Three years ago, I decided to start a container garden on my balcony. Given the shortness of the growing season here in New England, I figured that even with my extremely limited DIY attention span, I could certainly commit to three months of upkeep. All of this will happen on my 5-foot by 7-foot balcony. On the beach. Facing north and east. In Massachusetts. Seasoned gardeners are likely going “HAHAHA ENJOY YOUR LEGGY PARSLEY, POOR SAP” but behold, I have successfully grown tomatoes on my salty, poorly-lit, windswept balcony. With love, all things are possible. Even tomatoes.
My balcony garden last June.
So I bought some plants -- mostly herbs -- stuck them in pots, and set them outside. All went well for about six weeks when I realized there’s actually more to a container garden than remembering to water your plants on a semi-regular basis.
I did get some lovely herbs out of my first effort, but little else. I had chosen plants with basically no regard for their needs (something I still occasionally do, although now I call them “experiments” so it seems intentional) and thus lots of things simply failed to thrive, and only found a purpose as elaborate spider condominiums. (This has never changed, no matter how many books I read: If it’s July and you’re missing a spider, odds are good she is vacationing on my balcony with 10,000 of her closest friends.)
The next year I bought a book about container gardening. And then I didn’t read it and basically staged a repeat of year one.
Last year I actually read the book I bought, and surprise surprise, followed some instructions. As a result, hey, my garden kind of worked!
Every year I’ve learned something new, and my garden has gotten better and better. My goal for this year is to develop a garden plan to which I will absolutely stick; no more browsing at the garden center and being seduced by random vegetables that I haven’t planned for.
No out-of-control additions throughout the spring, as though my tiny growing space is some kind of produce TARDIS that can hold an indefinite number of plants. NO BOK CHOY.
My balcony right now. Obviously most of the pre-garden work I've been doing has not taken place there.
Desperately Seeking Small-Space Garden Porn
I both love and hate gardening blogs: I love them because they get me all excited to make a pretty pretty garden that looks cozy and lush just like that, and I hate them because they make me disappointed with my actual results, even when my actual results are pretty great. That said, I do have a few blogs I rely on for both ideas and helpful tips.
Life on the Balcony does what it says, and provides solid info and inspiration for balcony-bound container gardeners.
You Grow Girl gives advice on small-space gardening on a budget; the weird thing about growing edible crops is that it can actually be quite expensive, and You Grow Girl is an excellent resource on how to get maximum yields without spending a small fortune.
Urban Gardens is a little more hip, trending toward aethestically-pleasing gardening solutions to be bought rather than built, but it’s still a good idea farm for your own DIY versions.
On the other end of the spectrum, Urban Organic Gardener is a fantastic resource for projects and information meant to help you create a small-space garden that produces, and doesn’t just look pretty.Apartment Therapy also has some great gardening tips, as well as other good stuff for apartment-dwellers.
So far as books are concerned, my two go-to container-garden bibles are McGee & Stuckey's Bountiful Container and Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces. Note that it helps if you actually read them.
If a Container Holds Dirt, You Can Probably Grow Stuff in it
Container gardens don’t have to consist of a million plastic pots from Lowes. The more budget-friendly resources will beat this drum all day long; I am also a believer, but with caveats, as certain substances may leach chemicals into your soil and thereby into your plants.
For things you’re not going to eat, this is less of a problem, but I like to be sure anything I’m growing for human consumption was brought up in a container that’s unlikely to be putting carcinogens in the broccoli.
But once you let go of the notion that plants have to go in pots, the possibilities are overwhelming, particularly when it comes to vertical gardens, the space-savingest gardens of all. People have made vertical gardens out of upcycled soda bottles, shipping pallets, even an over-the-door shoe rack. You can use coffee cans, old drawers, even old tires as planters (although I'd encourage you to line them with something first). I’ve reached the point where before I throw pretty much anything in the trash, I first ask myself, “Can I stick a plant in this?”
Commercial Options for Lazy Gardeners
If you’re less a DIY type and more a just-buy-it type -- and those of us with small gardens also tend to be people with limited workspace for building things -- you have a few nifty options.
The Earthbox is a science-heavy self-watering planter designed by professional tomato growers to create the best yield possible in the smallest conceiveable space. People seem to love these contraptions; the down side, of course, is that their expense ($32.95 for the bare-bones starter kit, $54.95 for everything you need to get started except for actual plants) makes the produce grown far less cost-effective.
The Earthbox demystified.
I’ve ordered two Earthboxes this year, as I’ve decided my inevitable habit of falling down on the watering and fertilizing job halfway through the growing season will only be remedied by getting help from a specially-designed container. Earthboxes are self-watering, with a special reservoir and wick that keeps your plants’ thirst well quenched with little room for error, and this is a major selling point for me.
Of course, owing to their expense, there are numerous DIY projects for homemade Earthboxes -- usually built from plastic storage totes -- available online, so if you’re handy with tools and would prefer a cheaper option, that may be your way to go.
Pocket gardening is another option for small spaces that’s been gaining in popularity. Pockets allow you to garden up instead of out, making them excellent choices for small spaces. Probably the best-known version are Wooly Pockets, which can be used to create so-called “living walls” both indoors and out.
Wooly pockets at work, in a far nicer garden than mine.
Wooly pockets are made of 100% recycled plastic from water bottles, and make for gorgeous gardens. But at $40 per large-ish pocket, they’re also an extremely pricey option, and probably one more aimed at folks interested in home decor than in functional edible gardening. Although the design is fairly straightfoward and should be simple enough to reproduce, I haven’t been able to find a DIY how-to online on creating a cheaper version yourself. My plans for this year’s garden are still taking shape, but I’ll be updating you all here as things progress. I want to hear about your garden plans too! Are you a tiny-balcony gardener like me, or do you have a sprawling expanse of yard at your disposal? What are you growing?
Another pocket-gardening option is Florafelt’s pockets from Plants On Walls; they also make a compact vertical garden kit that includes a recirculating self-watering system that only needs weekly refilling. If I had $150 lying around, I’d get one of these for a super self-sufficient herb garden, but given that most herbs are pretty easy to grow anywhere, it’s hard for me to justify the expense.
My year-round desk garden. Containers via the dollar store.
And do hold me to this: NO BOK CHOY. I really mean it this year.