A big part of budgeting for me is finding ways to cut down on food, since it’s one of the only variable costs I have.. everything else is out of my control, like monthly bills and rent. I always make sure to plan my grocery trips ahead and make sure I stay on budget.
Now that the weather is getting a little bit nicer and I have so much free time now (I just graduated college! :)) I decided to cut my costs even further by starting my very own balcony garden! Many people believe that apartment living makes it impossible to have a garden, especially one that produces organic delicious edibles. But I have been doing a lot of research and found that to be far from truth.
So, starting this week I will be working on my balcony garden, and will record my progress and any tips here. Let’s start with preparation, because without the necessary preliminary work, you will find yourself at Home Depot with absolutely no plan, and might end up spending money on the wrong thing.
Disclaimer: I am definitely a gardening newbie and still learning as I go. My advice will hopefully be helpful for other beginners looking for simple ways to pick up some gardening in their free time (and small space). If you are a gardening expert – your input is always welcome in the comments 🙂
Identify Your Environment
The first step is to figure out the environment you live in, such as the climate and the direction your balcony faces.
In order to figure out what type of herbs, flowers, and vegetables you can grow in your area, I suggest going to this website and searching by your zip code. You will be provided the “Plant Hardiness Zone” for your area. Knowing which zone you live in can help you figure out what plants can survive well in that climate.
Then, take note of what direction your balcony or patio is facing to determine the amount of sunlight your future garden will receive. If it’s facing south – you lucked out, since most herbs and veggies call for 8 or more hours of sunlight a day. However, if your balcony gets less sunlight than that – don’t fret, as there are plenty of plants that thrive in partial sun and even in mostly shady regions.
Pick Your Plants
Here is the fun part! Now that you know what type of plants you can accommodate, start making a list of those you absolutely need. For my purposes, I wanted a lot of edibles (to cut down supermarket costs), some medicinal herbs, and a couple different flowers to keep my balcony looking lush and pretty.
To give you an example, I live in the 6th Hardiness Zone, and my balcony gets partial sun (3-6 hrs a day). Here are the plants I want to start with:
- Chives: I use them often for their oniony flavor. They are hardy in zones 3-10, and don’t require a lot of space.
- Lavender: It’s gorgeous, and I use it for brewing relaxing and mood elevating teas. Lavender is hardy in zones 5-10.
- Parsley: Russian cooking calls for a lot of parsley, so I’m going to need it. Hardy in zones 3-9.
- Sage: Great for seasoning poultry and for air freshening. Hardy in zones 4-10 (although it can grow in all of them).
- Garlic: Also grows just about anywhere, and there’s always demand for it.
- Onions: I use them all the time, and growing them is super easy. Easily grow in most environments, but require deep planters.
- Potatoes: easy to grow, delicious when not store bought. However, require a deep large pot. Grow in most areas.
- Tomato: because they are delicious when freshly harvested, used for many foods, and can grow hanging upside down!
- Carrots: why not? I will need a special variety that grows better in pots – this means shorter, wider and rounder types of carrots, such as Thumbelina, Parisienne, and Danvers Half Long.
- Petunias: pretty flowers for a balcony rail planter. Grow well in zones 4-8.
- Vinca: cute little flowers that easily grow in most regions, hardy zones 2-11, and come in a variety of colors such as pink, red, white, and blue.
- Oxalis (shamrocks): bloom all summer in small clover-shaped flowers of shades ranging between silver and purple. Hardy in zones 6 -11, and can keep growing all winter if you take them inside.
Pick Your Pots
Now that you have your plants chosen, you need to plan for the platers and pots for them. This is where you can get creative. Remember, not all pots need to come from the store, in fact you may have some lying around the house! Anything can work: old baskets, buckets, tubs, plastic containers, I’ve even seen herb planters made out of an old tea set! This is a great opportunity to up-cycle and design a truly unique look for your balcony garden!
Remember to make sure there are sufficient holes in the bottom of your chosen container to make sure the water can drain, otherwise your plants won’t like it.
Most importantly, do your research and find out how much space each plant needs. Then you can think about how many planters you can make out of existing materials and what you still need to purchase. Also keep in mind how much space you have on your balcony/patio. For smaller spaces, there are many great ways to use vertical space either by hanging planters or putting up shelves.
Here are some general guidelines for some of the plants I’ve chosen:
- Herbs typically require the least amount of space and can be planted in 5-8in. terra cotta pots, mason jars, baskets, and even up-cycled soup cans (don’t forget those drain holes!)
- You can also buy a large pot (16 in. or more) and plant your herbs together. Just make sure all your herbs require similar soil and watering schedule if they will be sharing a pot.
- Onions require a pot that’s at least 10 in. deep. The width will depend on the number of onions you plan on planting. Terra cotta, plastic, wood, metal, and barrel planters work best.
- Potatoes will need the biggest pot of all. They will grow in any large container – a clean garbage can, a bucket, a giant pot. Make sure it is at least 2 ft. deep.
- Tomatoes also usually need a large pot, however I am going to try growing those upside down to leave some room on my balcony. Hanging tomatoes requires either a 5 gallon bucket or a 2-liter plastic soda bottle, and I will soon post a tutorial here (if you don’t want to wait – check out YouTube for some amazing tutorials for upside-down tomato growing!).
- Carrots, the types that grow best in pots, will need at least a foot deep container.
- Flowers are the most versatile, but I plan on planting them in those rectangular boxes that I will hang along my balcony rail.
Pick Your Soil
Most of your container plants will thrive best in potting soil. Potting soil is different from garden soil. It contains more nutrients, and has a texture that prevents water from suffocating the plant. If you’re growing edibles, like me, I would suggest using organic soil, which can be found at your local home improvement store, nursery, or even Walmart’s garden center.
What about fertilizer? Well, some people suggest using it, others say “don’t”. Since I am a beginner, I can use all the help I can get, so I will opt for the slow-release organic fertilizer pellets. There is also liquid fertilizer that can be mixed in with the water you use to water your plants. In addition, you can use compost.
So There You Have It!
Stay tuned for my detailed step-by-step instructions on how to actually plant all these herbs, vegetables, and flowers! I hope this helps you get an idea of what will go into your balcony garden project. As you can see it’s not that much work, just read up on it and talk to the sales associates at your garden center.
And one final tip: hold on to the plant tags you get when you purchase your plats/seeds/seedlings (in my next post I will get into which method works best for which plants), because those tags have all the care information you will need throughout your plant’s life!