I’m not surprised that people live in apartment buildings more now than ever before. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, occupied apartments have increased by 75% over 25 years, influenced by factors like convenience, lifestyle choices and perhaps above all housing prices. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I know plenty of people who prefer living in apartments for those reasons, including myself. Many modern buildings are designed with sustainability in mind, too, appealing to renters wanting lower utility costs.
words Kezia Lubanszky
Luckily for green thumbs, apartment living doesn’t have to mean sacrificing a garden. There are plenty of things you can do to utilize small spaces like balconies or indoor areas to make an edible garden or sanctuary. The result depends on the work you can commit to, but there are low-maintenance ways to spruce up your space, including vertical planting, hanging pots, and upcycling old goods like ladders and crates to make unique pots and arrangements.
You don’t need to have a sprawling backyard to grow an edible garden – some plants thrive in non-traditional environments. Check the specific requirements for the plants you want to grow as they will all have different sunlight and watering requirements depending on the climate you live in. You should also understand the effect of sunlight on your balcony throughout the day. Beyond that, the trick to keeping any plant alive is trial and error, so pay attention to signs of sickness, wilt, or overwatering, and alter your routine accordingly.
Check the structural integrity of your balcony before planting or installing anything heavy, and always double check with your landlord about hanging plants if you are renting.
Balcony gardening techniques
Vertical gardening is your surest way to make the most of a small space. Like our homes, our plants are moving up, and if you’re creative you can make a vertical garden using almost anything. Chicken wire is an excellent and accessible tool that can be used to support vines or pots. If you’re particularly handy, you can build a planter box, but stacking old crates and boxes works just as well while adding an upcycled, rustic effect.
A vertical garden can be as big or as small as you want it to be. For a quick and easy project, cut some chicken wire to your desired size, frame it with wood, and fasten it to a wall. Use old jars, tin cans or recycled food containers to hold plants and tie them on with extra wire. Tin cans scrub up surprisingly well if you remove the labels and paint them.
Upside-down gardening is a fantastic option for saving space and minimizing upkeep if you have a structure strong enough to suspend your plants. A sturdy hook or piece of rope can support plastic pots, but you should always check the stability of the structure you are attaching it to.
An upside-down plant sits roots-up in a bucket with a small hole cut in the bottom. This allows the plant to sprout through the end of the bucket and for water to drain down from the plant. A benefit of this method is that there is no need for a support system for the plant itself, making it an excellent option for vines.
Gutter gardening is a fast-growing and adaptable trend. The base technique involves taking a piece of guttering cut to size and attaching it somewhere on your balcony or placing it on a stand.
You can use your gutter garden as a divider, place it along the ground, or attach it to the top of your balcony railing. Guttering is a good size for growing seeds. Consider growing seedlings in it if you like to propagate or grow from scratch. It also suits smaller plants, but nothing with roots that require more depth.
Growing herbs on your balcony
Herbs are ideal for balconies as they are suited to a range of different environments and are often hardy and easy to grow. Many herbs can thrive in both large and small pots, so consider using these in vertical arrangements or hangers.
- Dill is a perfect kitchen herb. It grows a long taproot and should be kept in containers at least 12 inches deep. It should have 6-8 hours of full sun each day. Ensure the pot is well-drained and water the plant well so that it doesn’t dry out.
Dill seeds are easily harvested by cutting off the stem and placing it in a paper bag until dry. Shake the bag gently and collect the seeds when they fall out of the dried plant.
- Mint is a hardy herb, perfect for beginners and not-so-green thumbs. It grows rapidly and will keep growing as long as there is space in the pot. Mint prefers morning sun and partial afternoon shade.
You can easily propagate plants by snapping off a stem, removing the leaves and placing it in water. When roots appear, transplant it to a new pot.
- Basil needs 6-8 hours of sun each day and should be given space for air to circulate so as not to encourage the growth of fungus. It doesn’t like to be too wet or too dry, so pay attention to any signs of overwatering or wilt.
Aromatic and delicious, basil grows in almost any container. When given enough space, it grows large and bushy, perfect for a batch of homemade pesto.
- Chives are the easiest to grow of the onion family and are a fantastic kitchen herb to have on hand. The plant grows best in a sunny, well-drained position and is fairly drought resistant, requiring water only twice a week in the right climate.
Chives grow well in small pots. With its remarkably short turnaround time, growing even a small amount can produce a decent harvest.
Growing vegetables on your balcony
- Tomatoes vary depending on the type, but should generally be grown in a pot of five gallons or more, so plastic is a smart choice. They like 6-8 hours of full sun each day and should be watered daily in warm weather. Avoid wetting the leaves when watering to prevent powdery mildew.
Tomatoes are notoriously prone to suffering in cold weather. When temperatures drop, the fruit will often cease to ripen and plants may die. You can harvest green tomatoes and ripen them indoors, or you can try moving your plants inside, ensuring they still receive the right amount of sun.
- Eggplants, like tomatoes, come in a wide range of varieties. They prefer the same warm conditions as their fellow vines, and like them will often die off in the colder months. Ensure your pot is big enough for the plant’s root system and install a support system like a stake or tomato cage.
Eggplants look beautiful in any environment. Arranged thoughtfully, they can add a tropical aesthetic to your balcony.
- Lettuce grows best in cooler conditions and should be brought inside during frost. It requires constant watering but is also prone to root rot if proper drainage is not in place.
Lettuce is a small, easily manageable plant for apartment dwellers, and it looks great in a pot. Plants require breathing room, but with a pot of six inches or more, you can plant multiple varieties for a colourful burst effect.
- Peppers are fantastic for balconies because they are both practical and decorative. They grow well in pots and need at least five hours of direct sunlight. In warmer months, you should water peppers twice a day.
Although peppers are self-pollinators, growing them on a balcony away from bees and other plants may postpone your harvest. To hand-pollinate, shake the plant gently a few times a day during blooming season. This sprinkles the pollen across the plant and encourages fruit.
Many other plants thrive in pots and on balconies, including beans, spring onions and strawberries. The possibilities for innovative growing are endless. If you’re new to things like propagating, taking cuttings – even keeping a plant alive – don’t let the prospect of losing a few plants deter you. The key to good gardening is perseverance. Pay attention to the way your plants respond to things like sunlight, water, heat and cold. Soon enough, you’ll be reaping the benefits of a healthy, edible balcony garden.