Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Le Soleil on June 28, 1997.
I often hear people complain that they can’t garden for lack of space. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, since I myself gardened for several years in an apartment. You don’t need a plot of land to do it. A window sill, a balcony or a terrace can give rise to a lovely, productive garden, all you need are a few containers and some potting soil.
You can choose chic, modern containers in plastic, fiberglass or wood to match your lawn furniture… or recycle various containers: old buckets, paint cans, Mother’s Day flower pots, etc. The important thing is that the container is big enough (at least 30 cm, 12 inches, high and the same for the diameter) and has drainage holes (if it doesn’t, drill some). Any garden or houseplant potting soil will do, but if you have to carry bags of potting soil up to the fourth floor on foot, prefer a fairly light potting soil.
In the Same Pot: Mix It Up!
There’s nothing stopping you from mixing flowers and vegetables in the same container. As for normally hardy plants (trees, shrubs, perennials, etc.), there’s no guarantee that they’ll survive the winter cold in an uninsulated container. If you want to give it a try, it’s best to choose plants that are highly resistant to the cold, i.e. those in hardiness zones 1 and 2.
You can also sow seeds in a container: many vegetables (squash, cucumbers, lettuce, beans, carrots, etc.) grow quickly from seed, and it’s not too late to sow them. That said, it’s best to buy most annuals as transplants, otherwise you’ll probably find that they’re slow to flower.
Garden, Step by Step
With your plants and/or seeds in hand, fill the container with potting soil to within 1 or 2 cm of the rim. It’s not necessary, or even desirable, to place a layer of gravel for drainage. Plant the seedlings first, digging an individual hole for each and burying the root ball so that its upper surface is barely covered by potting soil. Next, sow the seeds to the depth recommended on their sachet. Water abundantly and repeat after a few hours to make sure the potting soil is well soaked.
When placing the plants in the container, take care not to pack them too tightly, as most will triple or quadruple in size over the course of the summer. Place drooping varieties near the edge of the container, bushy or tall varieties towards the center.
If possible, keep the containers in a shady spot for a day or two, while the plants acclimatize to their new environment. After that, you can place and move them as you wish. Besides, a balcony or terrace garden is very modular: don’t hesitate to change the layout to highlight the most attractive containers and hide from view those that have lost their charm.
Container-grown plants require much more maintenance than soil-grown plants: when you manage to grow them well, therefore, you can award yourself the title of green thumb emeritus. Two main factors explain this higher maintenance: wind and leaching.
Wind has two effects on potted plants. Firstly, as it circulates more around container plants than it does around those planted in the garden, it removes more moisture from them and means that they need to be watered much more often, even twice a day when the air is dry and the weather windy.
In fact, frequent watering is the first key to success with pot cultivation. Secondly, container-grown plants are more exposed to strong winds and can therefore be more easily broken or knocked over by gusts of wind. In these cases, a stake can be useful. And it’s sometimes necessary to hold light containers in place with a few bricks! Finally, any container placed on a flower box stand must be securely fastened to it to prevent it from being blown away.
Potted plants that are exposed to rain are quickly stripped of their nutrients (leaching). Fertilization with a plant-specific fertilizer should therefore be carried out frequently.