It is amazing how many edible or ornamental plants can be successfully cultivated on a medium-sized balcony — even on a small one for that matter — as long as the balcony receives at least six hours of direct sunshine and can be protected from hot or cold wind, as the season dictates. The plants can also be provided with shade, specifically between 11 am and 3 pm at the height of summer.
Sustainable, organic gardening on a balcony can, with care and planning, be achieved, although compost-making may be better replaced with brewing compost tea — this is faster to make, requires far less space and any offensive smell is very short-lived.
An open balcony can, depending on the exact location and floor of the building, be overly exposed to wind. It is, therefore, extremely important that wind/sun protection is firmly fixed in place. Working on sustainable, organic principles and avoiding plastics like the plague, the most effective wind/sun protection can be had from cane chiks firmly fastened to the panels of a purpose-made, fixed wooden frame. It’s just like a window frame but with chiks that can be rolled up or down instead of fixed glass. This wind/sun protection is best placed before you embark on anything else. A certain amount of shade protection can also be gained by growing hardy, heat- and wind-tolerant, climbing plants, such as Ipomea learii (Morning glory), as long as it is kept under very strict control.
If you don’t have space for a proper garden, turn your balcony into one
The next step is to give thought to the flooring: if the balcony floor is plain concrete there shouldn’t be much of a problem. But if it is something like marble, you may want to protect it from staining by laying lengths of old carpet or very strong cardboard, to be replaced when necessary, beneath your trays/pots of plants or beneath any old tables you choose to use for cultivating your plants on. I’m sure you know that plants are perfectly happy in containers that are above the floor.
Also, for anyone with back issues, having a garden that can be tended without the need to bend down, is a massive bonus. In addition, if the outer balcony wall is solid cement, plants are best on raised surfaces so that they get maximum light exposure and the space beneath the tables, for example, is perfect for placing a lidded compost tea bin, gardening tools and other basic gardening necessities.
Plants can also be grown on shelving firmly fixed to the apartment’s wall and in all manner of securely fixed hanging baskets.
The balcony will, presumably, have built-in drainage which must not be allowed to get blocked with plant debris or soil. This drain is an essential part of keeping the balcony floor clean and free of insects as it is easy to wash it down with a weak solution on potassium permanganate — pinky — once or twice a week but do, please, ensure that any run-off does not adversely affect residents of apartments below you. Insects, especially ants, are easily kept at bay by sprinkling lines of cinnamon (daarchini) powder across doorways, along interior window ledges and around plant pots if ants do make an appearance. Ants, large and small ones, hate cinnamon powder and will not cross it.
Clay pots, cardboard- or coir-lined baskets, wooden fruit/vegetable trays and recyclable items made from natural materials, when possible, can all be utilised to grow plants in and a metal watering can — far longer lasting than a plastic one — kept topped up with chemical-free, re-cycled — therefore cost-free — water from showers, hand washing, laundry washing, vegetable washing and even dishwashing proving that absolutely no strong detergents/chemicals are used during any of these processes. Environmentally friendly alternatives are available these days and are not difficult to find. Water harvested from air conditioning units is also perfect for plants.
Soil, naturally, will have to be bought, so please do buy the best grade you can afford, irrespective of what you aim to grow and the same goes for sacks of 100 percent organic compost to mix into the soil at an average rate of 60 percent lump free, preferably loamy soil to 40 percent organic compost. This mix is richer than for an actual garden as the roots of pot/tray grown plants are restricted to small areas from which to draw the nutrients and minerals necessary for them to thrive. This mix, with a top up feed of compost tea every couple of weeks, should keep your plants happy and healthy without further additions being needed.
As in any sustainable, organic garden, it is advisable to have a good mixture of plants, as this is a major help in confusing pests and keeping them at bay.
Most vegetables — although it is best to avoid potentially huge, spreading plants such as pumpkins, etc. — can be cultivated on balconies, aside from the usual salad ingredients. Things such as peas and beans can be encouraged to climb up netting fixed to the back wall. Herbs do well, too, and so do a countless variety of small- to medium-sized flowers and evergreen ornamentals.
Give yourself a project and transform your balcony into a miniature, verdant, paradise.
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Published in Dawn, EOS, February 17th, 2019