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, to get supplies for a balcony garden. Do you have plants you choose as the top crops for your balcony garden?
I have found some crops take a lot of attention and the rewards are not worth the time or space. Others demand little attention once they’ve started growing, and reward you with an endless supply of fresh produce. These reliable vegetables are perfect choices for anyone with limited space – and wonderful choices for any gardener that has unlimited space.
For our balcony, we chose some ornamentals with vibrantly colored blossoms, both for color and to attract bees. Others are my absolute essentials – herbs and a few containers of favorite veggies that do well in containers.
My ten top crops for your balcony garden
My number one top choice is the scarlet runner bean. I’ve chosen it because this plant does double duty for you.
Once up and running (no pun intended), they sport gorgeous red, pink or white blossoms that are bee magnets and an almost endless crop of flat pods. They produce from midsummer right through to fall. And because they’re climbers, they’re a perfect plant for a trellis or privacy screen.
Plant scarlet runner beans in early summer, directly into the container. Use a grow bag, a large pot or a planter box. Position the container so that the plants have a nearby structure to climb.
As the vines reach the top of the support, pinch off the tops. This encourages them to branch out and form a denser 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 your balcony garden is the ubiquitous tomato. It is number one on a lot of lists.
No summer garden, no matter how small, is complete without tomatoes, in all shapes, colors, and sizes. There are three types of tomatoes, each best suited to its own growing method.
Bushy tomatoes grow only a foot or so high, and are suited to a small pot or box about a foot in diameter. They take up little space and don’t need support. Pinch out any side shoots. The fruits on bush tomatoes are often smaller, and generally, all ripen around the same time.
Tumbler 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 where they can trail over the edge.
The third type, vining tomatoes, grow tall and needs support. They also require a large pot or container or a double depth grow bag. Vining tomatoes will 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.)
Buy sturdy metal supports for your vining tomatoes and tie your plants as they grow. Pinch the suckers that grow in the joint between the main stem and the leaves. This directs the plant’s energy into fruit production. Once your plant has set six to eight clusters of fruit, pinch off the top just above a leaf. The fruits will ripen before cold weather sets in.
All tomatoes require moisture, so keep your plants well watered and once blossoms set, fertilize every two weeks.
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. Hot weather will likely cause it to bolt. Some varieties are even hardy enough to grow over winter if sown in mid-fall.
Either sun or partial shade works for arugula. The plants must 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.
Chard is one of the most productive crops for your balcony garden. Pick the outer leaves, and the plant will continue supplying new leaves for several months. In milder climates, it may keep going 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 them about 8 inches apart. Four or five plants in a large container will not only look pretty, but will give you a supply of greens.
Add some visual joy to your balcony by growing the rainbow varieties that have vivid stems of yellow, red, purple or pink.
When cooking chard 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, dense and full of flavor. Mini varieties are perfect for containers, picked when they’re around 5 inches long. I prefer to buy one or two 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 rich potting soil.
Once the plant has five leaves, pinch out the growing tip to encourage bushing out. As the plants grow, tie the shoots to a trellis for support.
Herbs are one of my must-have crops for the balcony – and here are five that I grow in containers every year. Some are hardy enough to survive for years, while others are replanted annually. These five top herbs are rosemary, thyme, basil, mint, 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.
It’s a Mediterranean native, so will not be hardy in zones lower than zone 8. 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.
Thyme is an attractive flowering shrub with small dark green leaves. Several varieties are available, my favorites being common thyme and delicately flavored 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 your plants sparingly.
Snip off sprigs when you want them 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.
Basil – you’ll need several plants – transforms tomatoes into a delicious salad, and makes a delicious pesto for pizzas and to add to vegetables. It’s a warm-weather plant – anything under 10˚C, and growth stops.
Sow 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 few – so experiment with them. Some are more robust than others, some more suited to indoor growing.
Mint – or should I say mints, since there are a vast number of varieties – is wonderful in drinks, as a tea, in potatoes or with lamb. You can’t go wrong with either spearmint or peppermint, each in its own pot, but try chocolate mint or orange mint for a bit of variety.
Since mint quickly takes over any place its planted, each should have its own large pot or container. Mint does best in a shady area and even does well in full shade. It likes to be kept moist.
Mint plants die down in fall. Before they do, I always snip several shoots and dry them for teas in winter. Next spring, they’ll spring up again.
Parsley can be sown inside, but it’s much easier to just buy two or three seedling plants, which you can transplant into a planter or pot for the balcony, using a rich potting soil. It will grow well in sun or shade.
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 choose the older outer leaves first.
Parsley is a biennial, and will likely go to seed in the second year. If you continue to pinch 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 – both have 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.
Hassle-free tips for your balcony garden
- First of all, go big – big containers. Choose lightweight ones of plastic, galvanized metal or even wood troughs. Since containers dry out more quickly than garden soil, consider planters with a built-in reservoir. Wind will also dry your plants, so keep a close watch on the 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.
- Cut down on watering and evaporation with mulch. Bark chips would be my top choice, but you could also use sheets of newspaper, plastic, dry grass clippings or pebbles.
- And finally, if you’re using hanging baskets or small containers, mix in a handful of water-retaining crystals. They absorb water, and then slowly release it into the soil.
Before you know it, you’ll have your own green Eden comprised of edible and beautiful crops for your balcony garden. You’ll be doing your part to save money, time and even the environment!