5 Top Tips for Balcony Gardening

baclony garden

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!

Tomatoes can grow successfully on a south-facing balcony.
Tomatoes should thrive on a south-facing balcony.

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.

Rosemary can act as a living windbreaker,
Rosemary or other hardy plants can act as a natural windbreaker.

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.