How to Grow Your Own Food on a Balcony Garden
If 2020 taught us anything, it was that getting outside into gardens or walking in parks and spending time immersed in nature was good for us. Seeds became almost impossible to buy as online suppliers of fruit, herbs and vegetables opened and shut their websites to cater for demand. Garden centres were busy providing online and postal services, cars gathered outside garden and forestry walks as their owners took the time to get some exercise. Gardening photos were shared across all social media channels beguiling us with their vibrancy and enthusiasts prowess.
That was all well and good for those of us who’ve been trying to encourage everyone to grow their own food or get outside for years, or who have some space to potter around. What about the folk who were stuck in apartments with tiny balconies, unable to get out and share in all the fun? It must have been very difficult to sit back and watch our enthusiasm as spring turned into summer, watching our gardens blossom from bare soil to an oasis of colour and calm.
The good news is that a balcony does not have to limit your growing experiences. With food supply chains expected to falter due to new import regulations this year might be the one to have a go at growing food, even if it’s just a few tubs of salad leaves.
In no particular order, for the next few minutes I’ll be sharing some considerations you might like to take into account if you’re wondering how to grow your own food on a balcony garden this year.
Wind direction is a factor in any garden, but especially important on balconies. The wind can damage, break or blow over plants and planters and provide a ‘wind chill’ element that can freeze them half to death. Moisture can be whipped from plants leaves and compost may dry out quicker than you can sneeze.
If you have glass surrounding your balcony, it will benefit by stopping the wind in its tracks, while providing some additional warmth, acting like the side of a greenhouse. If not, you might like to consider adding a clear screen, securing your planters, choosing plants wisely, and adding a mulch on top of the compost to prevent drying.
Safety is always a priority in the garden and balconies are no exception. Ensure your balcony is capable of taking the weight of plants and planters. Think how heavy a bag of compost is then multiply it by the amount of containers you’re planning for your balcony. The weight of water will add even more of a load, especially if the containers become waterlogged.
Balconies are covered under the Building Regulations but the boom years saw some shoddy workmanship. If you’re unsure, check with the owner or management company. In the meantime there are steps you can take to reduce the weight.
- Choose light weight containers.
- Mix potting compost with perlite as per the instructions on the bag. Perlite is a type of volcanic rock that should be available in all garden centres.
- If using large containers, don’t fill them up completely with soil. Crush some aluminium cans or food grade plastic and place in the bottom third of the container, before covering with a piece of weed proof membrane and topping up with compost. The fabric will allow water to filter through, while protecting the growing medium from the recycled materials.
- Some multi purpose composts, which are ideal for for container growing, weigh more than others. Shop around and look for peat free or sustainably sourced peat where possible. Enrich Soil Solutions have a great range of products if you’re struggling to find something suitable.
- Use the walls. Put up some vertical planters to take some weight off the balcony floor.
Shade & Sun
Choosing the sunniest spot to grow your fruit and vegetables is a mantra you’ll often hear but if you’re in a flat or apartment, you might not have a choice. If you are north facing with limited sunlight, there are still some vegetables you can grow. A more detailed article can be found here. South facing and you’ll have to consider shading to protect plants from being over exposed.
Balconies provide an opportunity to have a bit of fun with containers, either using upcycled household items or colourful pots from garden centres. You can find a more detailed post about container gardening here. A few tips worth considering include:
- Use the largest container possible or you will have to water more often.
- Unglazed Terracotta can get frost damaged.
- Plastic pots can dry out as they heat up so consider irrigation.
- If using upcycled materials, consider the following:
“Plastic that is safe to grow food in/with should have recycling numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 on the bottom. Plastic with a 3 has PVC in it. In time chemicals leach out contaminating soil, which in turn contaminates the food. Styrofoam is made of plastic number 6 and has cancerous effects, Number 7 contains bisphenol A which is harmful to the behavioral growth of children.”
- You can grow pretty much any plant in a container if the container is large enough and you have ensured there is suitable drainage. As mentioned, the main considerations are the direction your balcony faces and how exposed it is. Tender plants such as basil may not survive windy conditions and thyme really dislikes it too.
- Variegated herbs can be slower growing, so good for containers.
- Perennials should ideally be replanted in fresh compost each year which is a good time to check the roots for pests
- If buying plants, choose dwarf varieties, varieties that are expensive or unusual to buy, herbs, or fruit that can be trained vertically to save space.
By its very nature, container gardening requires more watering than planting into soil or raised beds and windy conditions can add to the drying effects.
To save you popping out there twice a day with a watering can during the growing season, consider investing in a drip feed irrigation system, or stand plants on capillary matting. Look out for containers that have built in water reservoirs or stand pots in trays to catch excess water.
During the first COVID lockdown in 2020, Samantha Murray shared some videos and photo updates onto the Community Gardens Ireland Facebook Page from her Dublin balcony and has kindly given me permission to use them here. She was an inspiration to many. Take a look at one of Sam’s videos below that she published in April. You can find more on the Facebook page, including tips on some of the more unusual containers she used to start off seeds such as avocado shells.
For more garden hacks on using recycled kitchen waste to save you some money and the recycling centres from the additional waste, take a look at the Greenside Up YouTube channel here.
If you’ve figured out the best or unusual ways to grow your own food on a balcony garden and have any further tips or observations, please leave them in the comments. With more people growing their own food than ever, we’d love to hear your tips and help the communities of people growing food everywhere, no matter what their size or experience.