Top Crops for the Edible Balcony Garden

The Balcony Garden: How to Grow Fresh Produce in a Small Space

I think you’ll agree with me when I say that some garden crops take a lot of attention or use up a lot of space, and the rewards are measly. One example is eggplant.

Others demand little attention once they’re up and running, and reward your inattention with an endless supply of delicious eating.

These stalwart vegetables are perfect choices for anyone growing their produce in a small space  such as a balcony garden– and wonderful choices for any gardener that has unlimited space!

Recently we moved to a condo, and boy, do I miss my extensive gardens! One of the first things we did was head on over to the nearest garden center, and get supplies for a balcony garden. Some plants are ornamentals, with vibrantly colored blossoms. Others are my absolute essentials –  herbs and a few containers of favorite veggies that do well in containers.

My Top 10 Choices for an Edible Balcony Garden

#1: Scarlet Runner Beans

My number one top choice for a spectacular (and edible) balcony garden is the scarlet runner bean. I’ve chosen it because this plant does double duty for you – or maybe even triple.

Once up and running, they sport gorgeous red, pink or white blossoms that are bee magnets. A seemingly endless crop of long flat pods are produced from mid summer right through to fall. And because they’re climbers, they’re a perfect plant for a trellis or privacy screen, placed at one end of the balcony.balcony garden

Plant scarlet runner beans in early summer, directly into the container you are growing them in. It could be a grow bag, a large pot or a planter box. Position them so that they grow up a nearby structure.

As they reach the top of the support, just pinch off the tops and they will be encouraged to branch out and form a visual barrier. They do best in full sun, but will still produce in partial shade. Just keep picking, and they will keep producing.

#2: Tomatoes

Next on the list of top crops for the balcony garden is the ubiquitous tomato. This one would be number one on a lot of lists, and if it created a privacy screen, it would make #1 on my list as well.

balcony gardenNo edible garden, no matter how small, is complete without tomatoes. They come in all shapes, colors and sizes. There are three types of tomatoes, each best suited to its own growing method.

Bushy tomatoes grow only a foot or so high, and are suited to a small pot or box, about a foot in diameter. These take up little space. No supports are needed, and no pinching out side shoots is necessary. They’re often mini tomatoes, and generally all ripen around the same time.

Tumbling tomatoes are best in hanging baskets, since they tend to trail over the edge of their container rather than growing upright like the bushy ones. These are, again, mini tomatoes, and can be very prolific. Not all balconies have a place to hang plants, but these will also do quite well in a window box or balcony rail box.

The third type, the vining tomatoes, grow tall and needs support. They also require a large pot or container, or a double depth grow bag. Vining tomatoes will flower, form fruit and ripen in stages over the season, so you get a continuous harvest from a relatively small space. (Last year, I picked over 35 luscious yellow tomatoes from one plant that produced from mid July to early October.)

Buy sturdy metal supports for your tomatoes to tie your plants as they grow. Pinch off any suckers that grow in the joint between the main stem and the leaves. This directs the plant’s energy into fruit production. Once your plant has set six to eight clusters of fruit, pinch off the top just above a leaf. The fruits will ripen before cold weather sets in.

#3: Arugula

This zesty green can be part of your diet all year, grown in a container on your balcony. Sow the seeds thinly – directly into the container – and sprinkle a thin layer of potting soil over them.

The best time to grow arugula is mid spring to mid summer, and then again in early fall. Some varieties are even hardy enough to grow over winter, and should be sown in mid fall.balcony garden

A location in either sun or partial shade works for arugula. The plants need to be kept well watered or they’ll bolt to seed. Snip arugula just above the smallest new leaves, and it will resprout at least a couple of times before it needs to be reseeded.

Arguable, any type of leafy lettuce or salad greens could hold this third place, but I like the tangy taste of arugula.

#4: Chard

Chard is one of the most productive crops for your edible balcony garden. Pick the outer leaves, and the plant will continue supplying new leaves for several months. In milder climates, it will keep producing all winter.

Sow the seeds in small pots inside in mid spring, and transplant them to a sunny spot in a pot or window box in late spring, spacing the plant about 8 inches apart.

balcony gardenGrow some of the rainbow varieties that have vivid stems of yellow, red, purple or pink, and you’ll also add some visual zing to your balcony.

I like to separate the stems from the leaves, and steam the leaves with a bit of butter or olive oil and a crushed clove of garlic. They are also a tasty addition to a frittata when chopped into smaller pieces.

The stems need longer cooking. They can be chopped and added to stir fries or risottos, adding a splash of color and texture.

#5: Cucumbers

Homegrown cukes are well worth the effort, and believe it or not, you can grow them in your balcony garden. Mini varieties are perfect for containers, picked when they’re around 5 inches long. There are also globe varieties that perform well and produce prolifically when planted in containers. I prefer to buy one or two plants from a nursery, but you can start your own.balcony garden

Sow seeds in small pots in mid spring, inside, and transplant them once warm weather arrives and all risk of frost is past. Use a container at least a foot in diameter, with a rich potting soil.

Once the plant has five leaves, pinch out the growing tip to encourage bushing out. As the plants grow, you many need to tie the shoots to a trellis for support.

# 6 – 10: Herbs

Herbs are one of my favorite crops for the balcony – and for my kitchen. These five are essentials that I grow in containers every year. Some are hardy enough to survive for years, while others must be replanted annually. My five top culinary herbs are rosemary, thyme, basil, mint and parsley

Rosemary is a woody shrub with dark green needles and white or blue flowers that are bee magnets. It’s an attractive plant, as well as a useful one, providing color and interest on the balcony in a container.balcony garden

It’s a Mediterranean native, so will not be hardy in zones lower that zone 8 if left out all year. However, when grown in a container and moved inside in cold months, a rosemary plant can survive and produce aromatic and flavorful leaves for many years.

Clip off a twig or two and use it with roasted beef chicken, or toss it with vegetables and olive oil to flavor roasted or grilled vegetables.

Thyme is an attractive flowering shrub with small dark green leaves. Several varieties are available, my favorites for the edible balcony garden being common thyme and delicately flavored lemon thyme.herbs for the balcony garden

Buy young plants in spring and transplant them into pots, containers, hanging baskets or window boxes. Use a mix of potting soil and sand, and water your plants sparingly. Here on the west coast, mine in containers will survive the winter, although active growth stops for the winter months.

Snip off sprigs when you want them to flavor soups, marinades or salad dressings. Once the plants flower, trim the shoots back so they don’t get leggy. If you have more than you can use, dry some of the branches by hanging them in a dark warm place. Strip off the dried leaves, and store them in an airtight jar.

Basil transforms tomatoes into a delicious salad, and makes an aromatic pesto for pizzas and to add to steamed vegetables. It’s a warm weather plant – anything under 10˚C, and growth stops. You’ll need several plants so you don’t weaken the plants as you pluck off leaves to use.herbs for the balcony garden

Sow seeds indoors – six seeds per 4-inch pot, and put the pots in a sunny spot. Thin to the three strongest plants, and when fear of frost is over, transplant them into larger pots or a window box. When the plants are about 2 inches tall, pinch out the growing tips to encourage branching. You can also buy plants each spring, and put them right outside once its warm enough.

There are many varieties of basil – Genovese, Thai, purple, African are a some – so experiment with different ones. Some are more robust than others, some more suited to indoor growing.

Mint – or should I say mints, since there are a vast number of varieties – is wonderful in drinks, as a tea, in potatoes or with lamb. You can’t go wrong with either spearmint or peppermint, each in its own pot, but choose a chocolate mint or orange mint for a bit of variety.balcony garden

Since mint quickly takes over any place its planted, each should have its own large pot or container. Mint does best in a shady area, and even does well in full shade. It likes to be kept moist.

Mint plants die down in fall. Make several harvests throughout the season and hang the sprigs to dry  for teas in winter. Next spring, they’ll spring up again.

Parsley can be sown inside, but it’s much easier to just buy two or three seedling plants, which you can transplant into a deep planter or pot for the balcony, using a rich potting soil. It will grow well in sun or shade in your balcony garden.

Parsley is a hardy plant, and the leaves can be harvested all year – even over the winter in a milder climate. The leaves grow in a rosette fashion, so choose the older outer leaves first.herbs for the balcony garden

As a biennial, it will likely go to seed in the second year. If you continue to pinch off the flower stalks, the plants will continue to grow a good crop of leaves for two or three years.

Two varieties – commoner curly and flat-leafed Italian – both have a distinctive flavor, with the Italian having a stronger flavor. It is better suited to cooked dishes, while the curly parsley is a good addition to salads or just as a tasty garnish.

The Hassle-Free Balcony Garden

Going hassle-free with the crops for your balcony garden is easy. Here are five tips:

  • First of all, go big – big containers. Choose lightweight ones of plastic, galvanized metal or even wood troughs.
  • Since containers dry out more quickly than garden soil, consider planters with a built in reservoir. Wind will also dry your plants, so keep a close watch on the soil moisture.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a faucet on your balcony, set up a simple automatic watering system with a timer set to come on twice a day for a few minutes.
  • Cut down on watering and evaporation with mulch. Bark chips would be my top choice, but you could also use sheets of newspaper, plastic, dry grass clippings or pebbles.
  • And finally, if you’re using hanging baskets or small containers, mix in a handful of water-retaining crystals. They absorb water, and then slowly release it into the soil.

Before you know it, you’ll have your own green Eden comprised of edible and beautiful crops for your balcony garden. You’ll be saving money, time and even the environment!

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