Hacking a practical balcony garden for herbs & veggies
April 12, 2015 9:11 AM   Subscribe

This is my fifth year troubleshooting a balcony garden, but I always end up with either a jungle (where there's no longer any space to enjoy sitting at my small bistro table), or the plants just poop out because they can't handle the intense sunlight in the latter portion of the day.

My constraints:
- 3ft x 10ft balcony with rails
- US zone 7 (Virginia)
- Western-facing balcony on the third floor of four with indirect/moderate light in the morning/early afternoon and very intense, direct sunlight starting around 4-5PM until sundown around 7:30-8PM
- No real access to top-down sunlight unless I'm using window baskets, since I have another balcony blocking out light from above me
- Sliding glass door, so I can't use the non-sliding door to put up vertical planters/trellises because it would prevent me from sliding the door open
- The sides of the balcony are partly fenced in by flat, brick/white columns, that block out a good bit of side light. Also makes it difficult to put trellises or vertical planters on the side.

Here's what I've done in the past:

- Two years in a row I had an eastern facing balcony, same apartment building as now. The eastern facing balcony was great because the plants would get excellent sunlight from early morning and then gently wane as the day went on. Unfortunately, I didn't understand what I was getting myself into the first year, and my tomatoes and hot pepper plants became an impenetrable jungle. The second time around, it was much more contained, but I still had very little open surface area within which to walk - too many containers all over the balcony. Sliding glass door, again, didn't leave much room to put up vertical planters. I tried using a shelf in the sunnier corner, but almost no light would get to the plants that weren't on the very top shelf. Also, my tomato plants ended up with bottom rot both times because I didn't get it the proper amount of nitrogen and calcium (this year I'm trying the coffee grounds/eggshells; I'm also picking up a bag of organic guano/crushed shellfish fertilizer to work in as needed).

- Last year I limited my now western-facing balcony to a few herbs and a jalapeno plant, and everything just kind of muddled along. Okay results, but certainly not bountiful or very happy looking. The yields were weak compared to when I had eastern light.

What I'm doing this year:

- Growing 80% of my plants somewhere else: Since my parents now live within fifteen minutes of me, I'm using part of their backyard for a raised bed garden where most of my vegetable plants will be living - this way I can keep my balcony garden more realistic.

- Herbs on the balcony: On my balcony railing I'm using two metal window boxes with coco-liners, very similar to this, in which I'm growing cilantro and sweet basil in one, and rosemary and german thyme in the other. (The sweet basil is freaking out because neglected to harden it before transplant; same with the purple basil I planted there and have since removed to a small container - any way for these guys to bounce back and be returned to the window box?).

- Herbs, pt. 2, and tomatoes on the balcony: I have a few wooden wine boxes that I've stacked up in the corner of my balcony that gets the best light, and that's where I have set up high a 15" container with a Patio Tomato plant, as well as a small lavender plant (8" container) and another 8" container with Thai basil. I set a 12" container with Yerba Buena mint on the ground in front of the stacked wooden boxes. Maybe this would be a good place to switch out the stacked boxes and put up some kind of vertical planting system, but how? There is vinyl siding that I cannot drill into, then a gap and then a brick column.

- Hot peppers on the balcony: Limiting my balcony efforts to just one, apparently container-loving Dragon Cayenne. Two years ago I had amazing success with a regular cayenne plant on my balcony - it produced hundreds of peppers into October - but I don't know much about the Dragon Cayenne. It's on a raised plant stand at the edge of the rails on the opposite side of the balcony. It should get fairly decent light there, but the intensity of that light at evening is of concern.

My endgame is to find the best way to arrange these plants, if they can even be rearranged. What containers should I use, where should I put them, and how can I arrange them vertically, if at all? Can I fit in one or two more hot pepper plants (like a jalapeno)?

Tips for how to properly feed and water container herbs, tomatoes and peppers (I've read that peppers need mulching to keep the humidity in, but haven't tried this) are greatly needed and appreciated. But ultimately, this is more of a layout/design question, because the western light is just too ornery and I need to know how to deal with it.
posted by nightrecordings to Home & Garden (3 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think what you may want is an outdoor version of a ladder shelf (so the top doesn't shade the plan underneath) or maybe even better would be something that ends up shaped like stairs (I'm having trouble understanding exactly what your layout is, so maybe that's what you're doing with stacked boxes?).

Coir is crap, it just invites your soil to dry out instantly. I really prefer a reservoir box - I use these, but I rent a house so they are on the large patio, but there's this type as well. I just use basic bark mulch, or newspaper, if I bother at all. My tomatoes and peppers love those knock-off Earth boxes.

For the nastiest of the late-afternoon sun, you may need to position an umbrella or a little flap on your balcony ceiling that'll block or reduce (shadecloth might be an interesting option here, so you get some light) the amount of sun that makes it to the plants.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:41 AM on April 12, 2015

The ladder shelf approach is a great one, and plants will happily lean out to compete with each other for light and airspace in them (rather than competing with you for patio space).

I'll second Lyn Never by saying that open-soil coir-lined planters will do nothing for you unless you're planting succulents in them. Coir is great as a soil filler, but as a planter liner that contacts air it's just going to be wicking all your water out to the wind. You should be able to find smaller enclosed boxes that fit the metal wire cages of those planters, and your plants will do much better if you put them in something with more solid, water-retaining walls. Everything growing in a container will thank you for adding a thick layer of mulch over the soil.

In all cases, encourage your plants to grow in a way that sends their stems and leaves tumbling over your balcony. It shouldn't be too difficult to train most plants in a way that will help them figure this growth pattern out for themselves. Container plants benefit from the addition of soils that are better at retaining water generally, and it's inexpensive to fluff up container soil (even if only the top inch) with some earthworm castings and dried sphagnum (which you can buy ground up in bags for cheap). Worry less about specific nutrients unless you start seeing specific growth problems. Use a good, rich soil with slow, adequate drainage and you'll likely not need to worry about other amendments.

Basil can be a bit of a jerk, and you might be better off leaving the basil out of the mix (in my experience, the purple cultivars are even pickier than the standard green/italian cultivars).

A 15" container is pretty small for a vining tomato. You can save yourself some headache there by going with a bushier cultivar (like early girl) that'll do better in a smallish container as it won't be pouring so much energy into vegetative growth. You can direct your plant choices in the future in a similar way: bush beans instead of pole beans, for instance, take up heroically less space.

How did you get yerba buena going in Virginia? Out here (on the peninsula formerly named Yerba Buena) it can't really handle too much sun or high-humidity heat.

Lastly, experiment with plants until you find the one that loves the growing conditions you have. For me, that plant has been arugula, which is all but unkillable for me and requires zero care beyond a bit of water. If you like arugula, give it a shot--the seeds germinate crazy fast and letting even one plant go to seed will keep you stocked with enough seed for your next round of planting (I plant new arugula seeds every two weeks in different containers to keep my supply of young leaves adequate).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:17 AM on April 13, 2015

Oh, yeah, out of many years of fighting and fussing with full-size tomatoes in containers, I've finally conceded that lots of grape, cherry, and small tomatoes are preferable to two full-size fruits (one of which the birds will get before you can pick it) and then basically nothing because it sucked up all the nutrients out of your soil making lots of flowers.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:20 PM on April 13, 2015

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