Start a container garden to grow plants you can eat!
A balcony vegetable garden is a fantastic way to take advantage of a limited amount of space and turn it green (and edible!). After all, just because you live in an apartment, it doesn’t mean that you can’t grow anything except for that sad looking spider plant you occasionally water. If you have any exterior space at all, you’ve got enough room to grow something.
Planning Your Balcony Vegetable Garden
Any type of gardening requires a bit of planning. When you’re working with pots in a limited space, that planning takes a different form from what would be involved if you were digging into the ground. Still, there are some basics that you need to begin growing plants anywhere at all.
Be sure to find out if plants are allowed on your balcony and if there are regulations/limitations to what you’re allowed to grow or how much you’re allowed to grow. The last thing you want to do is begin a gorgeous container garden only to have to remove it.
Once you’ve confirmed that your apartment or condo allows you to grow a balcony vegetable garden, and you’ve adapted your expectations to meet any limitations in place, you can continue your planning.
Before you buy anything at all for your balcony vegetable garden, grab a pen and paper (or your phone if you’re better at taking notes there than I am) and jot down:
- How much space you have for pots
- How much sunlight the space gets (keeping in mind that this will change at different times of the year, so you might need to approximate unless you started planning a year in advance)
- How much wind and pelting rain the space is exposed to during the growing season
- How much growing time you have (especially if you’re getting started once the growing season has already started)
This information will help to decide what types of plants you’ll grow and if you have time to grow them from seed or whether you’ll need to get seedlings this year because it’s too late to begin from scratch.
Naturally, there are a lot of other things to consider
A Note About My Location/Zone
I’m writing this from Ontario, Canada, in a growing Zone 5b. My growing times and appropriate plants might be different from yours. Find out what zone you’re in by googling it.
If you don’t know what kinds of veggies thrive in your zone, I recommend joining an online group where people in the same zone as you talk about their gardens and are willing to answer newbie questions. I’m a part of a Facebook group based in my own city that has provided invaluable advice and vital frost warnings at the start and end of the season, too. Community is a surprisingly fun part of creating a balcony vegetable garden, especially when it comes to sharing pictures of your victories!
What Do You Need to Start a Balcony Vegetable Garden?
The following is a list of the things a beginner balcony vegetable garden will require if you’re growing your plants from seed.
1 – Time
I typically start planning my garden in February. That way, I can look into different seeds and the amount of time they’ll need to grow before they bear fruit…er…veg. I take into account that the last frost typically happens here at the end of May, so I’ll need to plant inside my home before taking the seedling outside, to maximize growing time and yield.
2 – Containers
Containers need to be big enough for the plants you want to grow, but light enough that your balcony will hold the weight. Remember that the pots will be filled with soil, the plant itself, and water. For many places, this means ceramic and terra cotta are out of the question. Plastic pots and fabric grow bags* have always worked great for me, but fiberglass or rice pots are also options.
3 – Watering Can
Choosing a watering can* for a balcony vegetable garden might seem like something that can be done without any thought and planning, but it does require a bit of a balance. It’s unlikely that you have a garden hose outside to refill it. Therefore, you’ll need to remember that you’ll need to lug it from the kitchen sink or bathtub where you’ll be filling it. So it’s a balance between how much you can comfortably carry and how many trips you’d have to make.
4 – Seed Pots
These are pretty easy to obtain. Little peat seed pots* can be found online, at garden centers or even dollar stores. For fast-growing seedlings, cardboard egg crates are a perfect choice (though not for slower growing plants because the cardboard does start softening and breaking down fast). Choosing something like peat or cardboard makes life far easier than going with plastic, since you can plant the whole darned thing into the bigger container later on when you move your balcony vegetable garden outside. The seed pots will break down in the soil. It’s way easier than fussing with the seedlings and trying to get them out of plastic containers and you’re far less likely to tear delicate little roots that way. Just make sure they have proper drainage and that you’re sitting them on a plastic tray that will catch the excess water/moisture after watering.
5 – Soil
The soil you choose will depend on the seeds you choose for your balcony vegetable garden. If possible, go for your lightest choice to help keep the overall weight to a minimum. Seedling soil is great for getting plants started and a general potting soil (not the same as the black earth and garden soils you’d choose for beds in a yard) will do the trick for most beginner plants. Pay attention to options such as organic soils, if your goal is to grow an organic garden.
6 – Grow Light
Not every container garden needs this option. My windows are north-facing, so I don’t get the kind of direct sunlight seedlings need to thrive (my balcony gets far more light than my windows). If you’re growing your seeds at windows with low light, or intend to grow them away from a window, then grow lights* will be very helpful to you. These are quite affordable. I try to get red/blue LED wand-style. Mine has four adjustable wands so I can cover lots of area from one plug (which is on a timer, that I find hugely helpful). This will serve as your seedling sunlight until they can move outside for the real thing.
7 – Plant Labels
Unless you’re growing just one or two plants in your balcony vegetable garden, plant labels* will be a lifesaver for remembering what is where. This is particularly important for beginners, when seedlings offer little help in identifying what is growing. Inexpensive plant tags and a sharpie remind you what you’ve planted so that you’ll be tending them properly.
8 – Seeds
Surprise! When you want to grow a balcony vegetable garden from seed, you need seeds! What you choose depends on your local weather, the amount of sunlight your balcony gets (the more hours of sunlight you get, the more options you’ll have), ease of growing (some plants are “beginner” plants, while others take some experience and knowledge), etc. Great options for beginner vegetable seeds with a decent amount of sunlight include:
- Green/yellow beans
- Snap/snow peas
- Cherry/grape tomatoes (dwarf varieties…don’t get me started on my 8-foot cherry tomato plant. Let me just tell you that “sweet 100s” is not the variety for you)
- Herbs such as basil, parsley, cilantro, mint
- Leaf lettuce varieties (I had tons of luck with buttercrisp last year!)
- Swiss/rainbow chard
- Bok choy
- Green onions
- Some types of squash
- Some types of peppers
Make sure to read the seed packets for the growing information recommended for each specific seed variety. If your balcony doesn’t suit the plant’s needs, don’t assume that you’re the exception and that you can make it work (not that I’m speaking from experience…ahem). You’ll only set yourself up for disappointment. Instead, find the perfect match for your space, don’t over-crowd, and have fun harvesting food you grew yourself on your own balcony container vegetable garden!