If you’re stuck in a dense urban city, but still dream of growing your own food, what do you do? Can you grow vegetables in a small apartment or condo? Well, do you have access to a balcony? If you do, you can learn how to start a balcony vegetable garden and grow some amazing stuff (and maybe help some bees). No balcony? A rooftop space, terrace, or patio would also work very well!
Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a veggie sandwich at home with veggies sourced from your own garden five feet away? Besides, plants can work wonders for your mental health.
It’s possible to grow your own food with container vegetable gardening in small spaces. And it isn’t as difficult as you might think (you can get rid of mealybugs and other pests, for instance, quite easily). Most vegetables can be grown in a compact balcony (or small space), provided the plants’ basic needs are adequately met. That’s the only consideration: the needs of the plants. Which we will soon get into.
How Do You Start a Garden on a Balcony?
After you’ve zeroed in on your space, find out a couple of important preliminary things:
- Does your building allow balcony gardening? Get an okay from the building rule-makers before you go ahead.
- If you’re allowed to have a balcony garden, yay! Next, check the weight limits of the balcony. You may find alternatives to heavy pots (rice pot or fabric grow bags, for example), but adding loads of soil into them may not be the scenario your balcony was designed for. Please check and confirm the weight allowances beforehand before you proceed to lug all that soil up to your balcony to build a vertical garden.
Once these issues are settled (in your favor), you can go ahead and start planning your balcony vegetable garden! Let’s go over it all step by step.
How To Start a Balcony Vegetable Garden: Things to Plan For
Do some homework before you jump in and buy seeds or plants. Here are some things you need to assess and plan for.
1 // SPACE
How big is the space available to you? If you don’t have much space, you shouldn’t get discouraged. You can start off with a few small pots, or if you’re more confident, then you can try vertical gardening. Use the floor, the wall, the ceiling, use shelves. Use your creativity. Although, if you’re a beginner, you should start with maybe a couple of pots, and build up gradually from there.
2 // WEATHER
Does your balcony get sufficient sun everyday? How wet does it get when it rains in your area? Does your balcony face the direct onslaught of storms? Think through the regular weather patterns for the whole year, and try to put solutions in place for any weather challenges you may face. For example, if you live on a high floor, you’re likely to experience strong winds. You could build a protective divider to keep the plants safe (make sure it’s not blocking the sun, though!). Perhaps providing the plants some extra support in the form of a trellis would suffice. Or, you could move the plants to another part of your apartment if there’s a storm or big winds. Do you have such an alternate space ready?
And what about the heat? How hot does it get on your balcony? If it gets very hot during the summer, then you will need to plant vegetables that will thrive in that heat. And, if it doesn’t really get super hot, then opt for the vegetables that require more temperate conditions, or use a shade cloth to temper the temperature (ahem).
What about noise? Plants can wither in the presence of loud noises. Does your balcony face the traffic? Or perhaps, it faces a construction site? You could look into various ways of soundproofing your space. But, usually, city noise levels are not terrible enough for your plants to get affected. But do look into music for plants. It’s a fascinating topic!
So, you can physically control the conditions in your balcony, and you can also choose plants that are best suited to your balcony conditions. What you need to do will depend entirely on the unique weather conditions in your space. It’s your li’l workshop – make it work for your needs!
3 // CONTAINERS & POTS
This is a tricky thing to get into. Generally, when it comes to container gardening, the bigger the pot is, the better for the plant: more soil space for it to sink its roots into. But, again, you have to be careful, and find out what weight your balcony can bear. Remember, this is soil plus water. And the plant will grow, too. So the weight will be quite a bit.
What you could do is buy smaller pots and keep it all manageable to begin with. Once you get comfortable and familiar (with your balcony space, weather conditions, plant behaviour, etc) you can ‘upgrade’ to bigger and bigger pots. All within the load limits of your balcony, of course.
4 // SOIL
Ok. Here’s a big mistake I’ve made: I lugged soil from the garden up to my apartment balcony. This is not ideal. First of all, soil from the ground (or a garden) is much heavier than the synthetic pot soil options that you could go for. And, secondly, garden soil may not have sufficient nutrients for your plants to thrive within the confines of a pot.
Synthetic soil (basically potting mixture) purchased specifically for container gardening has been mixed to contain essential plant nutrients and microorganisms. This is important when you’re working with pots, as opposed to the ground. A plant on the ground has a much larger volume of soil to sift through for its nutrients. Whereas, a potted plant only has so much soil to go through. You should also start to make your own compost in your apartment.
Synthetic soil is made with sawdust, peat moss, wood chips, etc. It’s very light (yay!), and highly nutritious for your potted plant. When you prepping the pot for a new plant, fill the bottom of the pot with sticks, pieces of cardboard and gravel, and then load up the organic potting soil on top: this will help with proper drainage.
Speaking of drainage, make sure you have a tray or saucer under your pots to catch the water that drains out. Leakage of excess water from your pots can not only make a mess of your balcony, but it could inconvenience your downstairs neighbors as well!
5 // WATER
Make sure you have access to water near the plant, whether you have to carry buckets of water from your bathroom or make several trips with a watering can, or, more simply, just fix a tap in your balcony and attach a hose.
Plan for the amount of water as well. Plants have varying requirements with the changing temperature, and you need to cater to that. A quick tip is to cover your pot soil surface with mulch. This slows the evaporation of water from the surface.
6 // PLANTS
Finally, we come to the most interesting part. What are the best vegetables to grow on a balcony? You have options depending on the zone you live in, the conditions in your balcony, the space you have, etc. But it mainly depends on the amount of sunlight your balcony receives, since the other conditions can be controlled to a certain extent. Most vegetables ideally require 6-8 hours of sunlight per day. But there is wiggle room here. So, based on the amount of sunlight your balcony gets, these are your options:
>> Sun-loving Vegetable Plants
If your balcony faces the south, and it receives a lot of direct sunlight (i.e. at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day), you can pretty much have your pick of these options:
Be careful, though, to avoid sun scald. If you find that the leaves are yellowing, it could be due to too much sun and heat. Move the plant to a cooler, shaded area to recover (and use a shade cloth to prevent it in the first place).
>> Shade-loving Vegetable Plants
If your balcony is in the shade, or faces the north, you can pick any of the following vegetables that do well in shade. This is if your balcony receives 4-6 hours of sunlight per day:
Beets | Broccoli | Cabbage | Carrots | Cauliflower | Celery | Garlic | Leeks | Peas | Potato | Radish
>> Plants that Love Lots of Shade
These plants will do great with just 2-4 hours of sunlight per day. Not surprisingly, they are all leafy vegetables.
Psst: green, leafy vegetables are usually the simplest to take care of, so you’d do well to start with these. Once Spring sets in, you can plant the seeds directly in the pot. They will sprout in 7-10 days, and you will be able to harvest them very soon.
7 // MAINTENANCE & CARE
Setting up the garden in the easiest part of all this. The daily maintenance and care is where the rubber meets the road. Container gardening is challenging in different ways from outdoor gardening in a …garden. With potted plants, you need to regularly check on the well being of your plants, see what they’re missing, and take proactive steps as much as possible. Prune them regularly, and learn as much as you can about each individual plant (both the generic type of plant that it is as well as the behavior of the specific plant in your balcony.)
Find out what fertilizers the plants will need, and administer them regularly. Make your own organic compost and incorporate that compost into your plant’s nutritional intake. You will need a daily journal of all the things you’re doing with your plants (like this one!). This helps when something goes wrong, and it also helps when something goes right. You can flip back to your notes and see what you did that resulted in the plant’s reaction and growth (or shrivelling).
Budgeting for a Balcony Vegetable Garden
How much does it cost to maintain a balcony vegetable garden? Not too much, if you plan carefully. Try to source seeds locally (at a nursery or from a neighbor). Buy quality gardening tools that will last you a lifetime. Scour garage and yard sales for pots, tools, etc. Look on Etsy for gardening materials. But while you’re trying to minimize expense, don’t scrimp on the plants’ most important requirement: good quality potting soil. You can also make your own potting soil if you feel you’re ready!
All in all, more than money, it takes a lot of interest, patience and good planning. All of which are free!
Start small and be patient. You cannot force a plant to grow faster than it naturally does. Live and let live! The key point is to plan well. This is all totally worth it. The feeling of joy when one of your plants shows a flower bud, or when it grows a fruit, is incomparable. Plants have very specific requirements and it only takes a bit of practice and experience for one to get a hang of it. You won’t regret it!
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