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Balcony Gardening Basics
If you’re balcony gardening, you may be feeling sorry for yourself.
View it as an exciting challenge instead.
In my film 13 Tips, Tricks and Lessons for Homesteading an Acre, I share the story of how I used to long for a large space, wishing for 10, 15 or even 20 acres I could farm.
After working my acre for over five years, I no longer feel the need for a big space. I’ve even caught myself looking with longing at small urban backyards and apartment porches.
Because of the power of focused effort. Balcony gardening allows you to create a little paradise oasis without killing yourself.
Why Balcony Gardening Rocks
When you spread all your work across a large space, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s hard to make everything look the way you want. It’s hard to keep 100 trees healthy and happy unless you’re a full-time gardener or farmer. It’s hard to pick the bugs off 600 cabbages. It’s hard to harvest 10 beds of potatoes.
But if you have a small space garden, you can make it incredible with much less time and effort.
I learned this lesson when I owned a small cottage in Tennessee. The cost of fixing up that little 3/1 house was cheap. We had to replace the roof: it cost $3,500. Sure, that’s a chunk of change — but it’s NOTHING like the cost of fixing the roof on a big, complicated multi-story house.
You could repaint a room with a gallon of paint in an afternoon. You could sand and varnish all the floors in a weekend.
It’s the same way with balcony gardening. If you only have a little area, you can really make it look incredible for only a little bit of money.
Sure, you’re not going to be able to grow everything you like. A pecan tree is out of the question (unless you make it into a bonsai!) and grain corn would be a bit tough; yet you could pack in a lot of plants by growing vertically and sticking to species that are miserly with their space considerations.
Trying to grow food in a window sill? Check this out: Grow Sprouts and Microgreens Indoors All Winter Long
Plant what you love. Make your balcony an escape from the madness. Put a little table out there amongst your plants and start writing your novel.
Here are just a few edible plants I would grow on a balcony.
Plants for Balcony Gardening
Ginger needs shade, so if your balcony doesn’t get a lot of direct light, plant ginger! Roots from the store will usually grow. Bury them in a pot about 4-6″ deep and wait. They’ll come up. A year or two later, when they go dormant in the fall, you can tip the pot out and harvest the mass of roots — or just break off a little here and there as you need it.
Basil is a no-brainer. Start from seeds in a pot of well-drained soil in at least half sun. If you can find African blue basil, great. It’s a perennial version you won’t have to replant. Just know this: you need to buy your first African basil as a plant, or beg a cutting from a friend. It doesn’t grow from seeds.
Bush beans are so easy to grow that it’s almost embarrassing. A half-barrel planter should be able to host about 12 plants, which will each give you a couple handfuls of pods. Beans like lots of sun, so if you have a shady balcony you likely won’t have much luck.
Strawberries are the consummate container plant. They even have their own special planters. A few years ago I bought my sister-in-law a hanging basket of strawberries and she’s been keeping them alive for years and harvesting berries off and on. Strawberries will take about half sun but produce better with more.
Blueberries work remarkably well in good-sized pots. Plant them in rotted pine bark (not normal potting soil) and they’ll be quite happy. Blueberries also love coffee grounds, so just empty ’em all in the top of your blueberry pots.
Dwarf mulberry varieties are shrubbier than their tree relatives and can easily be kept growing at only a few feet tall. Some will produce through the year. Just know this: dwarf mulberries have vigorous roots and will fill a pot right up, then get thirsty all the time. I’d put the bottoms of their pots in trays of water so they always have some to sip.
Oregano is really easy to grow in pots and will take shade or sun. Don’t overwater it. The vining habit of oregano makes it nice for hanging baskets, though my permaculture side would encourage you to just grow it as a ground cover around the base of one of your larger balcony gardening additions, like the following small tree.
I love Japanese persimmon trees. Though they may not be the most productive addition to your balcony gardening plans, they do make marvelous fruits and are easy to grow in a large pot. Unlike many fruit trees they can be kept small as well.
The kumquat is another excellent small tree, and likely more productive than the Japanese persimmon. They do well in pots and will handle half to full sun. I’ve also seen some citrus growing in full shade and fruiting; however, I wouldn’t count on that.
The Key lime is a nice small tree, so why not add Key lime pie to your balcony gardening? The downside for this little tree is its brutal thorns. Be sure they’re off to the side where they won’t scratch limbs and tear your visitors’ clothing off. Unless that’s the idea.
Lemons are also easy, easy, easy to grow in pots. They’re not very big trees to begin with and the constraint of growing in a pot will help keep them from getting out of control. Half to full sun.
I covered this tree in two videos last year — first, one on the fruit in general, then a second one on how my wife and I made whiskey sours from this incredibly flavorful little citrus. Calamondins are very beautiful trees with nicely-scented blossoms. They’re worth growing just for the way they look. Bonus: some trees will fruit twice a year.
Turmeric is a form of ginger and is a high-value crop that gives curry its yellow coloration and earthy spice. Grow it the same as ginger. Curry on your balcony — how cool is that?
Hot peppers do really well in pots — I’ve seen some huge ones growing like shrubs. They’ll live for years under the right conditions. Add some spice to your life. Make sure your balcony has plenty of sunshine before planting peppers — they like it bright and hot.
Cranberry hibiscus is a dark red-leafed perennial hibiscus with tart leaves that are excellent in Caesar salads, plus it makes a nice hedge. They also have wonderful flowers and can be pruned as needed.
Coffee is a great potted plant for shady spaces. If it’s freezing cold outside, let it live in your living room until warmer conditions return. The yields aren’t high but the novelty is great. Bonus: you can use the leaves for tea!
Rosemary likes lots of sunshine and not too much water. Give it a well-draining mix and a place in the sun and it will live for years and spice up your life.
Tomatoes may actually be easier to grow in a pot on a balcony than they are to grow in the garden. The pest problems are fewer, plus they get perfect soil from the beginning. Make sure they have lots of sunshine and some breeze for pollination. If there’s no breeze, shake the plants now and again when they’re in bloom to jostle the pollen into the right place.
Lettuce is really easy to grow in pots. It’ll take sun or shade. Buy a packet of leaf lettuce seeds, fill a good-sized pot with soil, rip open the seed packet and sprinkle the seeds around, then lightly knead them into the soil. Water, and in a week or two little lettuces will start emerging. In a month, you can start picking leaves… and you’ll have free salads for months.
Read about fertilizing your container-grown edible plants here: How to Fertilize Your Container Gardens
More Inspiration for Balcony Gardeners
Here’s a YouTube video where I answer a couple of questions from people without much gardening space. In it, I also pretend to be John Cougar Mellencamp:
Low light? See a functioning indoor fodder growing system here: How To Grow Food In Small Dark Places; Indoor Fodder System
And here’s Bill Mollison, co-founder of the permaculture movement, showing you how to do balcony gardening: (he starts talking about balconies at about 9:06)
One of these days I may write a book on balcony gardening and gardening in small spaces.
I’ve also considered deliberately creating a small, fenced in patio at my new house as a test small space garden. Say a 6′ x 10′ space I could use as a proving ground for some of my ideas. That way I could be more help to the many of you who are living in apartments, rental houses or urban locations. I could then plant as much as possible in that space and record yields just as I do on the rest of my homestead. I’ll bet you I could pull off at least 200lbs of food in that size space over a year — probably more.
Think trellises. Deep pots. Tight crops. High-dollar vegetables and roots.
I’ll think on this idea more. For now, balcony gardeners: don’t be upset with what you have. Embrace the challenge and let me know what you grow in 2016 — I’d love to see it.
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