Having a garden on a balcony is a great way to grow your own food in a limited space. But how do you avoid the most common balcony food garden problems?
The dream of many food growers is having a large backyard where they can grow lots of vegetables, herbs and fruit.
But the reality is: not everyone can afford to own a house, nor perhaps want the work of taking care of a large backyard.
It is quite doable to have a thriving balcony food garden right in the city.
But it can also generate it’s own problems.
You want your garden to do well and grow the most amount of food possible in the limited space you have.
And living with other people in close proximity requires you to be a good citizen and watch what you’re doing.
Here are 5 tips to avoid the most common balcony food garden problems, so that you can have a successful growing space.
Obey All Rules and Regulations To Avoid Balcony Food Garden Problems
No matter if you are renting an apartment, own a condominium or even live in a townhouse or row house, you’re living in close proximity to other people.
Closer than you would if you have your own property where there is some space between you and your neighbours (or at least a fence).
Rules and regulations are put in place in these multi-family housing units to ensure everyone is treated the same.
And one of the more contentious rules is likely what you’re allowed to do on your balcony. Many places for instance don’t allow drying of clothes on your balcony, especially in North America.
And when it comes to plants, you may be limited to what you can grow and how much.
So before you even think about setting up your balcony food garden, be sure to check what is allowed and not allowed. Hopefully these regulations are written down somewhere in black & white.
Not only can you have plants but are you allowed to have automated watering systems, grow lights, small greenhouses, etc?
If not and you do have a conversation with your landlord or property manager where they tell you verbally what is allowed, follow up and make sure you also get it in writing. This is to ensure less surprises in the future.
If you’re moving to a new place, it may pay to ask questions as part of your evaluation of where you decide to live. A place that doesn’t allow any plants on the balcony may be less attractive than a place that might be a bit more expensive but allows you to have a full food garden on your balcony.
There are many stories in the news where someone is told to remove their balcony food garden – don’t let that be you!
Balcony Food Garden Sun Exposure
Plants do need light and warmth. Good luck trying to grow food on a balcony that is facing north (in the Northern Hemisphere) or one that is overshadowed by a neighbouring building for most of the day. While not impossible your plants will struggle.
Some greens like lettuce and kale can grow in as few as 2-4 hours of sunshine a day, but if you want to grow heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers, you need at least 6-8 hours of direct sun a day.
Here’s a chart to help you figure out what you can grow, depending on how much sun your balcony gets:
So again this may be a criteria to look for when looking for a place to move to. Ideally if you can find a balcony that has south exposure, that is best, but west is good too as you get the heat of the afternoon sun. Even better is if you can find a corner balcony that faces both south and west.
What about facing east to the morning sun? Typically it won’t be as hot, but it’s still better than facing north and so you can make it work.
Just also be aware of any future building projects in the area. If there is an empty lot next door that has a development sign on it, you can be sure that in a year or two your sunny balcony may end up in shade most of the day if the future building blocks most of the sun.
But not all is lost if you do have a shady balcony. You can add supplemental grow lights (if allowed – see the previous tip) to make up for less sunshine and get a portable, small greenhouse to help keep your plants warmer. And lots of people do grow veggies and herbs successfully indoors, so that’s always an option as well.
You will have limited space. There’s no way around that. Balconies can only be so big and you’re going to have to be creative with your use of the space.
So where possible grow vertically. You can grow a lot in a small footprint with various different types of planters and ways to train your plants so that they grow up instead of out.
Look for vining plants such as peas, pole beans, cucumbers, melons and even squash. These can be planted in a relatively small planter and then trained several feet up a vertical trellis.
The other alternative is to used tiered planters. These stack your plants a few tiers high, allowing you to grow the same number of plants in what normally would take up a small garden bed.
Strawberries are great for this, as well as herbs and lettuces. Here’s one that has several tiers:
Some even don’t use soil, instead they grow plants hydroponically.
Keep in mind that growing vertically can be a bit tricky as you need to really secure the planters and trellises so that they don’t get blown over by wind, especially if you’re on a higher floor of your building.
Make sure the planters have a wide enough footprint, secure them to the wall if you’re allowed to or group them together so that one supports the other one.
And a simple trellis made from three bamboo canes tied on top is the best for growing peas. I did a video on that, planting peas in a 5-gallon bucket:
Water Your Balcony Food Garden Carefully!
Nothing would annoy your neighbours more (well, I can think of a few things) to have dirty water from your balcony food garden drip onto their balcony.
Now many balconies are one above the other, so any water dripping off your balcony will likely fall past your neighbours below. But if there is a breeze or balconies are slightly staggered so that some jut out more than others, your neighbours are going to get wet!
So it’s important when watering your planters and containers to avoid overwatering.
You can check if a container is moist enough with the finger test. Insert your finger about 1-2 inches (2.5-5cm) into the soil and see if it is damp when you pull it out with some soil clinging to it.
For small containers that you can safely lift, check their weight. It’s good to know the weight of these when they are well watered so you know the difference. A container that needs water will be relatively light.
But even if you’re really careful with watering, you might still overwater a bit. So always have adequate drip trays under each container. Some come with drip trays while with others you can add a drip tray.
Drip trays can be bought at a nursery or garden centre or you can repurpose a shallow bowl or tray.
Just make sure you don’t water so much that even the drip trays overflow!
And use the appropriate watering container. A small watering can with a narrow spout can get the water into the right place and having a fine rose or spray attachment can water the soil surface evenly, especially if you’re starting seeds.
This one is perfect for balcony food gardens:
Or use a small hose if you have somewhere to connect it. Some are designed to fit over your kitchen sink faucet. Just make sure the hose has a good shutoff valve and that all the connections are tight so they don’t leak.
Here’s a hose perfect for balcony food garden watering:
Use The Right Plant Fertilizers
The final tip to avoid balcony food garden problems is to use the right type of plant fertilizer.
Especially if you’re growing organically, there are unfortunately some very smelly organic fertilizers, especially liquid ones!
That’s okay maybe if you have neighbours several hundred feet away from your garden, but living in a multi-family housing development, you are going to be quite close to your neighbours.
And they might not appreciate having their weekend brunch on their balcony ruined by the pungent scent of liquid fish emulsion!
So choose the right types. Don’t use fish fertilizer, even the ones that are touted to be low odour – I use them and trust me they are not low odour!
Instead you can use a seaweed fertilizer, although those can also be a bit pungent, but at least they smell like the sea, so maybe that’s more acceptable.
Worm castings or compost teas are also fairly tame.
Here’s a video with more info on liquid fertilizers:
And if in doubt stick with granular organic fertilizers. These tend to only smell a bit when they get wet, but you can fork them under the soil, so that they are not sitting on the surface.
I did a separate video on that:
Also avoid any of the animal manures. Usually well decayed compost should not have any smell and it’s a great way to build up your soil in planters.
So I hope these tips come in handy in planning your balcony garden and maintaining it. If you need more tips also check out Small Balcony Garden: How To Make The Most Of Your Small Space.
And if you haven’t done so be sure to pick up my Balcony Garden Guide, free to all subscribers of my weekly newsletter.
Good luck with your balcony food garden!
If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC