It’s absolutely not intentional – but I find that so many of my blog posts have to do with gardening. I think that’s because the way that I think is in terms of connections (as opposed to objects, or things) and that gardening, especially vegetable gardening, represents the ultimate connection between humans and this planet we live on.
Growing my own food is really important to me. It is relaxing and meditative, a definite part of my personal mental-health program. It is also good exercise, it’s good for the environment, and it is definitely good for me: eating fresh, tasty, local, organic food.
A lot of people I know say “Well you’re lucky, Jackie. I don’t have a yard.” Well, I have not had a yard for the last two years (I was living in a townhouse in Tofino). And even now that I do have a yard with a productive little veggie garden in it, I still grow a lot of my food in pots on the balcony.
Here’s a little video of my balcony garden this year, just to give you an idea of what can be done with a very small space.
So I’m going to give a few tips here, for those of you who’d like to try:
First of all, remember that plants are people too. (Well, OK, not people exactly – but they are alive and responsive to the environment). You need to know your own climate and what you can and cannot grown there, and you also need to seed and transplant things at the right time of year. This is different for each plant type you grow. If you have never grown veggies before, there is a bit of a learning curve involved.
Out here on the west coast, West Coast Seeds is an amazing gardening resource. Their planting guide http://www.westcoastseeds.com/admin/files/2011PlantingChart.pdf is my planting bible – it tells when to seed, when to transplant, everything you need to know for each crop. If you live in a different climatic zone, your timing will be slightly different. You can find out what your own climate zone is (for Canada) by checking out these maps. (If you live elsewhere, you will have to Google the maps for your own country).
Each plant has specific needs regarding the soil, nutrients, moisture, and timing. There are many good gardening books out there – but again, West Coast Seeds has the equivalent of a planting textbook on line for free. These planting instructions, for almost every type of food plant, would apply to most climates.
For setting up a garden on a balcony or a deck, the main things you need to provide your plants with are sun, water and nutrients. A balcony that faces east, south or west will usually get enough sun for most crops. A north-facing balcony can present a bit more of a challenge, but you will still probably be able to grow cool-weather crops. If your balcony is exposed to strong winds, you might need to erect a transparent barrier to protect the plants a bit. As for the water, well… that’s just up to your remembering! Regarding nutrients, plants growing in pots require more fertilizer than those grown in the garden – pretty much any liquid fertilizer will do, used according to the instructions.
Certain plants do very well in pots, while others really need more space for their roots. Things that do not do so well in pots are root crops (such as carrots and beets) and plants that require a lot of space, like zucchinis and other squash.
Cool-weather plants that do great in pots are most leafy crops (especially those with smaller root systems) like lettuce, chard and kale. I like to plant four or five lettuces in a row in those long narrow flower planters. You can harvest the whole head when it is mature (some small new leaves will grow back from the stump) or just harvest leaves as you need them.
Hot-weather plants that do well in pots include tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. There are so many varieties of tomatoes out there; try to get one of the easier-to-grow varieties. Some of the most fail-safe cherries are Tumbler (my all-time container favourite) and Golden Nugget. Of the large cherries, Early Cascade and Early Girl are two of the best. The beefsteak varieties are toughest to grow, so I would avoid them when growing in containers.
Tomatoes need large pots for their root systems, and lots of water while the fruit is swelling. It is also critical that you follow instructions for growing the tomato plants when they are young, or you may not get much fruit. Keep them indoors in the spring when the plants are young and tender, then gradually acclimatize them to the sunshine (they will get sunburnt and lose all of their leaves if you just one day thrust them out into the sunshine, just like us!) You can put them outside permanently in late May or early June.
Scarlet runner beans are extremely productive and grow great from pots. Seed them only when the weather gets warm, in late May or June, directly into the pots that you will grow them in (they don’t like transplanting very much). You need to place a trellis or strings for them to wind around and grow. They like to grow up, but if you pay attention to them you can force them to go sideways along balcony edges. They get beautiful red flowers in early summer, and big tender green beans in late summer.
Herbs and strawberries are other treats that are easy to grow from pots – and they are lovely to have just a few steps away from the kitchen. Rosemary, oregan, marjoram and sage will survive winters if they are not too harsh. You will need to start other crops, such as thyme and cilantro (coriander), fresh each year.
What about you? How does you balcony garden grow? Do you have any advice or questions?