The Balcony Garden
Recently we moved to a condo, and boy, do I miss my extensive gardens. One of the first things we did was head on over to the nearest garden center, and get supplies for a balcony garden. Some of my new plants are ornamentals, with vibrantly colored blossoms. Others are my absolute essentials – herbs and a few containers of favorite veggies that do well in containers.
I think you’ll agree with me when I say that some garden crops take a lot of attention or use up a lot of space, and the rewards are meagre. Others demand little attention once they’re up and running, and reward your inattention with an endless supply of delicious eating. These stalwart vegetables are perfect choices for anyone growing their produce in a small space such as an edible balcony garden – and wonderful choices for any gardener that has unlimited space.
My Top 10 Choices for an Edible Balcony Garden
1. Scarlet Runner Beans
My number one top choice for an edible balcony garden is the scarlet runner bean. I’ve chosen it because this plant does double duty for you – or maybe even triple.
Once up and blooming, this bean sports gorgeous red, pink or white blossoms that are bee magnets. A seemingly endless crop of long flat pods are produced from mid summer right through to fall. And because they’re climbers, they’re a perfect plant for a trellis or privacy screen, placed at one end of the balcony. Last year, I had exactly seven bean plants in one large pot, and we enjoyed an unending supply of delicious fresh beans all summer long.
Plant scarlet runner beans in early summer, directly into the container or box. It could be a grow bag, a large pot or a planter box. Position them so that they grow up a nearby structure. As they reach the top of the support, just pinch off the tops and they will be encouraged to branch out and form a visual barrier. They do best in full sun, but will still produce in partial shade. Just keep picking, and they will keep producing.
Next on the list of top crops for the balcony garden is the ubiquitous tomato. This one would be number one on a lot of lists, and if it created a privacy screen (like #1), it would make #1 on my list as well. No edible garden, no matter how small, is complete without tomatoes. They come in all shapes, colors and sizes. There are two types of tomatoes, each best suited to its own growing method.
Bushy or determinate tomatoes grow only a foot or so high, and are suited to a smaller pot or box, about a foot in diameter. These take up little space. No supports are needed, and no pinching out side shoots is necessary. They’re often smaller tomatoes, and will all ripen around the same time.
Tumbling tomatoes are best in hanging baskets, since they tend to trail over the edge of their container rather than growing upright like the bushy ones. These are, again, mini tomatoes, and can be very prolific. Not all balconies have a place to hang plants, but these will also do quite well in a window box or balcony rail box as long as they are kept moist.
Vining or indeterminate tomatoes grow tall and need support. They also require a large pot or container, or a double depth grow bag. Vining tomatoes will flower, form fruit and ripen in stages over the season, so you get a continuous harvest from a relatively small space. Last year, I picked over 35 luscious yellow tomatoes from one plant that produced from mid July to early October.
Vining tomatoes need sturdy metal cages for support and to prevent them from sprawling. Pinch off any suckers that grow in the joint between the main stem and the leaves. This directs the plant’s energy into fruit production. Pinch off the top just above a leaf once your plant has set six to eight clusters of fruit.
This zesty green can be part of your diet all year, grown in a container on your balcony. Sow the seeds thinly – directly into the container – and sprinkle a thin layer of potting soil over them.
The best time to grow arugula is mid spring to mid summer, and then again in early fall. Some varieties are even hardy enough to grow over winter, and should be sown in mid fall.
A location in either sun or partial shade works for arugula. The plants need to be kept well watered or they’ll bolt to seed. Snip arugula just above the smallest new leaves, and it will resprout at least a couple of times before it needs to be reseeded.
Arguably any type of leafy lettuce or salad greens could hold this third place, but I like the tangy taste of arugula.
Chard is one of the most productive crops for any edible balcony garden. Pick the outer leaves, and the plant will continue supplying new leaves for several months. In milder climates, it will keep producing all winter.
Sow the seeds in small pots inside in mid spring, and transplant them to a sunny spot in a pot or window box in late spring, spacing the plants about 8 inches apart. Grow some of the rainbow varieties with vivid stems of yellow, red, purple or pink, and you’ll also add some visual zing to your balcony.
I like to separate the stems from the leaves, and steam the leaves with a bit of butter or olive oil and a crushed clove of garlic. They are also a tasty addition to a frittata when chopped into smaller pieces. The stems need longer cooking. They can be chopped and added to stir fries or risottos, adding a splash of color and texture.
Homegrown cukes are well worth the effort, and believe it or not, you can grow them in your balcony garden. Mini varieties are perfect for containers, picked when they’re around 5 inches long. There are also globe varieties that perform well and produce prolifically when planted in containers.
I prefer to buy one or two small plants from a nursery, but you can start your own.
Sow seeds in small pots in mid spring, inside, and transplant them once warm weather arrives and all risk of frost is past. Use a container at least a foot in diameter, with a rich potting soil. Once the plant has five leaves, pinch out the growing tip to encourage bushing out.
As the plants grow, you many need to tie the shoots to a trellis for support.
6. Chili Peppers
Chili peppers are perfect for spicing up small spaces like balconies. These productive and pretty plants need a sunny and warm place to grow.
But as long as you can provide that, they will happily thrive. You can grow them from seeds or buy nursery plants. Keep in mind one or two plants will give you plenty of peppers.
Once the nights have warmed, set your pepper plants outside, and keep them watered. Once fruit starts to set, give the plants a dose of fertilizer. They will produce peppers all season, and the fruits can be used fresh or dried.
7- 10: Herbs
Herbs are one of my favorite crops for the balcony – and for my kitchen. These five are essentials that I grow in containers every year. Some are hardy enough to survive for years, while others must be replanted annually. My four top culinary herbs are rosemary, thyme, basil, and parsley.
Rosemary is a woody shrub with dark green needles and white or blue flowers that are bee magnets.
It’s an attractive plant, as well as a useful one, providing color and interest on the balcony in a container. It’s a Mediterranean native, so will not be hardy in zones lower that zone 7 if left out all year. However, when grown in a container and moved inside in cold months, a rosemary plant can survive and produce aromatic and flavorful leaves for many years. Clip off a twig or two and use it with roasted beef chicken, or toss it with vegetables and olive oil to flavor roasted or grilled vegetables.
Thymeis an attractive flowering shrub with small dark green leaves. Several varieties are available, my favorites for the edible balcony garden being common thyme and delicately flavoured lemon thyme.
Buy young plants in spring and transplant them into pots, containers, hanging baskets or window boxes. Use a mix of potting soil and sand, and water the plants sparingly. Here on the west coast, mine survive the winter, although active growth slows for the winter months.
Snip off sprigs to flavor soups, marinades or salad dressings. Once the plants flower, trim the shoots back so they don’t get leggy. If you have more than you can use, dry some of the branches by hanging them in a dark warm place. Strip off the dried leaves, and store them in an airtight jar.
This popular herb transforms tomatoes into a delicious salad, and makes an aromatic pesto for pizzas and steamed vegetables. It’s a warm weather plant – anything under 10˚C, and growth stops. You’ll need several plants so you don’t weaken the plants as you pluck off leaves to use.
Sow basil seeds indoors – six seeds per 4-inch pot, and put the pots in a sunny spot. Thin to the three strongest plants, and when fear of frost is over, transplant them into larger pots or a window box. When the plants are about 2 inches tall, pinch out the growing tips to encourage branching. You can also buy plants each spring, and put them right outside once it is warm enough.
There are many varieties of basil – Genovese, Thai, purple, African are a some varieties – so experiment with different ones. Some are more robust than others, some more suited to indoor growing.
Parsley can be sown directly into the soil, but it’s much easier to buy two or three seedling plants to transplant into a deep planter or pot. Use a rich potting soil. They will grow well in sun or partial shade in your balcony garden.
Parsley is a hardy plant, and the leaves can be harvested all year – even over the winter in a milder climate. The leaves grow in a rosette fashion, so use the older outer leaves first. As a biennial, it will likely go to seed in the second year. If you continue to pinch off the flower stalks, the plants will continue to grow a good crop of leaves for two or three years.
Two varieties – common curly and flat-leafed Italian. Each has a distinctive flavor, with the Italian having a stronger flavor. It is better suited to cooked dishes, while the curly parsley is a good addition to salads or just as a tasty garnish.
Tips for a Hassle-Free Balcony Garden
Going hassle-free with the edible plants for your balcony garden is easy.
- First of all, go big – big containers. It’s easy to underestimate the size of the full grown plants. Lightweight pots of plastic, galvanized metal, resin or even wood are more easily moved.
- Since containers dry out more quickly than garden soil, consider buying planters with a built in water reservoir. Wind will also dry out the soil and the plants, so keep a close watch on soil moisture.
- If you’re lucky enough to have a faucet on your balcony, set up a simple automatic watering system with a timer set to come on twice a day for a few minutes. It will save you hours over the year.
- Cut down on watering and evaporation by adding mulch around larger plants. Bark chips would be my top choice, but you could also use sheets of newspaper, plastic, dry grass clippings or pebbles. Keep mulch at least an inch away from the stems.
- And finally, if you’re using hanging baskets or small containers, mix a handful of water-retaining crystals into the soil. They absorb water and slowly release it into the soil so plants stay hydrated longer..
Before you know it, you’ll have your own green Eden comprised of beautiful crops for your edible balcony garden. You’ll be saving money, time and even the environment!