Have you been dreaming of having your own vegetable garden where you can grow fresh veggies, exotic herbs, or tomatoes, but don’t have a back yard to make it happen? Well, you might be surprised how much food you can grow in a balcony vegetable garden! You don’t need much space at all. Especially for those living in apartments, there couldn’t be a better time than now to create a lush, leafy escape on the patio right outside your door. Balcony gardens are a perfect way to add joy and life to your space, especially if you’re stuck at home! Read on to learn the best gardening tips for success with your own little balcony kitchen garden.
The Right Vegetable Plants for a Balcony Garden
Can’t decide between vegetable plants and pretty plants? Some veggie varieties, like rainbow chard or scarlet kale, are both beautiful and edible. If you’re a foodie who likes to get creative, you can even strike a compromise between food gardening and flower gardening by planting some edible flowers.
Choosing the right plants for balcony gardening takes a bit more thought than a standard garden would. The varieties of vegetables or flowers you want to grow must suit your balcony garden area both in the space they take up and the amount of sunlight they need.
When creating your balcony gardening plan, the first thing to consider is how much direct sunlight your patio gets. Keep in mind that the sun may change positions a bit throughout the year (in the winter, it is lower to the south rather than straight overhead).
Even if your patio has a lot of space, the vegetables you can grow may be limited by the amount of light. Some varieties of veggies will not develop flowers or fruit if they don’t get enough sun. The same is true for many flowers, but some will still thrive in full or partial shade. Check the label or seed packet to find out how much sun your variety requires.
You need full sun (six to eight hours of direct sunlight) to grow many vegetables for a healthy harvest. Tomatoes, strawberries, squash, melons, cucumbers, and okra all fall into this “full sun” category. Although some put them in the partial sun category, potatoes really need at least 6 hours of light to grow well.
The partial sun or partial shade category means about 4-6 hours of direct sun. If your patio gets this amount of light, you can grow veggies like peas, onions, cauliflower, carrots, beets, and chard. Root crops usually need at least 4-6 hours of sun per day, but small carrots and radishes may do alright with less.
Any less than three hours of sun is considered “full shade.” If your balcony hardly gets any sun, a little kitchen garden is still possible if you choose the right veggies. Vegetable plants that can grow fine with lower amounts of sunlight include herbs, salad greens, and other leafy greens like bok choy. Shade tolerant flowers include hellebore, foxglove, impatiens, vinca minor, and fuchsia. Many herbs are also very shade tolerant, so you can try cilantro, mint, lemon balm, green onions, & garlic.
Some people may opt to get a full spectrum LED grow light for their vegetable garden if their balconies don’t get enough light for the vegetables they’d like to grow.
Especially if your patio has limited space, it is important to choose vegetable varieties that won’t get too big. Read the labels or seed packets for tips on how big each vegetable plant will get. Since container gardening has become more popular, many labels or seed packets have a note or symbol to say if they’re a good variety for pots.
Tomato plants, squash, and corn are usually the biggest space hogs. For tomatoes, you should choose a “patio” variety or another determinate tomato that is on the smaller side. There are even miniature tomato plants that grow less than two feet tall!
If floor space is limited, you can choose plants that take up wall space instead–simply use a trellis to let them grow vertically. Peas, pole beans, or cucumbers grow well on a vertical trellis (or on the balcony railing!). I love growing pretty purple-podded pole beans in my own garden both for looks and to eat. But don’t be surprised if they grow more than 4-5 feet tall!
Balcony Vegetable Gardening Quick Tips
- Choose varieties that won’t grow too large for your, pots, boxes, or balcony
- Use large enough containers for each vegetable or herb
- Use good quality potting soil
- Make sure pots have drainage holes
- Don’t let the planting bed dry out too much
- Use self-watering containers if possible in dry areas
- Fertilize as needed
- Estimate how much sun your patio vegetable garden gets
- Choose more eye-catching edible plants if you wish
- Consider drip irrigation for dry areas or busy schedules
15 Easy Vegetables & Herbs To Grow In a Container Garden
- Rainbow Chard
- Purple Kale
- Lemon Thyme
- Basil (in a sunny spot)
- Cilantro (in a cool spot)
- Green beans
- Speckled Lettuce
- Bok Choy
- Smaller-sized tomatoes
The Right Patio Garden Containers
With any garden, good drainage is essential to keep your plants healthy and happy. Any container you choose needs to have drain holes, or you must create your own. Of course, I’ve found that it’s wise to consider whether any excess water that drains out of your pots might land on any people or balconies below! If so, setting your pots on trays or using self-watering containers should help.
Especially if you live in a climate with low humidity, self-watering containers are a really great option for container gardening. This type of container holds water below the dirt in a little water reservoir so that you don’t have to water the plant as often. The water is drawn up to the plant by wicking through the soil or by the roots of the plant.
You can also find boxes that sit directly on your balcony railing, but keep in mind that they may be in danger if you live in a windy area! My little town is known for its windy conditions (and windmills) so I had to use bungee cords to secure the railing-top containers to the railing.
Garden Container Materials
Terra cotta pots may be the cheapest and most popular, bringing to mind classic images of old apartments in Italy full of colorful geraniums. Unfortunately, though, terra cotta pots may dry out quickly in low-humidity areas. Cloth or felt grow bags of all sizes and shapes are a popular container option for patio vegetables because they allow for good drainage and air circulation in the earth, promoting healthy roots.
Plastic containers are cost-effective and allow for a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Some gardeners have luck turning storage totes, Tupperware bins, and other plastic boxes into potting containers. If you do choose to get creative with different plastic containers, it’s a good idea to consider whether they are made from food-safe plastic. Check the number inside the recycling symbol on the container. Those with a number 1, 3, 6, and 7 may have a chance of leaching chemicals into your garden soil. 2, 4, and 5 are considered food safe and would be a more appropriate choice for your vegetable garden.
If you’re looking for other budget options, keep an eye on garage sales and local gardening or sale sites.
What size containers?
Always keep in mind the final size of your vegetable garden plants when choosing pots. Avoid using pots that will be much smaller than the adult plants. Most plants need a pot that is at least 10″ wide and 12″ deep to accommodate healthy root systems. Many herbs that have shallow roots will be okay in shallower containers.
A word of caution about smaller containers–if you live in a dry area, you will find that they can dry out much more quickly than larger ones and need much more frequent watering! With my first patio garden, I found that later in the season, my tomato plants got so tall and large that they would easily tip their plastic containers right over! So for tomatoes, make sure to use beds that are large and heavy enough to stay steady.
Larger plants like tomatoes need at minimum a 5-10 gallon pot, but larger is better. Large pots (18″-24″ wide) are also best for squash or large pepper plant. Medium pots (about 15″-18″) are suitable for broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, eggplants, or small peppers.
If you want to put more than one plant of the same variety in a pot, space them out according to what the seed packet or label suggests. You can also look into companion planting–some herbs grow well alongside other plants, as long as they still get enough light.
For heavy vine vegetables like squash or zucchini, I recommend choosing containers that have thick or curved edges so that the plant can hangover without getting damaged. If needed, you can use a small piece of trellis to support them at an angle as they hang towards the ground.
The Right Soil for Balcony Gardens
Don’t just rush out to the dollar store for the cheapest potting mix you can find! I can tell you right now–the soil you choose may be the number one determiner of how successful your garden is, whether it’s containers or an ordinary vegetable garden. The right plant bed is especially important for potted plants.
Vegetables in containers need a different type of soil than a standard backyard garden. Any plants you want to grow in pots need a special “potting mix” to keep them healthy and happy. Not only is potting mix lighter weight for your balcony, but it also contains perlite or vermiculite to help the roots of your vegetable plants get the air and drainage they need.
Many soils for containers also already contain fertilizer or another form of plant food, which is necessary for plants to grow (especially vegetables). This may be in the form of compost or other organic materials, or it might be slow-release fertilizer pellets.
Since many potting mixes contain plant food already, hopefully, you won’t have to worry about adding fertilizer for at least several months. But if you re-use your potting soil the next year, or if the plants aren’t growing as well as they used to, try giving them a little boost of plant food.
You can use water-soluble fertilizer to make a diluted nutrient solution in your watering can about once a month. Plants in pots can be sensitive to too much fertilizer, so be careful to follow label instructions and not overdo it. Some find it works well to fertilize their plants at half the recommended dose twice as often.
Watering your balcony garden
The best way to keep your plants happy is to try to keep the soil moisture levels steady, rather than letting your pots get completely dried out and then saturating them. Dramatic changes in soil moisture can cause many problems like cracking tomatoes, shriveling squash, or blossom end rot on pepper plants. Watering stress can also cause lettuce or herbs to bolt (produce a flowering stem) or get bitter.
Of course, many balcony gardeners choose to use a simple watering can. Many people don’t mind doing it the slow way so they can get a little time enjoying their garden space! But you will likely have to water your plants every day or every other day unless you are using self-watering containers. The soil in pots dries out more quickly than in an ordinary garden or raised beds.
If your patio has a hose spigot, drip irrigation can be a great time-saving option to help prevent water stress. The variety of dripper heads allow you to choose how much water each pot gets. Call me crazy, but I like putting my garden on a programmable hose timer when I can, so I can make sure it gets enough water even if I take a summer vacation or don’t have time to tend to them.
And just like that, you’re well on your way to harvesting fresh, tasty produce from your own balcony kitchen garden.
Ultimately, your balcony garden space is a unique creation all your own! It will grow and evolve right along with you as a gardener. One could say your patio will be like your canvas–except, it’s an edible canvas!