Just because you live in a small space without a backyard does not mean that you should give up gardening. A balcony, no matter the size, can be turned into a lush, pleasant space of flowers and food and even trees!
You’ll have to take a few things into consideration up front. Here’s what you should be thinking about when designing your balcony garden:
First, what purpose do you want your balcony garden to serve? Do you want to block off ugly views? Get some privacy? Grow flowers? Grow food? Cool the space?
Second, what is the microclimate of the balcony? How much sun do you get and when? Is it hot? Cold? Does it get a lot of wind? How long is the growing season? Answering these questions up front will help you decide what plants you are going to incorporate into the space. Be sure to take any building covenants into considering…like what, if anything, are you allowed to plant? What kinds of containers does the building allow and how much weight can your balcony support?
Third, make sure you take some time before AND after you get going and check out a few fun and informative balcony gardening blogs like Life on the Balcony http://lifeonthebalcony.com or The Balcony Garden http://balcony-garden.blogspot.com .
Containers, Soil and Water
Container gardening is going to be your best bet for the balcony garden. Uh..well..your only bet. Growing in containers allows you to control you soil quality and water use, garden through the winter, have tasty cooking herbs close to the kitchen and be able to move your garden around as needed. You can use anything from ceramic or clay pots to wood boxes, hanging baskets, crocks, washtubs, baby bath tubs (that’s what I used last year!) or plastic buckets. Try not to get something too heavy. There is really no limit here but you will want your container to have the ability to drain off excess water. Be sure to take a look at long boxes that will allow you to plant a veritical garden to make the most of your space.
Good quality soil suited specifically for containers (probably from the gardening center) is a must. It should drain well and be lighter than regular gardening soil. Put a layer of gravel at the bottom of the container to aid with drainage.
And..speaking of water. How will you water the plants? Will you be able to corral the kids into a bucket brigade from the kitchen every few days all summer? Right. If you have a faucet on the balcony, great. If not, you’ll want to consider running a small hose from the kitchen or bathroom to the balcony and, since some of these plants will need water twice a day during the summer, you might consider a timed drip system. Finally, consider drainage on the balcony floor. Will the water drip on the neighbors below? IS there a drain? Is it sloped? Don’t be put off by these questions. These are things you need to figure out – but it shouldn’t take longer than five minutes.
It should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway…you need to choose plants appropriate to your climate and your balcony microclimate. You might also want to consider choosing plants that are one full hardiness zone greater than you would for plants that would be placed at ground level. Be sure that the plants you choose are appropriate for the container AND the place you will put the container.
When it comes to flowers, you can go with the usual annuals such as marigolds and sunflowers but you might also consider some stout perennials as these can overwinter. These you will want to plant in larger containers as this will give them a better chance to survive year-round (you will want to water them once or twice a month through the winter to help them survive). Geraniums, salvias, daisies, pansies, dahlias, petunas… www.balconyflowers.com has a great list of growing notes and information sheets on a variety of flowers that will suit your balcony.
While flowers are nice and all, I tend toward an edible balcony garden. Now seriously, pretty much everything you can grow in a ground-level garden, you can grow out on the balcony. Again, you’re going to have to rid yourself of the idea of using regular gardening soil and instead go for that lightweight alternative mix. Then, you basically follow the same rules you would for running a vegetable garden on ground level.
Be sure to give some thought to what you will grow and don’t bother planting things you won’t eat – that would be a waste of space!
Next, choose things that are appropriate for the space. Tomatoes like a lot of sunlight. They also need a lot of soil. So, a big pot in a warm sunny place will work best for them. Carrots on the other hand take very little space and are not terribly picky about temperature. Onions are the same. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli will need larger containers. Also, take into consideration the idea of co-planting to maximize the use of the available space. For example, consider planning a root crop (carrot, radish, turnip) between each plant that grows vertically (peas, beans, etc.). I’ve done well mixing beets and chard and carrots and lettuce. I’ve also seen peas and viney cherry tomatoes mixing on a series of slanted string. They offered some nice shade to chilies growing below.
Check out The Edible Balcony Garden for tips from an experienced balcony gardener.
While my former balcony apartment (I’ve since moved into a house) never grew much more than vegetables, towards the end, I realized that some trees and vines would have helped shape my balcony microclimate and offered me more vegetable options. Japanese plums, chokeberry, olives, dwarf fruit trees, dwarf red-leafed plums…the tree you choose will, again, depend on your microclimate but also on what you want to achieve with your balcony.
Are you looking for more shade? Wind protection? Your local nursery will be able to help you but seek out something fairly hardy that grows slow and roots shallow. Also ask yourself if you will be taking your trees inside in the winter. A dwarf Alberta spruce can weather some pretty cold temperatures while a dwarf orange tree will certainly pack its bags and fly off to Cabo sometime in October if you live in Denver or…Minneapolis. A few other possibilities include red osier, alpine spirea, American cranberry bush and the Amur maple (acer ginnala).
Check out these helpful links:
Jim O’Donnell gardens in the mountains of northern New Mexico. A certified permaculture designer and ecological restoration specialist, Jim’s first book Notes for the Aurora Society was published in 2009.