Technically, growing vegetables on the balcony is easy. But I struggled at first to try to balance ornamentals, herbs and vegetables together in containers thinking that to separate them would lead to any ugly balcony garden. Then I got over it. Now I grow vegetables in their own containers and make sure that they have the ideal conditions to thrive, just like everything else on the balcony.
Vegetables need full sun, water and healthy, nutrient-rich soil to be successful. Crops on the balcony are typically annual. Disease and pest management is simple. Maintenance is really no different than the rest of your garden. Vegetables can be pretty. And the harvest is fun and rewarding, no matter how small.
There are grocery stores and a good market not too far from the balcony. I have limited space and I like growing flowers, alpine and I have 4 ponds. I grow vegetables for their flavour. That’s number one. I grow vegetables for freshness. I like harvesting spicy greens a few steps away from the table. And I grow vegetables for variety. Never knew there were so many different types of greens and tomatoes.
I’ve grown tomatoes, greens, onions, peppers, beans and carrots. I’m adding peas and beets to the mix. I also grow mint, rosemary, parsley, thyme, sage and chives. Strawberries and blueberries are also happy on my balcony. I’m adding Saskatoon’s this year.
I have limited space in the apartment, so I don’t start seeds inside. I buy tomato, fruit and herb plants and seed vegetables directly into containers in the spring. This sometimes limits my choice of plant varieties but it’s the compromise I’ve made. I direct seed swiss chard, spinach and other greens, beans and carrots.
Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and brussel sprouts on the balcony? Sure if you have the space. These vegetables need to be started inside in April because they have a long growing season. So in my case, if I wanted to grow them, I’d be buying plants.
Many vegetables provide exciting colour to a balcony garden. Swiss chard has beautiful dark green crinkly foliage with bold yellow, orange and red veins. Leafy greens add red, green and purple flashes of foliage. Beans provide purple, red and white flowers and gold, purple, white and green veg and you can add a rainbow of colour to the garden when you plant peppers.
Just getting started? Leafy greens are easy to grow by direct sowing into a 15cm (6”) deep container. They’re harvest-ready within a month. I seed every couple of weeks to harvest continually. Greens don’t like the heat so my containers get east exposure. In the early spring, I set small containers in direct south exposure to get them going and then move the containers to the east as the plants mature. I will admit to having some difficulty growing spinach, but I keep trying. I start sowing seeds in April.
Swiss chard is direct seeded into a 25cm (10”) pot. I prefer harvesting chard when the leaves are young, and I sow from the beginning to mid-May.
Bush beans seeds are soaked for a day and then I plant them in mid-May, in a 30cm (12”) deep container. I’ve been growing bush beans because I get a bigger harvest from a smaller space. Bush beans are a single crop harvest so if you have the room, seed a couple of containers two weeks a part for multiple harvests. Climber and runner beans need support. If you plant them in a little deeper container, 38cm (15”), the stakes will be a little more stable to take the weight of the producing plants. Seed in mid-May. Climber beans can also provide a temporary screen on your balcony, which is effective if your neighbours only come out to take the sun.
Peas seeds are also be soaked for a day and get planted in a 25-30cm (10-12”) deep container in May.
Pepper containers need to be at least 20cm (8”) deep with only one plant per pot. Find a sunny spot (although peppers don’t like extreme heat). I buy plants and they get set out in the full sun once the threat of frost has passed, typically the beginning of June. I’ll admit that my plants are purchased well before they go out and typically play the ‘I’m in, I’m out’ game for a few weeks because I’m ever hopeful about our crazy spring weather. I’m growing sweeter varieties this year.
Beets get planted at the beginning of May (beets can go into containers a month before final frost) in a container that is at least 30cm (12”) deep. Plant for the leafy, tasty greens and the root vegetable. There are lots of different varieties, with a good selection for container gardening. Young leaves are best eaten raw. As the leaves becomes more mature the greens can be steamed.
Carrots need in a 30cm (12”) deep container and seeds hit the soil mid-May (about 2 weeks before final frost here). These seeds prefer the soil to be a bit warmer. I need to be patient with carrots because they are slow to germinate. The seeds are small and it’s really easy to over-seed a container. But trust me, seed thinly. I find thinning carrots in a container is a little tricky so the thinner you seed, the less you disturb the seedlings.
Tomatoes containers need to be 30-46cm (12-18”) deep, with a single plant per pot. I buy plants. Toms need full sun, at least 6 hours per day, and fertile soil with good drainage – on the balcony you’ll be watering regularly when it’s really hot. Water in the morning, (the soil not the foliage) and add mulch to help retain moisture. I sometimes companion plant with basil. I always grow Sun Golds. Super producers, disease-resistant and easy to grow. I also try a new variety or two each year. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, you need to fertilize when they are first growing foliage and setting blooms (nitrogen) and continue (potassium) once the blooms are set and fruit production begins. I stake my tomatoes, teepee or bamboo box pattern.
Blueberries, which grow as a small shrub, need a container that is about 40cm (16”) deep. They like acid soil, are self-pollinating and fruit on younger branches. Perfect for the balcony. Can you grow enough for a pie? On my balcony maybe enough for a tart. But it’s fun to snack on fresh, sweet berries while you are gardening. I brought my blueberry plant into the apartment for the winter and it seems to be OK. I’m not sure yet if there is any advantage – need another growing season under my belt with blueberries. Stay tuned.
Strawberries are perennials, they like slightly acidic soil and full sun but will take a little shade. The container you’ll need depends on the size of the plant. Strawberries produce fruit in early summer and there are everbearing varieties that will fruit all summer. Like the blueberries, on the balcony this fruit is typically a gardener’s snack. I’m OK with that level of production. I like the foliage and it’s easy to combine a strawberry plant into a container as a trailer once fruit production is complete. I have yet to have this perennial winter-over. But I keep trying.