Vertical Gardening - The Condo Balcony

So you have decided. This is the year you are going to start rocking a balcony garden - it’s such a small space it’s going to be a breeze.  We will get back to the breeze in a minute; but for now understand, you are embarking on an extreme gardening adventure by growing plants in conditions that most won’t appreciate, and you want it to be successful.  Certainly more people are enjoying a balcony as their outdoor space these days, and gardening is being taking to new heights.  Read on to avoid the potential pitfalls.

Container gardening on a balcony is an art form, a balance of natural and unnatural.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to understand the issues that others have encountered and build on those mistakes with a dose of creativity and flare.

Breaking Bad – or not.

The most important thing?  Please, check with your strata for rules and regulations governing how you can use your outdoor space.  Your urban jungle might not be appreciated by those making the rules.  Beyond the basic permission, get an idea of how much weight is allowed on your balcony as well.  The average size container with soil and water might weigh upwards of 100 pounds or more.  So make sure that you are allowed and also than your balcony can endure the wonder of your garden ideas!

A Harsh Environment.

The next step before you start your foliage explosion is to consider the conditions on your balcony. The breeze, in most cases, can be quite a bit stronger than it is at ground level so be sure to plan for that; and beyond the wind consider the sun.  How does it hit your balcony?  In a fascinating gardening twist, you can literally expect that there are micro climates on your balcony due to the angle of the sun and the direction your unit faces.  One side might get blistering sun while the other it’s completely shaded all day.  Be sure to understand this above all else.  You need to assess this aspect properly for your chosen plants to thrive.

What Goes Where.

Site conditions assessed? Check. Ok, so on to the fun part-design.  Balcony garden design is not as simple as you might think, and actually deserves an article of its own.  Let’s break down the bare bones basics.  

Balconies are small spaces and in general benefit from a more formal style.   Even if you choose informal, you will need to have organization, ensuring both mobility around the area and a usable space.  If the jungle takes up the whole space there is no room to enjoy it! Do you travel a lot in summer? If you do, selecting plants that are drought tolerant might be your best bet.  Is watering going to be convenient or a chore? 

What is the purpose of the balcony garden? It might be food, tranquility, or anything else you design. Just make sure you think about it before you go on your buying spree.  Thinking of the buying spree, gardening can be pricey if you let it.  Make sure you know what you budget is and stick to it, just as for everything else in life.

Contain your Enthusiasm.

It is unlikely that you will be allowed to fill your balcony floor with a layer of dirt, so the most obvious garden decision for us is to grow in containers.  But that obvious decision can be a hard choice.  There are so many containers out there to choose from.  In general choose larger containers (considering the weight limits).  Not only can you fit a more exciting combination of plants, but with more soil, larger containers are better able to keep moisture in extreme summer conditions, and also help insulate plant roots from those summer highs, and winter lows.  Also, give yourself as much weight room as possible for plants and soil by selecting lightweight metal or fiberglass containers…try to avoid the resin or cement options.  If they feel heavy as you haul them up to the garden centre till, imagine getting them upstairs and full of soil and water after planting!

Soil is Everything.


So you have a plan and you’ve snagged some wonderful planters that are light weight, and as a bonus were on sale too (way to stick to your budget)!  Wait, did you remember to buy soil?  This is where you should blow your budget.  The harsh conditions on the balcony make life difficult for plants.  In a natural ecosystem, plant health is linked directly to soil health.  Same thing goes for your container.  Spend the money on things like compost, worm castings, and beneficial microbes to enhance the container mix you are buying.  Your plants will appreciate the upgrade and perform the way you want them to; well, as long as you remember to water them.  

Some people, considering the weight issues opt for filling containers with Styrofoam or other light bulking agents.  Always remember that while reducing weight, it also severely restricts roots and the amount of area they have to grow in.  And we won’t even get in to things like perched water tables.  So be sure you understand why you are adding fillers.

When it comes to planting you need drainage in your containers.  However, drainage holes can be great places for soil to escape.  Consider adding a small piece of landscape fabric or even a coffee filter to restrict particulate from escape while letting water soak through without a problem.

Planting Prowess.

When it comes to plant placement there are so many rules.  First if you buy multiples of the same plant, make sure it’s an odd number.  Trust the experts on this one, it looks more natural.  Choose plants of varying heights, generally at least one plant as tall as the container or slightly taller.  If possible find a group of plants, some with shallow roots other with deeper roots to get the most from your soil space. And when you are planting make sure to apply a bit of mulch to the surface- bark, leaves, sawdust, compost anything to help keep the soil moist.  If your space gets so much sun it’s like a furnace, going to be better with a Mediterranean or succulent design?  Great work doing your assessment at the design stage and there’s no need for mulch and look for quick draining soil!  Also remember to fill larger containers in place or your back might realize in horror that they are not meant to be moved after.

Feeding Fantastic.

A basic consideration is choosing how to feed your plants.  The regular potting soils for containers are usually quite low in nutrients and in most people will be using normal fertilizers.  While, I admit a bias towards organics, in this case you should use nothing but organics.  Not to start an argument, but let’s examine the reasons.  

First, containers go through a lot of water.  Some chemical fertilizers will not evaporate with the water and can form salt build ups.  These can impact how plants absorb water and can even become toxic. These salts have nowhere to go in containers, good news for local streams, bad news for your plant roots.  

Organics can also foster good biology in your soil and even improve the soil’s ability to hold air and water.  A perfect choice for containers are worm castings.  Potentially even ones from the worm bin under your sink, but that’s an article for another day.  If you can’t find worm castings you can mulch in an organic powder into the first inch of soil at the start of the year or go with the convenience of an organic liquid feed.

The wonders of water.

There is nothing more amazing to add a water feature to any garden.  Balconies can still find room in very small space for the soothing sounds of water.  It gives an entirely new dimension to your outdoor space, and maybe a couple of goldfish too.

Balconies might be small, but their potential as gardens is only limited by your imagination. That is, once you know the do’s and don’ts.  Enjoy your creative thinking; and most importantly be sure to water (but not too much) and enjoy your sky high gardening experience!

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