If you live in a city, the chances are you may not have a (traditional) garden. Urbanisation and growing population levels over the years have led to vertical urbanisation all over the globe, where cities grow upwards and many of us live and work in tall buildings.
Therefore, it's safe to say that many people who live in urban areas don't have access to a ground level garden. All hope is not lost though, as this is a perfect opportunity for a balcony gardening revolution!
Balcony gardens have unique environmental conditions which make growing plants on them a little less straightforward than growing in a traditional garden. Being hundreds of feet up in the air, they are susceptible to turbulent wind, scorching sunlight and sometimes a lack of light. They are also limited in space, so you have to find solutions which can address all of these obstacles.
Today’s post is going to explain some top tips to help you overcome some common problems balcony gardeners face and ensure you have a successful and thriving balcony garden!
5 Top Tips for Growing on a Balcony
1. Choose your plants carefully
If you’re wondering, ‘what can I grow on my balcony?’ the first thing you need to consider is the aspect of your balcony. This means the way it faces (north, east, south or west). Your balcony will be facing in one direction depending on which side of your building it's situated.
In the northern hemisphere, like here in England, it’s most desirable to have a south-facing balcony because you will have the maximum hours of sunlight every day, meaning most edible plants and flowers will thrive.
Most vegetables, mediterranean herbs (e.g. Rosemary, Lavender, Sage, Parsley and Basil) and fruits (Tomatoes and Chillies) will thrive. Dwarf trees can also be grown, the list of options is unbelievable. The main caveat is that your soil will dry up more quickly in this aspect, you may need to water them twice a day in the summer!
West-facing balconies are also very suitable for growing most edible plants since they receive light during the warmest time of the day, again, warmth-loving Mediterranean plants will grow well here. Tender shade-loving plants will not do so well on West-facing balconies: with direct sunlight at the warmest time of the day they're susceptible to drying out.
For tender, shade-loving plants east-facing balconies are the best bet. They receive a few hours of morning sunlight but this is during the cooler part of the day so it is never too intense. For flowers, Geraniums and Hollyhock will grow well here. With this gentle sunlight, most soft herbs and salads will grow well in an east-facing balcony garden as long as they receive light from morning to early afternoon.
North-facing balconies will not receive much direct sunlight (<2 hours), if at all, this means that the options of what you can grow are slimmer. This means you have to be a little more creative, finding shade-loving plants. For edibles, Mint is probably the only herb which can grow well on this aspect.
If you have ~3 hours of light you may have some success growing spinach or lettuce. Generally, just think of shaded forest floors, there will be lots of hardy perennial plants which grow there. Ferns will thrive in a space like this; Ivy can be grown in hanging pots to grow as a trailing plant. Caladiums and Coleus will add some texture and colour too.
2. Prepare for windy conditions
One of the biggest problems you may have are the strong winds which are characteristic of high-rise balconies. A gentle breeze is good for plants, strengthening their stems and roots, but strong wind can damage plants and quickly dehydrate the plants and the soil.
Depending on the set-up you have and the freedom you have with altering your balcony, how you can deal with strong winds will vary. The first option you should consider is creating a windbreak, this is any form of barrier which will let some air through but prevent strong gusts from coming through. Mesh or slatted screens work best: they will allow light to filter in but tame the winds.
You will have to find a way to secure these with the right fixings so they themselves are not damaged or displaced by the wind. Slatted screens or trellis can be used to grow climbing plants like Jasmine to create some shade.
If you’re unable to make any alterations, you could use a living windbreak. Using Boxwood, Rosemary or Holly, you can create a hardy windbreak to diffuse strong winds. One caveat is that you will need to use larger, heavy containers so they themselves are not knocked over in the wind, this may be a problem if you don’t have much space to work with. If you do use a natural windbreak, remember they will create a lot of shade, so this will affect what you can grow behind them.
The last option, if you can’t erect a screen or natural windbreak is to grow hardy, wind tolerant plants. There are lots of options, here are some examples: Mondo Grass, Japanese Anemone, Carex Grass, Cordyline, Bamboo, Heather, Holly and Dwarf Mountain Pine.
3. Use the right containers and compost
As mentioned previously, balcony gardens can face severely windy conditions and also scorching summers, both of which will dry out your plants and compost. Outside of choosing more drought tolerant, hardier plants, there are some steps you can take to make sure that this doesn’t cause too many issues.
Firstly, you'll want to avoid using a peat-based compost (not only because of it's environmental impact), but because it's very light when it dries out. This can make many plants top heavy, which could make them easier to blow over. Peat-based composts are also harder to rehydrate when they dry out. Instead, use a soil-based compost which will retain more weight and has a greater water holding capacity.
When it comes to choosing containers, the biggest rookie mistake is to use lots of smaller nursery pots. Not only are these easier to knock over, but they also dry out more quickly. We recommend pots which have a greater depth and width, this way they will hold a greater volume of compost and more moisture. If you want to save compost and add more drainage, add some small stones/rocks into the bottom of your pots before adding compost.
You want to choose non-porous materials for your containers. Whilst terracotta pots are heavier than plastic pots, they dry out much quicker, which can quickly add to your maintenance schedule. Use plastic, metal, fibreglass or glazed ceramic pots.
4. Use automatic irrigation where possible
One of the simplest ways to make looking after your plants easier is to install automatic irrigation systems for your balcony garden. For many of us, busy lives can get in the way of plant maintenance, so this is a good way of making it a little less labour intensive!
A simple drip system can be installed easily, it will periodically turn on a pump to drip water into all of your containers. Ideally you will have a water drain for any excess run off. This would be considered an active irrigation system using a pump on a timer.
There are also passive irrigation systems which do not use any electricity. We at Square Mile Farms love this DIY Vertical Garden because it uses a really smart wicking system. Each trough has an in-built reservoir at the bottom and the wicking material feeds water up to the compost and the plants' roots, keeping them moist until it needs refilling. The indicator will tell you when it's time to fill up.
Simply use a watering can to fill up the reservoirs from the top and look at the indicator to see the water level in the reservoirs. You can easily minimise the time spent watering your plants by using a passive irrigation system.
5. Grow up, as well as out!
Balconies tend to be a bit limited on space, so if you want to grow more you could consider growing vertically. You might have heard of vertical farming, it has lots of benefits that we can apply in our home settings and is especially relevant when it comes to small gardens and balconies.
We think this DIY Vertical Garden is perfect for balcony gardens because the troughs are made to be stacked, so you can maximise space by utilising the vertical plane. You can also clip stacks together to grow outwards. This will mean you can have more plants, without using up all your floor space!
So those are our five top tips to help you design a resilient and abundant balcony garden. Knowing which plants will thrive on your balcony is an important first step, which will tell you tell you what you can successfully grow as well as how much time you'll need to spend maintaining and watering the space.
Super windy conditions don't need to rain on your balcony garden parade, with our three suggestions you can find a solution by erecting a screen or natural windbreak, and if those are not an option, choosing wind-tolerant plants is your best bet!
Being smart by using soil-based composts will keep your plants hydrated and reduce the risk of your compost drying out and using non-porous, large and deep pots will also help to avoid things blowing or toppling over.
Lastly, using an automatic irrigation system will make your balcony garden easier to maintain. An active irrigation system with a pump feeding a dripper line is a great solution. If you don’t have access to electricity on your balcony and want to be more efficient with the space you have, definitely check out the DIY Vertical Garden.
Dish is Square Mile Farms’ Head Grower. He’s on a mission to reconnect people with their food by helping them grow it themselves! Square Mile Farms bring vertical, urban farming to city dwellers in their homes and in the workplace. We aim to bring people closer to food production and help to create a culture of healthy, sustainable living.
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