Small containers like these are going to need a lot of watering! Photo: getinterior.me
My first balcony vegetable garden, nearly 40 years ago, was a dismal failure.
I’d had my own plot in my father’s vegetable bed since I was a kid and thought I knew a thing or two about gardening, but gardening in containers was something quite different. So, that first year, I had little to show for my horticultural talents other than some very bitter lettuce.
However, at least I immediately understood where I had gone wrong.
I’d used the cheapest containers I could find (I was a student, so budget was an issue): three small flower boxes only about 4 inches (10 cm) wide and deep. They dried out so quickly I couldn’t keep up with the watering. In hot weather, I had to inundate them twice a day, morning and evening, and even then, when I rushed home from my summer job at 5:30 p.m., the plants were often already wilting.
Wilting plants, you see, don’t give delicious roots, leaves and fruits, especially when they wilt repeatedly. Mostly, they either die or go to seed!
By year two, I was better prepared. I’d kept a bunch of paint cans that, with holes punched in the bottom, were of what I thought would be a decent size for a lettuce plant or carrot or two. Still they required a lot of watering and the results were borderline at best.
However, I had also recuperated one rusty bucket that I likewise punched drainage holes into and used to house a lone tomato plant. It was perhaps three times bigger than the paint cans.
What a difference that made! The tomato plant grew to be huge and produced hordes of fresh, red, delicious tomatoes. And only needed watering every few days, not twice a day. I was onto something.
Bigger Is Better
In preparation for year three, I scrounged big containers from fall through spring. I even used a plastic trash can (hint: that was overkill)! But mostly 5-gallon (19-liter) plastic buckets. I discovered I could get food-grade buckets free from supermarkets and bakery shops (today, 40 years later, my current supermarket no long gives them away, but sells them for a dollar: more than reasonable.). Stores receive various goods in them (flour, olives, soy sauce, etc.) and would otherwise toss them after use.
I’d bring them home, wash them, then punch drainage holes in the bottom. And used the money I hadn’t spent on pots to buy potting soil, lots and lots of potting soil.
These buckets contain a large mass of soil and soil is Mother Nature’s water reservoir. So, a large mass of potting soil* holds a great deal of water, giving your system excellent watering autonomy. I found, in most cases, watering thoroughly once a week was all I needed. I know a lot of people add water reservoirs to such buckets, seeking even more autonomy, but I never found any reason to do so. I just use potting mix as a water reservoir, filling the bucket nearly to the brim with it and watering thoroughly as needed. Simple enough!
*Don’t use soil harvested from the garden in a container: it packs down and becomes hard as a rock, plus tends to harbor slugs and other pests.
As years went by, I learned to use those big Rubbermaid type tubs as well and really big and deep flower boxes to hang off the balcony’s railing to gain more space. Hanging baskets too will work, but remain iffy: exposed to moving air on all sides, they dry out really quickly, so you need big, deep ones.
I was off to the races!
Container Size Solves All
Every other “complication” of balcony gardening paled in comparison to container size. Yes, you need to fertilize and stake and run cords to the balcony above for climbing vegetables, and running a hose from the kitchen sink to the veggies is practically a must, but that’s all fairly simple to do. And yes, sun is vital … but most balconies project out, offering more sun than you might think at first. No, you probably do not have room on your balcony to grow corn, asparagus and rhubarb, but any other vegetable will grow beautifully.
Still, although I now garden in the ground again, I’ve never gotten such great results with vegetables as I have on a balcony. Not even 100 square feet (10 square meters) of growing space and yet I had vegetables enough to give away, a true urban farm. The absence of slugs, rodents and other garden pests on a 4th floor balcony was a big help, of course. And, in case you wonder, bees do visit and pollinate your plants many stories above the ground: in fact, they show up in surprising numbers.
Balcony gardening: the secret to success is the container you grow your veggies in!
Plastic can get too warm where directly exposed to sunlight. It is fine if fast growing plants make their own shade before the warmest part of summer. The sun is higher by then, so it does not take much to provide enough partial shade for the containers. Early in spring, when the sun is lower, the weather is not so warm, so some of the heat is lost to the air; and roots have not yet reached the edges of the buckets.
It is also important to contain what drains from the pots, or to at least direct it away from being a problem. It can cause rot on decks. From upstairs balconies, it can drain onto decks or balconies below.
Lowe’s sells buckets in a gorgeous, shiny cobalt blue. They sell the lids separately, in case you want an extra to store your supplies. Not that I’m endorsing.. . .