If you’re looking to transform your balcony into a lush garden—or even if you have a tiny patio space, Field Guide to Urban Gardening by Kevin Espiritu of Epic Gardening is a really helpful guide to figure out what you need with your space constraints and unique growing conditions. This excerpt from the book about growing a balcony garden was provided by Cool Springs Press/The Quarto Group.
By growing on your balcony, you’re beautifying a space that’s otherwise pretty drab. On top of that, you’re able to accomplish these things:
- Reduce noise pollution by growing living barricades
- Make it harder for pests to reach your garden
- Provide a bit of food for yourself and reduce your “food miles”
Planning your balcony garden
Your first major consideration when growing on a balcony is whether the balcony itself can support what you’re growing. Most balconies should be able to handle a few containers or beds, but it’s a good idea to test the sturdiness of your space before you start loading it up with plants.
You’d be surprised at how heavy a container can get once it’s full of soil, water, and a loaded tomato plant, especially if you have a bunch of them. Spread your pots around your balcony instead of clumping them in one area. Doing this will spread out the weight distribution and you won’t have any nasty balcony gardening mishaps.
Take stock of the growing conditions on your balcony
What direction does your balcony face? South-facing balconies are the best, but southeast- or southwest-facing will do. And if you’ve got a north-facing window, you can still grow plants. You’ll just need to adjust the types you grow to be shade-loving varieties.
Kevin recommends going out on the balcony in the morning, afternoon, and evening to see how the shadows fall on the space before setting up your garden. Oftentimes you’ll set up a balcony garden only to find that you placed your plants in an area that gets shaded by an obstruction for 80 percent of the day.
Take note of how shade plays over your balcony to help inform the best location to set up your garden.
Wind issues are the biggest problem with balcony gardens, far more so than for raised beds or containers on the ground. Your first option is to plant wind-tolerant plants, such as rosemary. A second option with more flexibility is to stake your plants well and use windscreens to help break some of the nastier gusts.
Similar to checking the shade on your balcony, walk out a few times during the day to see which way the wind is blowing as well as how strong the gusts are. If you get a lot of wind, make sure you use heavier-duty pots, such as terra-cotta.
Dealing with water drainage
Most balconies have drainage holes, or at the very least are sloped so water runs in a specific direction. Check this when you’re growing on a balcony; the last thing you want to do is annoy a downstairs neighbor by raining dirty water all over them every time you water the garden.
If you live in an area that gets a lot of rain, you can earn extra conservation points by installing a balcony rain barrel. This way you prevent massive amounts of runoff from being wasted and get to water your garden with fresh rainwater, which is always preferable to using city water.
Balcony garden design
Every balcony is unique, so the urban gardening masterpiece you decide to create should be tailored to your situation. That being said, there are some basic rules of thumb to follow to create a balcony garden that’s beautiful, functional, and, best of all—productive. Balconies have three distinct sections to consider, which are the floor, the railing, and everything else. Thinking in these three layers will help you make the absolute best use of the limited space you have.
What to do with the balcony floor
If you’re willing to sacrifice some foot room, the floor of your balcony is a great spot for larger containers full of plants that need a bit of space to grow. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and beans are all great plants to grow in containers on your balcony floor. Over time, they’ll fill out the space well.
Installing balcony railing planters
Your railings are the crème de la crème location in your balcony garden. They’re exposed to the most sun and don’t take up extra space as they hang off the balcony. For all their value, there is no more confusing piece of gardening gear than balcony railing planters. Because there are so many different types of railings, it’s often confusing exactly how to attach planters to railings. Given the amount of wind that balconies are subject to, the last thing you want to do is shoddily attach a railing planter only to see it tumbling down to the ground below.
If your railings are a standard size, you can often pick up planters that have a notched bottom of exactly that size. These are great options if you want to go with a plug-and-play option. All you’ll need to do is plop some soil in them, pot them up with plants, and start growing. If your balcony gets a fair amount of wind, these may not be the best choice, as they can blow off, especially when the soil gets dry and the planter gets lighter.
These types are the same as the sit on tops, but they don’t have a notched bottom. These are screwed directly into the railing, so they’re great for wood.
These are the most common type of railing planters, and they have a hook design to place around the railing. The planter then rests on its own weight, pressing into the side of the railing. They’re great options if you know that the design will fit your railing.
Because so many different railing designs exist, it’s hard to tell at first whether one of these will fit your balcony. Measure the width of your railing and comparing it to the size of the hook or attachment on the planter box.
Making balcony garden care easy
Balcony gardening is attractive because it’s such an easy method to get started with, but the following are a few tips that make it an absolute breeze.
Plant seedlings, not seeds
It’s easier to get your garden off to a good start if you buy seedlings from a local nursery and simply transplant them into your balcony garden. Starting seeds is certainly a fun option to try if you want to flex your gardening muscles. But if you’re a first-time gardener looking to get growing fast, buy seedlings from a local nursery.
Bigger containers = better
The biggest downfall of growing in containers on a balcony is just that… you’re growing in containers. They dry out quickly, especially if you’re using terra-cotta pots. To counteract this and give your plants the even moisture that they need, select the largest pots you can. The increased volume will allow the soil to hold more water and evaporate much more slowly.
Use self-watering containers
One step above choosing larger containers is choosing larger containers that are self-watering. These containers wick water from a chamber at the bottom of the pot to give your plants’ roots a consistent supply. You can find large self-watering containers at most nurseries or big-box stores, or you can build your own using the plans in Kevin’s book. The extra cost is well worth the time you’ll save watering your plants.
Easy crops for a balcony garden
The only true requirement for a balcony garden is that you don’t grow anything that will absolutely take over the space. Sprawling squash plants, for example, wouldn’t be the best choice. That being said, even squash is possible. However, there are some plants that are better suited for beautifying a balcony, as listed below.
Herbs: Basil, sage, thyme, oregano, and so on
Leafy greens: Loose leaf lettuce, spinach, kale, and so on
Garlic: ‘Artichoke’, ‘Silverskin’
Tomato: ‘Patio Princess’, ’Balcony’
Lettuce: ‘Green Oak Leaf’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’
Eggplant: ‘Fairy Tale’, ‘Bambino’
Swiss chard: ‘Rhubard’, ‘Rainbow’
Beans: ‘Blue Lake’ (pole), ‘Purple Queen’ (bush)
Cucumber: ‘Spacemaster 80’
Strawberry: ‘Ozark Beauty’, ‘Seascape’
More small-space gardening tips
For more on urban gardening techniques for balconies, rooftops, and other small urban spaces, grab a copy of Field Guide to Urban Gardening.
Some further reading:
- Fertilizers for container gardening
- Growing strawberries in pots and baskets
- Container gardening tip list
- Crops in pots: Five tips to get you started
- The seven best herbs for container gardening
All images by Shutterstock