The truth is you don’t need a patch of open ground to plant an edible garden. If you plant varieties bred for container-growing, you can reap the rewards with no garden ground at all. There are plenty of vegetables you can grow in containers on your balcony or patio and still reap a bountiful harvest. But let's make it easy and start with just five favorites.
The Pros and Cons of Container Gardening
Container gardening can solve, or at least work around, many problems:
- If you have physical limitations that make it difficult for you to bend or kneel on the ground, containers can give you easier access to the plants.
- Soil in containers warms up before soil in the ground, giving heat-loving seeds and seedlings a jump on growing.
- Containers can add color and style to your balcony or patio while they provide mobility and flexibility to your plantings.
But let’s also discuss a few of the challenges of container gardening:
- Container plantings need more frequent watering and can suffer greatly in extreme heat or high winds.
- The salts in potted soils build up over time and need to be flushed from the containers occasionally before they become toxic for salt-sensitive plants like citrus.
- Container-grown trees will need to be taken out of their pots every three or four years and root pruned before repotting in fresh soil to keep the root system healthy and prevent the trees from becoming root-bound.
Choosing the Right Containers
Containers can be almost anything large enough to hold the mature root system for the intended plant and can be made of clay, wood, plastic, fiberglass, or other materials, but for use on a balcony, it’s probably best to stick to the lighter-weight containers.
Another good option is a fabric grow bag. They come in a range of sizes, are sturdy, and allow for good drainage and aeration to the roots. They are reusable for at least a few seasons and can be washed out and stored easily in between plantings.
The one essential quality for your containers is that they must have drainage holes. And since you probably don’t want water draining out all over your balcony, you should provide saucers under the containers to catch the overflow water.
For larger plants, you may want to use lighter-weight containers in case they have to be moved. Another good idea is to put large containers on caddies with casters to make them more mobile or set multiple containers on wheeled display shelves.
Choosing the Right Soil
It’s essential that you choose good-quality potting soil for your containers plants. Never use soil you dig up from the garden in containers! It’s likely to be too heavy for container plants and you will likely introduce any number of pests or pathogens into your balcony garden.
I’ve been happy using Kellogg Patio Plus organic potting mix, but there are a number of good potting mixes available from various companies. I often lighten it up by adding in some perlite for better drainage, but I think I may be switching to rice hulls for this purpose since perlite is not a sustainable product.
Choosing the Right Plants
Your best bet is to choose varieties that have been specifically hybridized for container growing. Plant growers have been working hard to select and develop varieties that are compact but still productive. For the best selection of container edibles, plan on growing from seed; most garden centers will only carry a small number of vegetable plants suitable for containers and they’ll probably sell out quickly.
Here are five veggies that are well-suited to a balcony or patio garden:
Smaller tomatoes can do really well on a sunny balcony or patio when they’re determinate varieties bred for containers. Look for ‘Litt’l Bites’ (cherry tomato), ‘Inca Jewels’ (Roma tomato), or ‘Tasmanian Chocolate’ (slicing tomato), all from Renee’s Garden Seeds. Be sure to plant in a large enough container--5 gallons should be the minimum to give the plant enough room to develop a good root system--and give them a really sunny spot.
Bok Choy (Chinese Cabbage)
These small cabbages pack a lot of flavor and nutrition in a compact form. Try Baby Choi, Toy Choy, or Rosette Tatsoi from Botanical Interests. They tend to be pretty cold tolerant and can grow in partial shade.
Look for varieties that produce a lot of smaller eggplants rather than fewer bigger fruits. Try ‘Little Prince’ from Renee’s Garden or ‘Patio Baby’ from Burpee. Eggplants do need some direct sun exposure but because these fruits are smaller than the usual varieties, they can make do with a bit less than full sun.
If you’re looking for a truly easy veggie to grow on a balcony, then lettuce is the thing to try. The cut-and-come-again varieties are especially good because you can start to harvest in just a few weeks and can keep them going for many more weeks. Renee’s Garden has a ‘Baby Mesclun’ mix and an ‘Heirloom Cutting Mix.’ For head lettuce, try ‘Little Gem Romaine’ from Botanical Interests or ‘Tom Thumb’, a small butterhead lettuce from Territorial Seed. Lettuces do great in light shade.
Another option for a healthy, easy-to-grow green is Chard, and there are so many colorful options available now. Territorial offers their ‘Electric Neon Blend’, Renee’s Garden has ‘Pot of Gold’, and Botanical Interests has ‘Five Color Silverbeet’. Chard is also available in baby leaf mixes to harvest as a cut-and-come-again green. You can plant chard in almost any sun exposure, from full sun to light shade.
* * *
This article contains affiliate links.