Growing veggies from the balcony
Credit: AMY VAN ES
Balcony garden can be easy. Elijah Richardson of Sunnivue Farms explains to our reporter the ins and outs to sustaining a small garden on an apartment balcony.
But one day, we stumble out of our apartments to find the sun in full force and a warm breeze breathing life into the day. If you live in a shoebox like I do, your balcony setup includes a tiny table that can barely fit one plate (or three beers) on it, and two chairs folded against the wall they are needed. I never considered growing a garden.
But as spring has emerged and I find myself craving healthier food, I've discovered that balcony gardening is an easy, low-maintenance way to grow my own food.
“Balcony growing is a little bit tight, but if you have a system it can be done,” said Elijah Richardson of Sunnivue Farms, a biodynamic, organic farm outside of London.
Balcony gardens provide many benefits. With the push to enjoy organic foods, growing your own leaves no question as to where it came from or what chemicals the plants have been exposed to. It also saves money — a necessity for a student budget.
Richardson helped compile a list of tips and tricks for your own garden.
The great part about gardening in containers rather than directly in the earth is that vegetables generally aren't picky about where they grow. The most vital part to their existence is that they have enough room to grow. Finding large enough containers for your plants to flourish in is key.
“It all depends on your fruit or vegetable. Every one that you grow has a recommended depth. So, carrots need so many inches around each plant. Every one has a different size that they need. More is better, but there's a recommended size of ‘no smaller than,'” Richardson said.
For shallow-rooted plants like lettuces, radishes and herbs, they can grow in as little as 20 cm (eight inches) of soil. To grow deeper-rooted vegetables like tomatoes, squash and beans, it's a good idea to find a planter with some more depth to it in order for them to really settle in.
You can either buy planters from any garden centre, or you can make your own. There are some amazing DIY planters you can make from tutorials found on the web. There are some great ones that you can make form recycled materials like wood pallets or empty two-litre pop bottles. Just be sure to poke/drill some drainage holes into the bottom to avoid the soil moulding.
“Wood will hold the water longer as long as it's not stained or pressure- treated,” Richardson added. “[If you're using plastics] the sun's hitting it, the water's leeching it. I “would go with harder plastic containers opposed to softer plastic. But all plastics will leech to some degree. Just put some holes in the bottom and rocks for drainage and you're ready to go!”
Common outdoor garden soil that you buy in bags at the garden centre is too heavy for pots and will result in your vegetables drowning as you water them. An alternative is organic soil with no synthetic fertilizers. “You have to go to a nursery to get organic soil, but I think it's worth it,” said Richardson. “You can pick up a lot of those two dollar bags and hope for the best, but you're not really sure what's in it.”
When you purchase your seeds or plants, there will almost always be planting instructions on the package. On an envelope of seeds, you'll find how deep to plant them, how far apart each plant should be, and how much sun the plant needs. A good resource to plan your garden is plant compatibility wheels. “You can get a compatibility wheel so you can tell which vegetables like each other. You can even look at them online,” said Richardson.
There are some vegetables that are best for growing in the summer. “I really think you should grow the salads. For them, you need a big bed and it can be as low as five or six inches and you can just sprinkle the seeds both ways.”
You may also choose to include green beans, squashes, zucchini, basil, parsley and thyme. You can find more extensive lists on the Internet, but these provide a good base for many recipes to be made.
Tending Your Garden
You need to water plants in pots more frequently than plants in the ground, so be sure to check your soil often. It should always be moist, but not soaking.
Be sure to water plants in terra cotta pots more often than plastic or other materials. Because of the porous nature of the clay, it absorbs much more water.
“I think you really need to understand the plants a little bit. You have to remember that you can put ten or twenty different soils and plants and they would all do different things for you,” Richardson said. “How deep the plants' roots are in the soil effects how you water it.” For top-feeding plants like lettuces, Richardson recommends watering it a bit from the top as well.
Vegetables aren't overly fussy about how much sun they get. Richardson recommends at least four hours of direct sunlight a day.
Be cautious about setting your planters on a cement patio because they may get too warm and inhibit the vegetables' growth. If you have a cement patio, place a few towels, or a wooden pallet on the ground to rest the planters on.
Balcony gardening is an excellent way to save money, eat healthfully and feel good about producing what you consume. Its benefits far exceed what it takes to build and maintain it. With a little time spent outside in the sun, both you and your garden will flourish.
Sunnivue Farms is an organic produce and water buffalo farm located near Ailsa Craig, outside of London. The store is open during the summer Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
There, you can purchase organic fruits and vegetables from their farm as well as local, organic meats and dairy products. For more information visit sunnivue-farm.on.ca.