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Balcony Gardening

Dinosaur kale in our balcony garden. What a show-off.The one question about apartment gardening that I am asked more than any other is: what should I grow this year? Fair enough. My sort of obvious, kind of cop-out answer has always been: grow what you like to eat.

My expertise on small-space gardening was always a bit theoretical. I’ve grown tomatoes and a whole bunch of other things in a small garden at the cottage, but it’s really twice as big as some community-garden plots in downtown Toronto. Stretches the “small space” definition. This year though, we moved into a new place with a balcony, just in time to cultivate some plants that gave us food this summer and that made our apartment a more pleasant space.

Size- and color-wise the star of the show was definitely the Sweet 100 tomato plant which we started back in April and brought with us. The torrential rains of June 2013 almost killed it on a couple occasions, but the big-little guy has adapted and produced a steady stream of about a cup of tomatoes every week.

Sadly, some of these cherry tomatoes on the balcony will never ripen.

Sadly, some of these cherry tomatoes on the balcony will never ripen.

Lesson: unless you have a remarkably large balcony, it’s best to admit up front you won’t grow all of your own tomatoes and stick to cherry tomatoes.

When I’m shopping for seeds I feel like I do a pretty good job of avoiding the temptation presented by catchy names and brightly colored photos on the packets. Dinosaur kale is the most notable exception. In a pot the same size as the one that our tomato plant grows in, I planted some of this green leafy vegetable that the Italians call cavalo nero. It started off as just a very small seedling that I managed to barely divide in four, but has now flourished and absolutely filled the pot. By harvesting the lowest, most mature leaves from each stalk, I’ve actually managed to supply a decent chunk of my green leafy vegetables for the past two months.

Lessons: don’t overcrowd potted plants. If they look absolutely overwhelmed by the size of their container in May that’s perfect – by August they’ll have enough room to grow large enough to feed you. Also, starting from seed has more romance to it and seems more frugal, but buying seedlings is more of a sure shot to success.

The small garden strategy that is absolutely aces is to look at what you most often throw out and grow some of that. The obvious conclusion being that those are the vegetables the grocery store insists on selling in sizes that are incompatible with how quickly you can use them. For us, these are mainly greens and herbs. I’ve had some difficulty growing spinach – and even more trouble finding the seeds to do it – so we focused on arugula. (You could also sow a lettuce mix.) For herbs I think the key is to avoid the temptation presented by delicious sounding, but impractical flavour combinations. You’ll do better with a bit of basil and some orange zest then by committing an entire pot to growing orange basil.

Lesson: plant arugula and lettuce in rounds so that you have a staggered supply; these two do best in the cooler “shoulder” months of the gardening season. Woody herbs like rosemary and sage should be bought as plants and more delicate ones like thyme, parsley, and basil will do just fine from seed. Oh, and plant mint in its own container.

The general lesson for small space gardening that I’ve learned this year is that it pays to consider how we share the space with our garden. We love that our balcony has a garden on it, but we also want to sit there every so often. We knew that our tomato plant would grow to be quite large and that it would need a fixed position once established, so we put it in the balcony’s sunniest corner. Because it is sturdier and more compact the kale can be moved around and sits in the middle the balcony to catch as much sun as possible when we’re not out there and moves back into its corner when we are. Finally, to get the most vertical use of the space we built a custom ladder and hung pots of herbs from it.

Soil is even more important for small-space gardening than it is outside. The folks at Pefferlaw Peat Products sent me a bag of their organic potting soil and I’m happy to report that it was in the pot that performed the best (the kale’s), but it’s nearly impossible to control for that variable alone.

With more experience under my belt I hope my improved tips are helpful. I’d love to hear how your gardening adventures turned out this year, as well. Please leave your comments or questions in the comment section below.


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Posted in: Gardening, Harvest, Progress, Seed Starting.

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