If you stand on your forlorn, bland-colored concrete balcony and pine,
“O, greenery, greenery! Wherefore art thou, greenery?”
We’ve got the solution for your green-hued longings.
If you think balcony gardens are limited to petunias and geraniums, think again. Growing veggies and other edibles on a tiny balcony (or any small space) is all the rage these days. We’ll show you how — in 5 steps — to set up a balcony garden that provides victuals and variety for your table this growing season.
Step 1: Check rules and regulations
If you live in an apartment building or condominium, you’ll need to check the regulations for building on your balcony. These rules are in place for safety, liability, and aesthetic reasons. Your apartment building or condo owner may have weight restrictions or rules regarding what can be attached to the railings, and so forth.
Vertical gardening with a trellis, living wall, hanging pots, etc., is popular on balcony gardens, so ask whether these things are allowed before you start to build.
Step 2: Consider climate and care
But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
If you’re interested in creating a balcony garden, sun is your No. 1 concern. Gardeners pine for the sun more than a lovesick Montague for his Juliet.
Before you start your balcony garden, know which direction your balcony faces to know the amount of sunlight your balcony receives each day.
South: If you live in the northern hemisphere, it is ideal to have a south-facing balcony because these balconies receive the most sun exposure throughout the day.
West: Western-facing balconies receive direct sun in the afternoon, which makes it the second-best choice.
East: Eastern-facing balconies receive early-morning sunlight.
North: Northern-facing balconies receive the least amount of sun.
Northern-facing balconies will not support sun-loving summer annuals. Eastern-facing balconies also present some challenges. A sunny balcony with a southern- or western-facing exposure is ideal for sun-loving container vegetable gardens.
Unfortunately, if you have a north- or east-facing balcony, your balcony may be too shady for annual vegetables. Most summer annuals need full sun: six hours of sunlight minimum, and for some species, eight hours is a must. If you don’t have this much sun, plant shade-loving or partial-sun potted plants instead.
It’s a good idea to track the sun for a day. Take photos or sketch the pattern so you’ll know where the sun hits your balcony throughout the day.
The higher you are in an apartment building, the more wind will be an issue. There are a few options to help mitigate this problem.
- Add a windscreen. Windscreens come in many types and materials. Choose one that fits your balcony and building regulations.
- Build a trellis. Small trellises are necessary for vining crops like cucumbers and can also add privacy and function as a windbreak on your balcony.
- Install plants as windbreaks. Sturdy potted plants like shrubs or bushes will help diffuse some of the wind and create a more sheltered environment for other plants.
- Move the plants to a different area on the balcony. If you live very high in an apartment building, the winds may be too strong along the railing of your balcony. If so, set your plants back toward the wall or in an area that isn’t exposed to the harsh winds.
- Work with an architect. If your building will allow you to do so, consider calling an architect to see if there are other solutions (glass walls, partial walls, etc.) to reduce the wind on your balcony.
Air circulation is a good thing for plants, but keep in mind that heavy winds also will dry out your plants more quickly, increasing a plant’s watering requirements. If your balcony is just too windy, you may need to focus on growing houseplants instead.
Container plants dry out much more quickly than plants placed in the ground. If you don’t want to hand-water each day (during the hottest months), you’ll need to invest a little more upfront to ensure your plants stay moist. Here are three popular options for watering your balcony garden plants.
Self-watering pots are popular for homeowners who want beautiful container plants without constant watering. There are different styles and types, but the basic design is similar.
Self-watering pots hold the water in the bottom reservoir and have a wicking system to draw the water up as the plant needs it. The self-watering system includes an overflow drain along the bottom or on the side in case you fill it too full. There is also a plug on the bottom that you can use to drain the water out in the off-season.
To fill a self-watering pot, use your hose to fill the reservoir with water. The plant will then use the water to keep itself moist until the reservoir goes dry. Watering doesn’t get much more low-maintenance than that! Most self-watering pots are used on the ground, but there are hanging basket models, as well.
Self-watering pots can be expensive, but there are many DIY plans on the internet that teach you how to make these inexpensively if you’re on a budget. (An inverted plastic bottle with a few pinholes in the lid is one example.)
While self-watering pots are usually used for ornamental plants, there is no reason you can’t use them for fruits and veggies as well. If you travel often, especially during the warmer months, you’ll need to consider a self-watering pot or drip irrigation system unless you have a friend to water your plants while you’re gone.
Drip irrigation delivers small amounts of water to your plants via a drip line and individual drip emitters or micro sprayers. Not only does drip irrigation save water, it saves time and is essential if you want your plants to self-water (also great while you’re on vacation).
It’s doable as a DIY project and is most convenient if you already have a faucet outside on your balcony. Don’t forget to add a timer to your hose outlet to take watering off your daily chore list.
If you don’t have access to a faucet, use a gravity-fed or pump system. Gravity-fed systems use tubes and emitters that go from a water reservoir that is higher in elevation than your plants. Attach a filter to keep debris from clogging the line or emitters.
If you think a pump would be more efficient, first determine where you’ll get your water. Some apartment dwellers may (with the building’s permission) run a diverter from the gutter on the side of their building to a rain barrel on their balcony. If you’re able to do this, you can install a pump to get the water from the rain barrel to your irrigation system.
Tech-savvy homeowners have even figured out a way to turn a rain barrel pump on and off with an Alexa or Echo devices. This makes watering your balcony garden as easy as saying, “Alexa, turn on my water pump.”
If you prefer a low-tech, nearly free approach (minus the water and the watering can), hand-watering is the way to go. If you enjoy watering plants every day during the hot months, this is the easiest and cheapest way to go.
Plan to have a friend stop by while you’re on vacation to keep everything well watered.
Step 3: Make a plan
Now that you know the building rules and have considered the sun and wind exposure, pot, and water options, get out your pencil and paper. Draw a rough sketch of the space and where you plan to place your pots. Small raised garden beds are also popular on balconies. You won’t have to kneel or bend to reach your plants, saving your back and your knees from extra work.
Some balcony gardeners even make room for a small greenhouse. If you want to start your plants from seed, a greenhouse is a must, so add that into your sketch.
Step 4: Start planting
Type: As you grow your balcony garden, you’ll probably have different types, shapes, and sizes of pots. If you’re starting out, try one or two larger planter boxes and a few individual pots that comprise a small herb garden, for example.
Most planter boxes will require some assembly, so check to see which tools you’ll need before you buy. There are even self-watering planter boxes if you don’t want to worry about daily watering.
Color: Another consideration is color. If your pots will get full, blazing sun, a dark-colored pot could absorb too much heat and kill your plant. Know how much sun your balcony receives and select pots accordingly.
Porosity: Remember that plastic, glazed, and metal containers (nonporous) require less water than terra cotta (porous). For this reason, most experts recommend saving terra cotta for growing cacti or other plants that thrive in dry climates.
One alternative is to double pot. If you have a decorative terra cotta pot you’d like to use, fill the decorative pot with mulch or styrofoam. Then, place the plant (leaving it inside its container) inside this decorative pot. This will help reduce moisture loss.
Depth: Use this handy chart (scroll down a little) from North Carolina State to see how deep your pots need to be. Small crops like radishes require as little as 4-6 inches, but larger crops like tomatoes require up to 2 feet.
Drainage: Ensure your pots have holes on the bottom or along the sides so that water has a place to drain. Use saucer trays if necessary so your downstairs neighbor doesn’t get a rainstorm as you water.
- Don’t place gravel at the bottom of your pots. According to NC State, water will collect along the top of the gravel until the air in the pot is used up, at which point it will finally drain.
Pro Tip: Use heavier pots (and soils) if your balcony gets a lot of wind.
Fill your pots
Buy a few bags of your favorite potting soil as your growing medium. If it doesn’t have fertilizer added already, buy a complete slow-release fertilizer to add to the potting soil. Group high-water-use plants in one container and low-water-use plants in another container.
High-water-use plants like tomatoes may need additional vermiculite and compost, which help hold water.
Low-water-use plants or plants that are susceptible to root rot (herbs and cacti) need more perlite, which helps create better airflow throughout the medium.
Mulch is another must if you want to reduce water evaporation.
Companion planting and beneficial insects
You may have heard of companion planting. This practice, more often referred to as intercropping or polyculture, can have a beneficial effect on your gardening efforts. The basic idea is that by combining certain plants, you can reduce insects and/or disease, reduce weeds, and end up with a more successful crop in your garden.
According to the University of Tennessee Extension Service, many companion planting charts you’ll see online are not based on current research. (Avoid charts that are not from an “.edu” site or charts that say, “This plant likes this plant,” or “This plant dislikes this plant.”) Here are some combinations that have been scientifically tested to be reliable:
- Tomatoes and basil
- Corn, squash, and beans (Native American practice called the “Three Sisters”)
- Potatoes and beans/peas
- Onions and carrots
In general, focus on planting a polyculture (poly means many) in your balcony garden (and even within the same container). Having different species close together can confuse insects that are searching for a particular plant on which to lay eggs or to eat.
Beneficial insects: As you purchase veggie seeds, purchase flower seeds as well. You don’t have to plant the flowers in with the veggies, but plant them in pots all around the balcony to invite pollinators and beneficial insects to your small garden.
Install your plants
Dampen the soil slightly before you install your plants or plant seeds. Install your plants. Water again. Refrain from pressing down the soil after you install your plants. This will cause compaction. Use a stake if the plant needs support.
For more information, check out this excellent and very thorough bulletin from North Carolina State about how to grow plants in containers.
Step 5: Maintain your balcony garden
In addition to watering, fertilization, and pest control there are two other major tasks that you’ll have to do throughout the growing season. Follow the directions on your fertilizer, and follow the schedule faithfully. (Set a phone reminder now so you don’t forget.)
If you plant a polyculture and lots of flowers, you’re already doing your part to prevent pests (or at least attract good pests that will eat the bad ones.) If you still end up with a pest problem, use a food-safe or organic pest control product once you notice a problem.
Ask your local Cooperative Extension agent for tips on other ways to prevent common pests before they attack.
FAQ about creating a balcony garden
1. How often do you water your plants?
When you stick your finger about 2 inches into the soil (or to your second knuckle), if the soil is dry, it’s time to water.
2. What type of pots should I select?
Here are a few different potting options and the pros and cons of each:
|Terra cotta pots||Aesthetically pleasing. |
Good for succulents
and desert plants
|Dries out quickly. |
|Plastic pots||Less expensive|
Doesn’t dry out quickly
|Raised bed||Lots of space in a single planting area||Can be heavy, depending on the material|
3. Are there other gardening tips for creating a balcony garden?
Get creative! Limited space, whether living space or gardening space, always yields creative solutions.
- Mix food crops in with your ornamental potted plants: If you already have large pots filled with colorful ornamentals or greenery, choose a food crop with similar sun needs to include in the pot. Lettuce and herbs are often planted in the same pot as an ornamental to add texture, beauty, and function to that arrangement.
- Use railing planters or window boxes: Per your apartment manager’s approval, planters that hang over the balcony railing (or under a window) may be an option. These shallow planters are good for small bunches of herbs and lettuces. Even though they’re small in size, you can use drip irrigation for these planters as well so you don’t have to worry that you’ll forget to water them.
- Plant edible flowers: Flowers are a container gardening staple, so why not plant edibles and use them in the kitchen as well. It’s one way you can get double the value out of those plants.
If your balcony happens to overhang a lawn instead of a city street, you may have more work than you can handle. Contact one of our local lawn care pros for a 2-minute quote on lawn mowing services. Your balcony view will be more like fair Verona in a flash.
Main Photo Credit: W.carte | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0