Gardening · General

Balcony/patio gardening

This post is mainly a follow up to a question I was asked by a friend living in Bosnia. (She knows who she is!) B-)

Not all of us have gardens in this increasingly urbanised world. In inner cities the general rule is to build UP rather than out, and this can sometimes bring about problems for those of us with a wish to smell the roses as it were.

Many people know how to make a balcony look good. But what does it take to make a good balcony? Yeah… I don’t know either. Tell you what, lets go find out together!

Now I have never had a balcony before, nor a patio to be honest, so this is really a bit of a new thing for me. But I have used pots and containers to grow things and essentially that’s all it is.
So after a few weeks of reading up, I have decided to do a blog post about what I have learned.

First things first. Some things to consider.

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Know your aspect

There are a couple of things we need to know first..

How much sun do you have?
The hours of sunlight you get and the time of day you get it will mean what plants you can grow and if it’s worth trying your hand at veggies or not.

If you are in the Northern hemisphere then you really want a southern or a south western aspect. This will give you sun through the day and into the evening. But don’t worry if you have an eastern aspect as you will still get sun, it will just be in the morning, although this can have some small issues with sun hitting dew-wet plants.
Even north facing balconies can have plants and veggies, you will just have to be a little more picky about what you grow and what you expect to get back.

How high up are you?
If you are on the 14th floor then you are more likely to have winds. Winds can be a problem no matter what floor you are on and plants will need protecting.
Not only that but the higher you are the less likely you are to get pollinators visiting your garden in the sky. It’s not to say nothing will visit, its just not going to get the traffic you might expect at ground level. After a certain height you are not going to get any visitors of enough number to grow veggies unless you pollinate the flowers yourself, or they are wind pollinated.

Where to grow plants

On a balcony you have a number of places to put the plants. You can use pots on the floor, hanging baskets on L-brackets, tubs hanging directly off the wall. You can even use the rail itself as a place to anchor pots and troughs.
If you are not allowed to attach things to the wall then a living wall may be a good alternative for you.

One problem you are going to have on a balcony is space and light blocking. If you have pots on the railing then they may block light to the floor behind, so position pots accordingly or plant shade loving plants.
If you can, put taller plants further back and only have low-growing plants on the rail. it will allow more light onto the area behind it. Also consider not putting trailing plants on the outside of the rail if you want to use the floor space by the rail for pots or alternate pots and trailing plants.

If you have a shady spot then you should make sure that you get a shade tolerant plant to fill the space. You don’t need to leave it open if you don’t want to.

What to grow?

If you want fruit and veg you are going to have to work at it! Balconies don’t have much space so you are going to have to cram it all in a little!

If you want apples or plums you will need to buy a patio verity like this. These are often, but not always, dwarf root stock with a cropping fruit grafted on.

Potatoes can be grown in a bag. as the potato plant grows you simply fill the bag a little more until it reaches about ¾ full and then when ready you tip it out. I have done this myself and it actually produces very good quantities!

Strawberries and even some kinds of tomato can be grown in hanging baskets or wall tubs. These give both colour to the balcony and food to your table. Not bad, eh?

Herbs are always a good idea. Many are small, some are winter hardy and most have scents for you to enjoy outside and in the kitchen!

Don’t think that just because your space is limited that your food will be. No… You simply need to change the way you think and plant up what you can, where you can. Also it’s worth noting here that, because you are using pots, you have better control on the soil you use. If plant A needs acidic soil and plant B needs neutral its not such an issue for you. You can still plant them side by side!

I would also suggest getting a hold of this book, or something like it. If nothing else it’s a great reference book to refer to when planting any veg!

If you just want plants for colour and scent then I would suggest anything that would go in a basket. Most, if not all, bedding plants will do fine. Also consider putting larger shrubs in the mix if you have space.
Shrubs like Ceanothus and Mahonia are evergreen and will give some colour all year round. Plants like Itea virginica and Dogwood both give good flowering displays in summertime and, while they lose their leaves, still give colour in winter from their bare branches.

Some important things to consider

As noted earlier in this post, being on a balcony does have its issues. As you go higher you suffer winds and a lack of pollinators for a start. But there are other issues you may not have thought about.

Remember that your balcony is a microcosm of a normal garden and so you will need to plan out colours and plants to cover all seasons ahead of time, unless you are willing to strip out bedding as the seasons dictate.

Some buildings may have special rules on what can and cannot go out on your balcony. Weight limits may apply to the whole balcony and you may not be able to use the rail due to it not being string enough.
If the apartment is rented you may not be allowed to drill into walls or to affix fittings to walls. You will probably be notified of any rules when you move in, but it’s generally a good idea ahead of doing any work to make sure!

One more possible problem will be watering. The biggest problem with container gardening in any manner is water retention. Watering will need to be done on a daily basis. Possibly twice a day if you live in a warmer, dryer region. Consider mixing perlite in and putting rocks or mulch on top to help keep the moisture in the soil and reduce evaporation.

sprinkler/drip irrigation system will also be a very good idea. This will allow you to water everything in one job rather than walking back and forward with a heavy watering can hoping that you don’t miss anything!

Larger plants can be placed on wheels and brought inside in the winter if they are not frost hardy. Don’t be afraid to swap out plants from indoor to out as the seasons dictate.

And the last thing is this.
Invite pollinators into your area. Consider placing bee hotels in safe places and don’t discourage other insects. And don’t use pesticides at all if you can avoid it and be very sparing if you do use them.

Good luck. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask!

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