Big Gardens in Tiny Spaces Balcony Gardening – Big Food Production in Small Spaces

basil-and-rosemary-growing-in-a-balcony-garden

Balcony Gardening Basics

If you’re balcony gardening, you may be feeling sorry for yourself.

Don’t!

View it as an exciting challenge instead.

In my film 13 Tips, Tricks and Lessons for Homesteading an Acre, I share the story of how I used to long for a large space, wishing for 10, 15 or even 20 acres I could farm.

After working my acre for over five years, I no longer feel the need for a big space. I’ve even caught myself looking with longing at small urban backyards and apartment porches.

Why?

Because of the power of focused effort. Balcony gardening allows you to create a little paradise oasis without killing yourself.

Why Balcony Gardening Rocks

When you spread all your work across a large space, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s hard to make everything look the way you want. It’s hard to keep 100 trees healthy and happy unless you’re a full-time gardener or farmer. It’s hard to pick the bugs off 600 cabbages. It’s hard to harvest 10 beds of potatoes.

But if you have a small space garden, you can make it incredible with much less time and effort.

I learned this lesson when I owned a small cottage in Tennessee. The cost of fixing up that little 3/1 house was cheap. We had to replace the roof: it cost $3,500. Sure, that’s a chunk of change — but it’s NOTHING like the cost of fixing the roof on a big, complicated multi-story house.

You could repaint a room with a gallon of paint in an afternoon. You could sand and varnish all the floors in a weekend.

It’s the same way with balcony gardening. If you only have a little area, you can really make it look incredible for only a little bit of money.

Sure, you’re not going to be able to grow everything you like. A pecan tree is out of the question (unless you make it into a bonsai!) and grain corn would be a bit tough; yet you could pack in a lot of plants by growing vertically and sticking to species that are miserly with their space considerations.

Trying to grow food in a window sill? Check this out: Grow Sprouts and Microgreens Indoors All Winter Long

Plant what you love. Make your balcony an escape from the madness. Put a little table out there amongst your plants and start writing your novel.

Here are just a few edible plants I would grow on a balcony.

Plants for Balcony Gardening

Ginger

Ginger needs shade, so if your balcony doesn’t get a lot of direct light, plant ginger! Roots from the store will usually grow. Bury them in a pot about 4-6″ deep and wait. They’ll come up. A year or two later, when they go dormant in the fall, you can tip the pot out and harvest the mass of roots — or just break off a little here and there as you need it.

Basil

Basil is a no-brainer. Start from seeds in a pot of well-drained soil in at least half sun. If you can find African blue basil, great. It’s a perennial version you won’t have to replant. Just know this: you need to buy your first African basil as a plant, or beg a cutting from a friend. It doesn’t grow from seeds.

Bush Beans

Bush beans are so easy to grow that it’s almost embarrassing. A half-barrel planter should be able to host about 12 plants, which will each give you a couple handfuls of pods. Beans like lots of sun, so if you have a shady balcony you likely won’t have much luck.

Strawberries

Strawberries are the consummate container plant. They even have their own special planters. A few years ago I bought my sister-in-law a hanging basket of strawberries and she’s been keeping them alive for years and harvesting berries off and on. Strawberries will take about half sun but produce better with more.

Blueberries

Blueberries work remarkably well in good-sized pots. Plant them in rotted pine bark (not normal potting soil) and they’ll be quite happy. Blueberries also love coffee grounds, so just empty ’em all in the top of your blueberry pots.

Dwarf Mulberry

Dwarf mulberry varieties are shrubbier than their tree relatives and can easily be kept growing at only a few feet tall. Some will produce through the year. Just know this: dwarf mulberries have vigorous roots and will fill a pot right up, then get thirsty all the time. I’d put the bottoms of their pots in trays of water so they always have some to sip.

Oregano

Oregano is really easy to grow in pots and will take shade or sun. Don’t overwater it. The vining habit of oregano makes it nice for hanging baskets, though my permaculture side would encourage you to just grow it as a ground cover around the base of one of your larger balcony gardening additions, like the following small tree.

Japanese Persimmon

I love Japanese persimmon trees. Though they may not be the most productive addition to your balcony gardening plans, they do make marvelous fruits and are easy to grow in a large pot. Unlike many fruit trees they can be kept small as well.

Kumquat

The kumquat is another excellent small tree, and likely more productive than the Japanese persimmon. They do well in pots and will handle half to full sun. I’ve also seen some citrus growing in full shade and fruiting; however, I wouldn’t count on that.

Key Lime

The Key lime is a nice small tree, so why not add Key lime pie to your balcony gardening? The downside for this little tree is its brutal thorns. Be sure they’re off to the side where they won’t scratch limbs and tear your visitors’ clothing off. Unless that’s the idea.

Lemon

Lemons are also easy, easy, easy to grow in pots. They’re not very big trees to begin with and the constraint of growing in a pot will help keep them from getting out of control. Half to full sun.

Calamondin

I covered this tree in two videos last year — first, one on the fruit in general, then a second one on how my wife and I made whiskey sours from this incredibly flavorful little citrus. Calamondins are very beautiful trees with nicely-scented blossoms. They’re worth growing just for the way they look. Bonus: some trees will fruit twice a year.

Turmeric

Turmeric is a form of ginger and is a high-value crop that gives curry its yellow coloration and earthy spice. Grow it the same as ginger. Curry on your balcony — how cool is that?

Hot Peppers

Hot peppers do really well in pots — I’ve seen some huge ones growing like shrubs. They’ll live for years under the right conditions. Add some spice to your life. Make sure your balcony has plenty of sunshine before planting peppers — they like it bright and hot.

Cranberry Hibiscus

Cranberry hibiscus is a dark red-leafed perennial hibiscus with tart leaves that are excellent in Caesar salads, plus it makes a nice hedge. They also have wonderful flowers and can be pruned as needed.

Coffee

Coffee is a great potted plant for shady spaces. If it’s freezing cold outside, let it live in your living room until warmer conditions return. The yields aren’t high but the novelty is great. Bonus: you can use the leaves for tea!

Rosemary

Rosemary likes lots of sunshine and not too much water. Give it a well-draining mix and a place in the sun and it will live for years and spice up your life.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes may actually be easier to grow in a pot on a balcony than they are to grow in the garden. The pest problems are fewer, plus they get perfect soil from the beginning. Make sure they have lots of sunshine and some breeze for pollination. If there’s no breeze, shake the plants now and again when they’re in bloom to jostle the pollen into the right place.

Lettuce

Lettuce is really easy to grow in pots. It’ll take sun or shade. Buy a packet of leaf lettuce seeds, fill a good-sized pot with soil, rip open the seed packet and sprinkle the seeds around, then lightly knead them into the soil. Water, and in a week or two little lettuces will start emerging. In a month, you can start picking leaves… and you’ll have free salads for months.

Read about fertilizing your container-grown edible plants here: How to Fertilize Your Container Gardens

More Inspiration for Balcony Gardeners

Here’s a YouTube video where I answer a couple of questions from people without much gardening space. In it, I also pretend to be John Cougar Mellencamp:

Low light? See a functioning indoor fodder growing system here: How To Grow Food In Small Dark Places; Indoor Fodder System

And here’s Bill Mollison, co-founder of the permaculture movement, showing you how to do balcony gardening: (he starts talking about balconies at about 9:06)

One of these days I may write a book on balcony gardening and gardening in small spaces.

I’ve also considered deliberately creating a small, fenced in patio at my new house as a test small space garden. Say a 6′ x 10′ space I could use as a proving ground for some of my ideas. That way I could be more help to the many of you who are living in apartments, rental houses or urban locations. I could then plant as much as possible in that space and record yields just as I do on the rest of my homestead. I’ll bet you I could pull off at least 200lbs of food in that size space over a year — probably more.

Think trellises. Deep pots. Tight crops. High-dollar vegetables and roots.

I’ll think on this idea more. For now, balcony gardeners: don’t be upset with what you have. Embrace the challenge and let me know what you grow in 2016 — I’d love to see it.

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David The Good


Contributor

David The Good is a Grow Network Change Maker, a gardening expert, and the author of four books you can find on Amazon: Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening, Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, and Create Your Own Florida Food Forest. His upcoming book Push the Zone explores growing tropical edibles outside the tropics. Find fresh gardening inspiration at his website http://www.TheSurvivalGardener.com and be sure to follow his popular YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/davidthegood.


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17 Comments
  • Gina Bisaillon

    Hey not everybody lives in California! Lime tree? Lemon tree? Ginger? Not here in Atlantic Canada!

    • I think I hear a tiny, tiny violin.

      • Simone

        I grow Ginger Turmeric and Coffee in West Central Minnesota…I haul the pots out in the summer and they winter in the diningroom,,,Why not a lemon too???…I have a empty corner of the room hummmmm Lemonade!

    • Cindy

      Hey Atlantic Canada, Not true ! I have a Persian Lime and a Meyers Lemon tree growing very well here in Central Ontario. I keep them in terra cotta planters and leave them outside from Spring to Fall. I just have to protect them from Hard frost. They are awesome producers all year long even in the dead of winter.

  • Sye

    Dear David The Good,

    You have some really awesome ideas for growing various plants out of pots.Having grown many vegetables such as melons and corn out of pots on a balcony before which typically need a lot of space I would love to try some of your suggestions you have here. I actually have found I could still grow a variety of vegetables in a small amount of space such as tomatoes, corn, zucchini, midget melons, peppers etc with really good results.

    Thank you for this post with many new seeds to try.

    • You bet. The real key is constant experimentation and tweaking – just keep on testing and you’ll figure out what works in the space and the climate. It sounds like you’re already doing excellently.

  • Shasta

    Thanks for this, David. Really enjoyed your “Extreme Composting” movie at the Summit. 🙂 We’re renting, and grew most of our garden in 3 and 5-gallon food-grade buckets last year. Had so many fewer problems with pests! It was amazing how well cucumbers and tomatoes grew. This year we’re trying the “Back to Eden” method in what was a dirt RV parking area. Thankfully it gets pretty good sun. Our situation isn’t as cramped or challenging as the questioners’ are, but still demonstrates that “when there’s a will, there’s a way.” Think it’s neat that you may block out an area to experiment with “balcony gardening.” My only concern would be the weight of the pots and soil (+water) on a balcony. Guessing plastic pots (though not the greatest) might be the safest route.

    • Sandy

      Most states I have lived in have building codes that specify limits on how much weight a balcony will bear. I have lived in some neighborhoods that are on the run-down side, so you might also want to evaluate how old your balcony is and how on the ball your city’s building inspection department is. Their are also fire codes that govern use of a balcony, and as I understand it, the fire departments will make periodic checks on balconies. If you are in a rental, your landlord may be where to start your farming project..

    • Some plants really seem to like having their roots contained. I once grew a beautiful cabbage in a tiny amount of dirt packed into a hollow stump.

      http://www.thesurvivalgardener.com/hugelstump/

      As for weight, most buildings are way over-designed for weight. So long as one wasn’t growing in lead pots – or perhaps on a wood deck – all should be fine.

      Good luck with this year’s garden!

    • Philippe Boeing

      Check on line for root pouch and bag growing. There are a lot of great working ideas to save money with container culture. Check out the Walmart shopping bags in a cheap kids pool. Or mark Arceneaux’s top of the line greenhouse and root pouch system. Great value and super productive. One step from hydroponics without the electrical costs.

  • I am amazed at how much food can be grown in small spaces! Presently, I live in a condo with a tiny little patio in the back, but I can grow alot of groceries in containers! This will be my first container garden, so I am excited about getting started with growing various herbs and vegatables, now that spring is just around the corner!

  • Sandy

    My thought on the lettuce: Wonder is this would work in an indoor garden in winter? I would plant a mix of heirloom seeds so I could have a mixture of greens in my salad and possibly see which varieties like prevailing conditions the most. Maybe mesclun mix would work? Got my brain going, David. Thanks!

    • Angela Vincent

      I grow some kind of salad indoors all year round – pea shoots, cress, baby lettuces, kale shoots, sprouting grains and seeds, basil, parsley… you name it, give it a try.

  • Catherine

    Just an FYI: there are TONS of edible and medicinal herbs that grow just fine in pots. I’ve grown so many: St John’s Wort, Wormwood, Chickweed, Wood Betony, Motherwort, Nettle, Sweet Trefoil, Tansy, Sheep Sorrel and Mugwort to name a few. Nasturtium, Calendula, wax Begonias, Geraniums, Chyrsanthemums and other edible/medicinal flowers also grow well. The only plants I would be careful of growing in pot ~unless it’s a tall planter~ are plants that have long roots or taproots, such as Valerian, Scullcap and Comfrey.

  • Anša Vernerová

    I wonder why everyone mentions the balcony gardeners and forgets that there are also windowsill gardeners too, people who do not even have a balcony or a patio.
    The size of my own garden is about 4m*20cm (i.e., the windowsills of two large windows, both oriented towards the east and covered end-to-end with large self-watering flower pots, plus the top of one wardrobe), and I can tell you: from May until September, we do not manage to keep up with the crop, there is always more than we manage to eat before the plants grow old or those that you are supposed to eat up young burst into flower (but then we just simply enjoy the beauty of the flowers instead of the nutrients). We grow about twenty different kinds of plants, including watercress, (different kinds of) basil, parsley, chives, mint (it tends to expand a lot, so give it its own small pot), oregano, salad rocket, “Japanese vegetables” mibuna and mizuna (both are plants similar to rocket but with sweeter taste), lettuce, spinach, purslane, marigold (young leaves and flowers for salads, and older flowers for tea), lemongrass (for tea and deterring flies and gnats), nasturtium (tropaeloum; an edible plant with lovely largish leaves, beautiful orange flowers and a peppery taste), radishes, baby carrots, aloe vera, tiny spicy “decorative but edible” peppers, and, of course: tomatoes (windowsill tomatoes can be taken inside before it gets too cold in the autumn and they sometimes start flowering again, in which case we harvest the last ones just before Christmas). The main challenge really is to eat it all. I am so thankful that we do not have more “land”.

  • Isobelle

    This is very interesting. I have a small space to garden and do have some things in pots. This article I find inspiring and encouraging to keep going.

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