Gardening can be a fun hobby, but it also teaches useful skills. More and more people are growing their own food, whether it be for nutritional benefit, keeping heirloom plant varieties alive, or trying to gain more self-sufficiency. But you don’t have to have acres of land to grow your own crops. Even an apartment balcony can provide you with the necessary conditions to garden. You just need sunlight, a little bit of space, and the right knowledge and equipment.
Plants Need Sunlight to Grow
Exposure to the sun is probably the most important variable in growing plants. Generally, you want to face the south to maximize the amount of sun your plants receive. Western exposure is probably second-best, especially as it gets lots of afternoon sun. East-facing can get good morning sun, which can be good in the summertime when days are hot and the afternoon sun can be brutal. If you face due north, the amount of sun you get will be limited and cut down on the types of plants you can grow. Some plants like tomatoes and peppers require at least 6-8 hours of full sun as a minimum in order to be at their most productive. You can figure out how much sun exposure your balcony or garden gets by plotting your location on a sun calculator.
Calculate the Space You’ll Need
Even a small apartment balcony can provide enough space for dozens of garden pots. Smaller pots can fit herbs such as parsley, oregano, sage, and thyme, while larger pots can hold basil, peppers, tomatoes, etc. Nursery pots are often sized in gallons, based on the soil that can fit into the pot when compacted. The actual liquid volume is generally less than the stated size.
A 1-gallon pot is normally about 6-7” in diameter and holds about 2/3 gallon of liquid volume. It’s good for starting seedlings or for growing smaller quantities of herbs. A 3-gallon pot is about 9-10” in diameter and holds just over 2 gallons of liquid volume. It’s good for larger herbs and smaller vegetables. 5-gallon pots are about ideal for growing tomatoes, peppers, and root crops. About the largest pot you would want to use is a 10-gallon pot, about 18” in diameter, which would be for planting large bushy plants like artichoke, or small trees. Anything larger starts to get a little heavy for one person to carry.
Window boxes or rail boxes can be used to grow greens with shallow root systems. Expect to pay about a dollar per gallon for nursery pots, and more for pots made from clay or wood and for window boxes.
Types of Plants
The types of plants you’ll be able to grow depends on the amount of sun you get. Peppers and tomatoes will require at least 6-8 hours of full sun in order to set fruit. The more sun they get, the more productive they will be. A 5-gallon pot is plenty large enough for those plants, and even a 3-gallon pot could be sufficient for the smaller patio tomato varieties.
Certain herbs such as basil and chives thrive on full sun too. Others, such as mint, parsley, sage, and oregano can do well with partial shade. Leafy greens such as Swiss chard, lettuce, and spinach can tolerate partial shade too. Herbs can be grown from seed, which you can find at most nurseries, or from cuttings taken from mature plants. Spreading plants such as squash or cucumber can be trained to climb trellises in a pot that’s large enough to fit them.
Soil for Container Plants
Since you’ll be growing plants in containers, soil will be an important consideration. You can’t just use dirt out of the ground since it will compact around the plant’s roots and choke it to death. It also might retain too much water, leading to rotting of the roots. And it may contain soil diseases such as tomato mosaic virus, verticillium wilt, and fungi or bacteria that will harm your plants. You will need a light, well-draining soil that also retains enough moisture for the plant to survive. There are commercial potting mixes available, but you can also make your own from a mixture of sphagnum moss, perlite, and whatever other materials you desire.
Watering Container Plants
Plants grown in containers will need watering more frequently than plants grown in the ground. As with any plant, you’ll want to check to see how moist the soil is before watering, but in the height of summer when plants are fully grown and fruiting, watering daily is not uncommon. Fertilization will also be necessary, as the plants will quickly use up the nutrients in your soil. Expect to use a water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks once the plants have established themselves.
Growing your own vegetables and herbs doesn’t have to be difficult. With a handful of pots, some seeds, sunlight, water, and a little reading, even city-dwellers can start growing their own food. It may not be enough to fulfill all of your dietary needs, but the feeling of using your own vegetables and herbs in the kitchen is inestimable. And when you really need to grow your own food, you’ll already know how to do it.