grow a 6 feet tomato plant in a bucket, well that is what container gardening is all about. Below is a summary of my experience in maintaning a balcony garden for the last couple of years.
The advantages of container gardening
Gardening in your backyard might be the optimal practice, but when you grow on land, there is more chances of being bothered by pest and disease problems. When you are growing in a container, you automatically avoid most of the pest problems that are related to soil. The disadvantage of having a limited amount of growth medium can be balanced with tedious watering schedules and adding a regular regime of organic fertilizer. Ensuring a minimum of daily sunlight, you can maintain a healthy container garden on your balcony.
What you need and where to start
Apart from either growing your own plants from seed or buying young plants, all you need is some steady, water-fast containers, an average quality of organic soil which is preferably mixed with some organic compost, perlite, vermiculite and a good organic fertilizer. Any soil sold on the market will be good enough. If you can not find a soil with organic compost, you can still use the organic fertilizer alone.
But before anything else, start looking for containers. Over the years, I added pots, old aquariums and broken recycling bins to my balcony, all of which I had found in the street during garbage days. Any container is good, as long as it will hold the soil and will not get deformed when it gets in contact with water. This can be a plastic container like broken recycling bins, larger glassware or old buckets. The numbers and sizes you'll need will all depend on your available space and sunlight. Note that, even partial shades might be enough to grow some vegetables or herbs.
The importance of a suitable container and understanding the water usage of plants
Container gardening relies much on regular watering. Your plants may not be sufficiently exposed to rain, and if you skip watering them during a few hot days, you may risk injury to your plants. The rule is always having necessary enough water, so the plant can sustain a healthy growth cycle. When you break the leaf or the stem of a plant, you will realize that most is, water. In fact, just like us, all the plants rely on water. Even a cactus in the desert, will need water to survive. The difference between a cactus and a tomato plant is the amount of water each plant requires to survive a given amount of time and the way they store or acquire water. The cactus will wait for rare rainfalls, then store the water within its body for later use. All the plants store water in different degrees, as well as they can acquire water at any given time through their root systems. Take the cucumber for example. The fruit of the cucumber is majorly composed of water. If you give more water to the cucumber (without causing the roots to rot), its fruits will keep growing and growing. If ever, the plant is exposed to a drought, it will start to reuse the water stored in fruits, for sustaining its health, as the plant needs water to break down the chemicals that it gets from the soil using its root system.
If however, there is too much water in the container and the drainage is poor and/or the evaporation rate is low, the root system of the plant can start to rot, killing the whole plant at once. One should start with a larger container which has adequte drainage, and by maintaining a regular watering schedule which will not allow the soil to dry completely, your plants will thrive.
Preparing the soil
Prepare the growth medium by mixing two parts of soil (better to have organic compost mixed with the soil) with one part of perlite and one part of vermiculite. Add your fertilizer as indicated on the box, on per liter of soil basis. If you have a 20 liters container, use 10 liters of soil, 5 liters of perlite and 5 liters of vermiculite. Try to mix well and homogeneously. Always leave a few fingers of space on top of your containers, this way it will not flood when you water the plants.
It is important that you have drainage holes on the bottom of your containers. If not, drill some holes if the material of the container permits it. I use a couple of old glass aquariums and although they don't have drainage holes, I can see the soil and judge when and how much to water. A good idea is putting some pebbles or small stones at the bottom of the container, to help improve draining excess water.
There are many choices of fertilizers in the market, but being an amateur of organic gardening, I would suggest bat guano for your plant's nutritional needs. Bat guano has two different types, one is for growth, which contains high levels of nitrogen and helps the younger plants to grow healthy root systems and stems. Mix this kind of guano when you prepare your soil mixture, following the indicated instructions on the box, on a per liter of soil basis. A round figure would be 25 ml of fertilizer per 10 liters of soil mixture (which is the total amount of soil mixture that goes in your container, therefore includes perlite and vermiculite.) When the plant has settled and starts to flower, you can start using the bat guano for bloom, which contains higher levels of phosphorus as well as nitrogen and will help your plant flowering and fruiting. You can sprinkle the fertilizer on the soil surface every 2-3 weeks, then water thoroughly.
Another method I used this year was mixing the bloom fertilizer with half of the soil mixture and fill the bottom of the container with it, then mixing the growth fertilizer with the rest of the soil mixture and filling the top part. The logic is, when the plant is young and its roots are shorter, it will start feeding with the nitrogen rich guano closer to the surface, and as the plant grows and the roots start reaching deeper in search of nutrients, it will eventually be mature enough to benefit from the phosphorus rich guano sitting on the bottom half of the container. This tecnique proved quite useful this year, my tomato plants reached around 7 feet in about 40 liter containers.
Have a plan
The success of your balcony garden will also depend a lot on careful planning of the layout of your containers viz a viz the position of the sun. Some plants grow taller than others, shading smaller plants which may require much sunlight. Some herbs will prefer partial shade or a cooler ambiance and they will prosper under the shade of a pepper or a tomato plant. So when planning your balcony garden, the first thing you should consider is the sun's angle. A balcony looking south will have at least a minimum of 5-6 hours of direct sunlight. However, if your garden also has a roof or an upper floor, you will have shade on and near your balcony walls for most of the day. Bearing that in mind, you should plant vegetables which benefit from direct sunlight, closer to your balcony's railings, and those which prefer indirect sunlight, towards the wall. On the right, you can see 3 simulations of sunlight angle during the day, from the time the balcony starts getting full sunlight in the morning to the time it starts to fall in shade in the late afternoon. Below is a diagram, showing the choice of plants in the light of these simulations. The tomatoes grow tall, therefore they are closer to the walls, yet they get decent sunlight. I also used the wall as a trellis for the cucumber plant.
What can you grow?
Actually, you can grow almost anything in containers. Your choice will be limited by the availability of the plants in your region. Here is a selection I tried over the years, and had been satisfied with. Yet, I am looking forward to next summer to try different vegetables and herbs.
Container gardening benefits much from companion planting, you can check out this article for companion planting tips for the balcony gardener:
Tomatoes in a balcony garden should be on top of the list, I thought. Why? Perhaps the pleasure of biting into a freshly picked juicy tomato in the morning is a universal one we all share. As for the tomato itself you will have a great variety to choose from. I will not get into detail about tomato kingdom here, but feel to try any one of them, just don't forget to have a cherry tomato plant on the side as well.
Tomatoes like sunlight and regular watering. If you grow from seed or a younger plant, start with an organic fertilizer high in nitrogen like bat guano for growth, and when the plant starts to grow the fruits, fertilize with a phosphorus rich organic fertilizer like bat guano for bloom.
Do not leave your red tomatoes on the plant, the fruits will explode to let the seeds sprout, and loose the juice. So, eat them regularly :)
Pepper plants also come in varieties, bell peppers are a good choice, because they are usually expensive in grocery stores. The reason is that it takes a longer time to grow, so if you want to save some money on your kitchen expenses, try the red, orange and yellow bell peppers ;)
Peppers love sunlight as long as you give them enough water. Fertilizing routine is the same as the tomatoes, start with a growth fertilizer, continue with a bloom fertilizer. Remember that the plant will need to carry a lot of weight once the peppers approach maturity, so as it grows, use sticks or cages around the main stem to support it.
Try out different varieties of peppers including shepherd, Hungarian, chili and jalapeno among others.
Cucumbers like climbing upwards and they adore sunlight, so plant them in a sunny spot beside a wall. You can use it as a trellis. Do not let the plant climb on neighboring plants, as the cucumbers start to grow, excess weight may injure the stem of the plant that the cucumber uses to support its own weight.
Although a cucumber plant will appreciate more soil to grow its roots freely, you can still grow healthy plants in a container with regular watering. The more you water, the more the cucumbers will grow, but be sure you have holes on your container so the water will not rot the roots of the plant. As with tomatoes and peppers, start and continue with regular fertilizing every 2-3 weeks.
There are a couple of commonly available cucumber varieties, which are named depending on the size of its adult fruit. If you want to pickle your cucumbers, try a pickling variety but do not let the cucumbers grow too much, as they will start to produce large seeds.
The best thing about amateur gardening is how it makes us realize the degree of our alienation from the process of growing the food on our table. Potato plant receives a lot of attention, because people can't make out what it is. Be certain that you will see astounding looks on the faces of your visitors when they learn that it is a potato plant :)
Potato plant can only be grown from potatoes. As any good-to eat potato can be grown, having a seed potato puts you ahead of certain potato diseases which are difficult to control. If you want to try out the basic method, find a good looking potato from your corner grocery store, place it in a cool dry place till they grow tiny green tentacles, then plant it directly in the soil. If you prefer to play safe, you will need to buy seed potatoes from your local plant market.
Potato plant start from a seed potato in the soil and grows stems and leaves to gather sunlight. Meanwhile within the soil, small tubers start to form, which in time, develop into potatoes. When the potato plant starts to flower, then sheds these flowers, the potatoes are ready to harvest. However, if you decide to keep the plant alive for longer, you will have bigger potatoes.
Space is an important parameter for the potato plants. More space given, more and bigger the potatoes will be. For balcony gardening, try to find a container that is wide and deep. Fill the container 6-8 inches of soil mixture, place the potatoes with the tentacles looking upwards, and cover with another 6-8 inches of soil. Water generously, and wait about 2 weeks for the first set of leaves to appear. As the plant grows another 6-8 inches, cover them adding, about 6 inches of soil. Keep following the plants growth and adding up soil till you reach the limit of your container. Remember, wider and deeper your container is, you will either get smaller potatoes but a bigger harvest, or bigger potatoes but a smaller harvest.
Potato plants love compost, and you can boost your soil mixture with some sea-based fertilizer like seagull guano or bat guano for growth. Do not give too much nitrogen, as this may inhibit forming of potatoes and encourage the plant to grow its stem and leaves instead. Your soil mixture must also contain perlite and vermiculite, as the tubers will not grow much if the soil is heavy and muddy.
Update - I had planted 3 different potato varieties, after about 3 months I collected about 4 lbs (2 kg) of potatoes. The container was 15 inches (38 cm) in diameter and 14 inches (35 cm) deep.
On the right you can see the size comparison with a Loonie. I had to remove the plants completely, it was otherwise difficult to reach the potatoes because of limited space, but you can always try to collect the potatoes without damaging the plants. On the second image right, you can see the baby tubers, and if you leave the plant intact, it will continue to produce more. Do not wash the potatoes till you consume them, just brush of the earth and store the potatoes in a dark cool place, like the vegetable compartment of a refrigerator.
Basil is a must have plant if you have decided to grow tomatoes. You can dress your tomatoes with fresh basil. They are easy to maintain, appreciate regular watering and full or partial sun. Plant them next to your tomatoes.
There are many different varieties, with large leaves proper for salad dressing or purple-red with a pungent taste. Mosquitoes don't like the natural oil of basil, so run your hands through for a fresh scent and repel the mosquitoes on humid summer evenings :)
Parsley - Coriander
Parsley commonly comes in two varieties, Italian, with flat leaves and Curly variety, with smaller curly leaves, but both taste about the same. Their water and sunlight requirement is the same as basil, so you can plant them side by side. Encourage their leaf growth with a nitrogen rich fertilizer.
Coriander is a similar looking plant but its taste differs greatly as it is more pungent. However, coriander is one of the must haves in Asian cuisine, especially for soups and seafood. Its growing properties are the same as the other two members of the parsley family.
Mint will adore sunlight and enjoy partial shade as well, but a happy mint plant will prosper without bounds and it will take over your garden in no time. Container gardening naturally helps this problem by limiting the soil use of the plant, just make sure you plant the mint in a separate container, especially not in larger ones with tomatoes or peppers, otherwise they will compete for space and nutrients. Although mint will survive a dry soil, it may loose the quality of its aroma if not watered regularly.
Try spearmint and peppermint together, and find out which goes better in a salad or in a soup ;)
Sage is a sun loving plant and a great herb for seafood cooked in oven, it also makes a soothing infusion or tea, both recreational and medicinal. It is of Mediterranean origin therefore will tolerate dry soil. Some varieties have larger, some have smaller leaves, but from a perspective of culinary use they are about the same.
Rosemary is a good dressing for meat dishes as well as fish cooked in oven. It has a sharp smell a pungent taste, and is better when cooked with broth or other recipes than eaten alone. As far as your local plant market goes, there is usually just the rosemary plant. Like sage, it can withstand dry soil, and can be planted next to sage and oregano.
Another historical plant from the Mediterranean basin, oregano is a favorite dressing for red meat in both fresh and dried forms. It can also be infused in hot water for a soothing tea, is good when you have cold or sore throat, though over infusion will make it taste too pungent to bear. As this plant loves sunlight and survives dry soil, it can be planted with the above mentioned herbs.
Two major varieties are Greek and Italian, both convincing to be better than the other.
My cat loves the chives and bites in it every now and then. Its oniony taste makes it great for dressing soups. The common variety grows smaller leaves and a bit fragile if your cat steps on it. This year I found a wild variety, with longer, thicker leaves and a strong onion taste. You can plant chives in a spot with direct sunlight and water them well. As the other alliums, chives is a companion plant for cucumbers, you can have grow in the same container.
Strawberries could be that cute edition to your balcony garden. There are a couple of varieties of which, one in particular is a good choice for the limited space gardener, the all season type. This will start to flower later then others and bear smaller fruits, but you will be able to continually harvest strawberries throughout the whole growing season. Just try to practice patience and don't try to bite in when it still has whitish corners ;)
Strawberries will not tolerate dry soil, neither they will appreciate soaking up in water. You will need to prepare a sandy soil with good nutrient holding and water filtering qualities. As the plants grow, mound up some soil around the base of the plant and be sure its roots are not exposed to air. Put them in the sunniest part of your balcony. As the flowering (hence the fruiting) starts, start a regime with a phosphorus rich fertilizer, repeating every 2-3 weeks.
Useful hints and tips
- Since the amount of growth medium is limited, your plant's healthy life cycle will depend a lot on a fertilizer regime as well as adequate sunlight. However, even if you tend to your plant properly, over time you may see that some leaves start to dry and fall, starting with those on the lower parts of the stem. This is normal and it means that your plant has developed a root system that has reached the perimeter of your container. The plant is a living being like us and it manages its available energy to grow and produce more fruits, therefore by shedding the least used and older leaves, it transfers the excess energy to the upper parts of the stem to continue producing more flowers.
- If unlike above, the plant starts to shed leaves all over and start drying up almost everywhere at the same time, it means that it has a major problem with its root system and/or main stem. This is what happens when you drown your plants in too much water. At this point there is not much to do to save the plant, except stopping watering letting the water drain and evaporate. If earlier you realize this, the more chances the plant will have to heal on its own. A sign of healing is new growth and hopefully a new set flowering on the upper parts of the plant.
- Tomato plants do not like being watered late in the evening, with a humid soil overnight, you might get some pest problems. If your tomato does not drain well, you will start to see a white fungus developing on the leaves of the plant, starting from the bottom. Decrease watering cycles and let the soil dry.
- If you have a cat who likes sitting on your smaller plants, get some cheap metal dividers for gardening from the dollar store, and build a perimeter around the edges of your container. And gently, talk to your cat.
- All parts of the potato plant, of course except the potato itself, are toxic. Cats have an instinct about it and they won't try to eat the plant, however children have no such instinct, and they may try to eat those cute little green balls hanging from your potato plant's flowers.
- Cucumbers will suck up water, the more you give them, and they will start to develop giant cucumbers. As weeks pass, some of these cucumbers will be lost among the jungle of other plants and believe me one morning you will accidentally discover one. Do not panic, but prepare to find big big seeds inside.
Hope you enjoyed