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If you live in an apartment building, there’s a good chance you don’t have a yard. If you don’t have a yard, there’s an even better chance you can’t plant a garden, but there’s a solution for anyone without a yard that’s as old as houseplants: balcony gardening.
Most apartments and condos have a balcony of varying sizes. That’s actually a great environment for plants, and all you need to do is contain them, feed them, and keep them watered. Their exposure on the balcony gets them plenty of sunlight and even a northern exposure will get them enough light to grow and thrive. Of course, this assumes you’re growing them in spring, summer, and fall, but we’ll cover some winter solutions as well.
We’re Talking Vegetables Here
The word “survival” is a clear clue that balcony gardening is about growing edible plants. The most common edible plants are vegetables, but herbs are another possibility and so are fruits. A primary consideration is the size of the plants relative to the container.
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It’s easy to assume that any vegetable can grow in a container, but large, vining plants like zucchini, pumpkins, watermelon, and others are not always the best choices. Anyone who’s ever watched one zucchini plant take over a garden would think twice about letting one loose on their balcony.
You also need to think twice about large, low-yield vegetables like cabbage or cauliflower. One cauliflower or cabbage plant can take up an entire container and a good part of the growing season, offering a yield for one or two meals. Unless you really crave cauliflower, stick to the higher yielding vegetables.
You might also think about dwarf varieties. Cherry tomatoes offer a very good yield, and most varieties grow on shorter and more compact vines. You should also take a look at the seed packets or check the internet for the average height and size of vegetable varieties so you don’t grow a monster on the porch. Consider fast growing vegetables as well.
Here’s a short list of vegetables that can be grown on a balcony and offer good yields. They can even be succession planted to get more than one harvest.
- Bush beans
- Pole beans
There are others, but check their size at maturity to make sure your balcony can handle them.
Average Height of Common Garden Vegetables
|Vegetable||Size at Maturity||Vegetable||Size at Maturity|
|Artichoke||4′ – 5′||Kohlrabi||9″-12″|
|Asparagus||4′ – 6′||Lettuce||6″-12″|
|Beans, bush||24″-30″||Okra||2′ – 8′|
|Beans, Lima||24″ – 36″||Onions||8″ – 24″|
|Beans, pole||8′ – 12′||Parsnips||6″-18″|
|Beets||4″ – 12″||Peas||2′ – 6′|
|Broccoli||18″- 24″||Peppers, hot||12″ – 48″|
|Brussels sprouts||24″ – 36″||Peppers, bell||24″ – 36″|
|Cabbage||12″ – 18″||Potatoes||12″ – 30″|
|Carrots||6″ – 15″||Pumpkin||12″ – 24″|
|Cauliflower||12″ – 30″||Radishes||2″ – 6″|
|Celery||18″ – 24″||Rhubarb||12″ – 36″|
|Chard||12″ – 30″||Rutabaga||12″ – 18″|
|Chinese cabbage||12″ – 24″||Spinach||6″ – 15″|
|Corn||4′ – 8′||Squash||12″ – 24″|
|Cucumber||1′ – 5′||Squash, winter||12″ – 24″|
|Eggplant||1′ – 3′||Sweet potato||12″ – 30″|
|Endive||6″ – 9″||Tomatoes||2′ – 8′|
|Garlic||12″ – 24″||Turnips||6″ – 12″|
|Kale||12″ – 24″||Watermelon||12″ – 36″|
Fruits are another consideration, but the mature size of any fruit plant is the final determinant factor. As far as herbs are concerned, any herb will effectively grow on a balcony in any type of container or growing approach.
Why Start a Balcony Garden?
A balcony vegetable garden could be as simple as a personal choice. It’s fun and satisfying to grow and eat your own vegetables. But there are other considerations.
Prices continue to climb at grocery stores and even a modest balcony garden can help to take the edge off higher food prices. Growing your own also gives you the opportunity to grow organically or at least give you the confidence that you know exactly how something was grown and cultivated.
It’s also a pure survival tactic in the event that a disaster limits or prevents you from getting to a grocery store, at least in the short-term.
3 Approaches to Balcony Gardening
The obvious way to garden on a balcony is in flower pots of varying sizes, but sometimes you have to think outside the pot. Here are 3 approaches we’ll cover:
- Pots and containers
- Terraced trays
1. Pots and Containers
This is the easiest and most obvious approach to balcony gardening. The pots or containers can be of any size, but a lot has to do with the size of the plant. Flower pots are a simple option, but buckets also work especially 5-gallon plastic buckets. In an extreme emergency, anything that will hold soil will do like a small waste basket, a water bucket, or even empty coffee cans.
If any pot or bucket has drainage holes in the bottom (and they should), make sure you have a tray or some other way to catch any excess water that might run out. Dripping dirty water onto your neighbor’s balcony below you is not a good idea.
A loamy soil is best for potted plants, but any dirt will do in a pinch. You can also buy various soils in a bag including potting soil, mushroom mulch, or even black dirt. You want a nutrient-dense soil medium given the relatively small size of the pot or bucket.
You could also think about having a dedicated bucket for composting kitchen scraps, but composting takes time and gives off odors, so you might want to take a pass on balcony composting. Simply incorporating kitchen scraps into your potted plants can help.
You can place your containers on the balcony floor or even suspend some of them as hanging plants if you have a way to attach a hook for the hanger. Be creative and do what you can to make the best use of the space, and don’t forget to leave yourself some room to maneuver so you can water, feed, and harvest the plants.
Hydroponics is all about growing plants in a nutrient-enriched water. That’s it. No soil required. The nutrients are usually from a dissolved, chemical fertilizer like Miracle-Gro or other types of fertilizer that either dissolve in water or are slow release.
PVC pipe is the usual choice to contain the plants, and the pipe diameters are usually 3 to 6-inches with a 1-inch hole cut in the pipe to allow the plants to grow, although sizes vary depending on the type and size of plants. The length of the PVC can be cut to any size, and plastic caps are glued to both ends to contain the water.
A highly porous medium is sometimes used to contain the seeds and roots until the plant is established. It’s also used to start the plants.
Eventually the roots alone can grow freely in the enriched water as the plant matures. Some plants need to be supported as they mature. Very long and leggy plants with large vines like tomatoes can be grown hydroponically, but they’ll need significant support as they mature.
The hydroponic pipes are supported a variety of ways, but many configurations use an angled-ladder approach to create receding rows of pipe to accommodate and grow multiple layers of plants.
PVC pipe is used for the entire construction to not only grow the plants but support the laddered angle of tiers.
Regular watering with nutrient-fortified water is done as the plants need it. One of the benefits of a hydroponic approach is minimal mess from dirty water drainage and soil spillage while harvesting. This makes it a clean option for moving indoors by a window in winter or if the balcony is already crowded with plants.
3. Terraced Trays
Many garden and home centers sell long, deep trays for planting. These are often used as window box inserts, and you don’t need a window box to grow plants in them.
The average length is 3 feet, and most are about 6 to 8-inches deep and equally as wide.
A simple terrace can be made from some scrap wood ascending in a stair step fashion to hold the trays. You could also use bricks, cinder blocks, or inverted coffee cans to terrace the trays. The size and height of the terraces depends on the size of your trays and your balcony. The soil beds created in the trays give you the effect of rows in a small garden.
This is great for root vegetables like carrots, onions, and beets or group planting of bush beans, greens like lettuce and spinach, or any other plant that does not grow large and long, requiring support. Those types of plants are better suited to a large pot or bucket with stakes inserted into the bucket or pot to support the plant.
Trays also make a great option for herbs with one or two trays dedicated to grouped clusters of herbs. Because many herbs are perennial or continue to grow beyond a standard season, you can easily bring the herb tray indoors in the winter.
Consider All of the Above
There’s no reason why you have to stick to one approach for balcony gardening. You could grow tomatoes and peppers in a large pot or 5-gallon bucket, have some terraced trays for root vegetables and herbs, and add a few pipes of PVC to grow greens. And while you’re at it, hang some baskets with dwarf cherry tomatoes or pole beans that grow up the support ropes on the hanging basket.
A lot of how you use your balcony has to do with your own personal feeling about your balcony’s appearance. Combining all of these growing alternatives could make it appear to be a bit cluttered if not unsightly. Then again, if you’re trying to use this portable garden as a serious way to supplement your food supply, does it really matter? If they neighbors complain, share a little of the bounty with them.
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