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Living Well in the cITy

An Introduction to Balcony Gardening

There has been a growing movement over the years to grow your food and lots of city dwellers are doing just that. Some do it as a hobby and some do it to survive. Just because you live in a high rise doesn't mean you can't grow your own. Most high rise balconies go unused or get used just to store junk. If you are blessed with enough sunlight you can very easily convert this space into a tidy garden for growing fresh vegetables like tomatoes and peppers and all the herbs you could ever want or need. There are endless possibilities. I've even grown watermelons on my balcony.

You need to have lots of sunlight. At least partial sun (6-8 hours direct sunlight). Unlike decorative plants, vegetables require lots of sunlight. Plants requires lots of energy to produce fruit and seeds. Some areas of your balcony might not get enough sun and you will have to arrange and place your crops to get as much light to them as possible. Wind is always a problem. You balcony might be too windy to grow larger plants but small crops, closer to the ground, like greens and root crops, might work fine with a bit of protection form the wind. Make sure there are no rules in your building against having plants on your balcony. Some buildings have very strict by-laws regarding what you can keep out on your balcony. And remember that everything you need you will have to bring up to your balcony, like water and potting soil.

Vegetable container gardening is quite popular and you can grow almost anything in a container if the container is the right size. Make use of light containers made from plastic to keep weight down. You'll need potting soil for growing. Growing most vegetables doesn't require anything special but do not use garden soil or top soil. Potting soil is not really soil at all. It's made mostly of peat moss and other materials to keep it light and help it to retain moisture.

You will need fertilizers to grow your vegetables. Ideally you want to use a good compost to supplement you potting soil but sometimes that can be hard to come by. Different vegetables have different requirements during different stages of growth but I've found it best to just stick with a well balanced fertilizer with equal parts of NPK (look for numbers like 3-3-3 or close to it). NPK stands for Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium and these are the major nutrients all plants need to grow. The water soluble kind of fertilizers work fine for starting out. Organic fertilizers are typically more expensive and less 'potent' but are eco friendly. Your potting soil will likely have a dose of compost or fertilizer in it by vegetables are hungry plants and will quickly deplete it.

Constant winds will dry your plants out fast. Plastic containers offer very little protection to a plants roots from the full force of the sun. You will have to water your plants regularly. Sometimes I have to water mine twice a day.

I typically start my plants from seed, usually in my kitchen window. Timing is everything and it can mean a fair bit of up-front effort but growing from seed gives me seemingly endless variety possibilities. But if this is your first time with veggetables, you should just start with starter plants from your local garden center. Many vegetables come in dwarf hybrid varieties. These are plants that grow small and compact and should therefor be perfect for container gardens. Determinate varieties of tomato only grow to a set height and fruit load. Bambino eggplant is a small bush variety of eggplant with small golf ball sized fruit. Peppers come in all shapes and sizes. And bush varieties of cucumber are quite popular, as are bush beans.

I have found that root crops and other low lying vegetables such as leafy greens need overhead light to thrive. But I have also found that the vining habits of very large indeterminate tomato plants are well suited to balcony growing where the available sunlight tends to enter my balcony space from the West. Experimentation is the key. And if you like herbs your balcony may prove to be the perfect spot for them. Most herbs thrive in arid sunny locations and are very undemanding.

Don't set your expectations too high if you've never grown vegetables before. You will not be feeding a family of four from produce grown on your balcony. But you will enjoy the occasional salad or fresh tomato sauce. Grow what you know you'll eat. And above all, enjoy doing it. Treat it like a hobby and even if things don't turn out as planned, you'll learn something in the process and likely have fun trying.

There is much more information about balcony gardening on my website