I live in a very urban area (2 miles from downtown Chicago) but I love having a balcony, so I can both enjoy being outside, but also start a balcony garden every spring. I’ve been tending a little urban garden out there for the past four summers. I still have my failures, but I’ve learned a thing or two about how to start a balcony garden each summer.
Which Plants Work Best on a Balcony Garden
Herbs are easy to grow, easy to find, and easy to use. They are a great way to start if you have no gardening experience. Especially mint – it grows like a weed and can be brought back from near-death. You can find starter plants at your grocery store, hardware store, garden store, or get them from your friends/family. I like to stick to herbs I’ll use, so I usually end up growing some variation of basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, dill, mint, parsley, but I’ve also tried sage, lavender, and cilantro.
You can also grow vegetables. I’ve had luck growing various kinds of peppers (bell peppers, banana peppers, poblanos), tomatoes (cherry and bigger varieties), green onion, and arugula. (All from starter plants, except for the arugula was grown from seed.) You don’t even have to buy green onion from the gardening section – if you’re cooking with it, take the ends/bottoms and stick them root-down in dirt and they will regrow. (You can also stick them in water but that smells really oniony and the water gets pretty gross.) I also have a pineapple plant that started from the top of a fruit I bought at the grocery store. After eating it, I stuck the top (with the leaves) in a pot of dirt and it started rooting and growing. It probably won’t produce a fruit for a year or two … if I’m lucky.
I have not had luck growing squash on my balcony – it needs more space and a soft ground. I also haven’t had luck with spinach, but I think I planted the seeds too close together.
When to take it Outside
I can be impatient once spring rolls around, and am always eager to get my balcony garden started. But, you don’t want to start too soon and risk your plants getting zapped with frost. Also, different plants should be transplanted outdoors at different times. If you want to get a headstart and have the space for it (a window or door near sunlight), you can start your plants indoors. Otherwise, check this guide to pinpoint when you can move outdoors for your area. In Chicago, I’m cautious and generally wait until mid-to-late May.
How to Re-pot Plants
If you buy starter plants, transplant them into bigger pots with rich potting soil. I buy Miracle Grow potting soil from the local hardware store, and I also buy most of my pots there, as well as rail-hanging planter boxes that I put the pots in to keep things more organized. I use a mix of plastic and clay pots. You want to make sure the pot has a hole in the bottom to drain excess water (I have poked my own holes in plastic pots that did not have drains). In the past, I would try to cram in as many plants as possible and would do two plants per (big) pot with mixed results. Now I do one plant per pot, and plants that will grow pretty big (like tomatoes) get the biggest pot. (And also a “tomato cage.”)
Re-potting plants is literally pretty dirty. You need a trowel (small shovel), in addition to extra potting soil and larger pots. I do my re-potting out on the balcony. You’re likely going to get dirt everywhere, so wear old clothing, take off your rings, etc. Scoop some potting soil into the pot, pop your starter plant out of the pot it’s in (or, if the plant came in a pot that will decompose, don’t pop it out), stick the starter plant (and the soil it came in) in the pot, and then fill in with more potting soil, to the top or near the top of the pot. Water. Add more potting soil if necessary. Leave in the sunniest spot you have. Re-pot again into a bigger pot later in the season if the plant looks like it needs more room to grow.
How to Start Plants from Seed
There are two ways you can do this – start plants indoors, before the spring, or wait until it’s warm and do it outside. To start indoors, use potting soil, seeds, and small containers. Egg cartons are popular, but you can also use a seedling tray. Either way, label each one! Place in a sunny spot. Water regularly. When it’s warm enough, move them outside. When they start to sprout little seedlings, repot.
For arugula, I wait until it’s warm enough to plant outdoors. I use long planter boxes (make sure they have a hole or drain), fill with potting soil, sprinkle the seeds on top in an even layer, and then add a thin layer of soil on top of that. Water it. Arugula grows fast (see above), so I have two boxes, and I set up one and then set up the second a few days later. That way, by the time I get through the first one, the second one is ready to go while the first one regrows. And repeat.
The hardest thing about a garden is that you start it in May, and you might not be able to really enjoy it until July or August. You can usually start enjoying leafy greens, like arugula and pretty much any herb, earlier in the season, and the more you enjoy them (cut off clippings to eat), the more it will regrow. But things like tomatoes, peppers, etc, will likely produce a finite amount of produce later in the season. (Maybe you can propagate the plant so it produces more, I haven’t tried that.)
Balcony gardens can dry out fast, so water your plants a lot. My balcony faces south with no cover, so my plants get tons of sunshine for 12+ hours per day in the peak of summer. I typically give them a generous watering before work and again when I get home, and that seems to be enough. However, if you have a thirsty plant in a small pot, it might need more watering than that (consider moving it to a bigger plant with more soil so you can give it more water at once). You’ll also notice that early in the season when the plants are smaller, they need less water. Once the plants get full size, they need lots of water. Just like people.
What to do with all these Herbs
Obviously, use them in recipes as much as possible. Sauces, marinades, homemade salad dressing, toss them in salads (even mint! very refreshing!), mix them in with veggies and meats, throw a few sprigs into a bottle of olive oil. Despite doing all of the above, I still grow more herbs than I’ll seem to use in one season. So, once an herb plant gets big and bushy, like in the photo above, I’ll give it a nice trimming, and hang up all the clippings indoors to dry out. (Secure the ends with rubber bands or binder clips and hang wherever you have a spot – cabinet handles, wire racks.) Once they are completely dry, I’ll crumble the leaves into old spice containers (with labels). Voilà. Who needs store-bought spices? (At least, when it comes to the stuff I grow.) If you find yourself with tons and tons of spices, consider turning them into gifts.
Another idea is to swap with your friends! Which works best if you are growing different herbs. You can also just bring your excess (fresh) herbs to the office and I generally find that they go pretty quickly, especially for people who don’t have balconies or yards or gardens of their own.
What do you like to grow in your garden?