BY Krista Brehm
Spring and Summer are times of growth and renewal, so why not give your apartment balcony a makeover and get back to nature. Not only will it give you something to look at other than the neighboring buildings it is also a great stress reliever. When I moved to the city I missed all the green I was used to having around me so container gardening on the balcony was a perfect fix. Many plants can be grown in pots with other varieties so you can create potted arrangements. You don’t need a lot of space to create an oasis you can go to recharge without having to drive out of the city. So bring a little bit of nature to your apartment with a few helpful tips!
Probably the most important thing to know when starting any garden is what type of plants will survive and thrive where you live. Variables such as how much direct sunlight your balcony gets, is it covered (if you are not on the top floor then odds are you cant rely on the rain to water your plants for you), and how windy it is.
I would suggest getting a guide to native plants of NC to see if there are any that you like that will also survive several blisteringly hot days in a row. I know I have burned the leaves off my plants a few times because they got too much direct sunlight. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in the gardening center, they can at least direct you to the types of plants you are looking for and often times they even have some tips and tricks for you.
Then depending on what plants you pick you might get into the habit of watering them every day before work, or when you go to sleep. Another gardening tip is knowing what time of day to water, if you water them only when it is hot out then the water might evaporate before the plant can absorb it, so be sure to water it in the morning or evening when it will have a chance to drink up. You might want to consider getting a large Watering can so you don’t have to make multiple trips to the sink (or bathtub) to refill.
The higher your floor the windier it tends to be, tall plants wont do very well if they are constantly being bent by the wind (a fix for this would be to place it behind a thicker foliage as a buffer but in general you want to go for the shorter plants that wont mind the wind.
One big decision in choosing what plants to buy is perennial vs. annual. In other words do you want all your plants to come back next year? Or do you not mind buying new plants each spring? I find a mix of the two is best that way you can pick a few plants to replace and try something else the next year without having to overhaul your garden completely every year.
Just like when you are building anything, the materials you use can determine your overall success or failure. Terra Cotta Pots may be more expensive and simple but they offer better drainage and less toxins, where as plastic pots will need drainage holes and even some gravel on the bottom layer to give enough drainage. Now you might say “wait! I thought plants need lots of water!” and while that may be true, too much water can cause root rot and end up killing your plants just as easily as not enough water. Most plants you buy at Lowes or home depot will have a little plant marker that tells you about your plants needs, its always a good idea to read up on your plants before buying them. With that said, a container garden can be grown in almost anything as long as it has drainage holes poked in the bottom so you have room to get creative. Your balcony floor might get messy or scratched from moving around the plants so you might want to consider raising the pots to protect the balcony floor. Much like putting a blanket under furniture before moving it.
Next is the soil, there are potting soil mixes for all types, flowering, veggies, dry plants like succulents, cactuses and even orchids. And while this will give it a good start you will also need plant food when the soil has been sucked dry of all its nutrients. There are several varieties for different types of plants as well as different formats, liquid that you add to your watering can, top soil to reinvigorate it, and even pellets you mix in with the dirt. There are plenty of guides to help you pick the best one.
One essential tool you will need to care for your plants is a big watering can. If you have a lot of big plants then you will need a big watering can to keep you from having to make multiple trips to the tap. But if you have mainly smaller plants and pots then the smaller watering can will work without over watering them. You will also want a pair of gardening gloves, shears, shovel and hoe for when you need to repot them every few years. If you don’t repot then the roots will ball up at the bottom so you will need to trim their roots and repot them (also a great chance to give it new soil chalk full of nutrients).
Form and Function
Do you love to cook and relish the idea of fresh basil and oregano, maybe mint for mojitos? Or are you more interested in the aesthetic aspect of a balcony garden? While most herbs can be grown in pots on your kitchen counter things like tomatoes, strawberries, and peppers will need extra care and maybe even a trellis or cage to help support them. On the other hand there are plenty of pretty plants that are just nice to look at and add color and texture to your garden. In the end it all depends on what you have time and space for. But lets not forget about our four legged friends, when choosing plants make sure they are not poisonous to dogs and cats, things like fox glove and poinsettias are highly poisonous to your pets.
Mixing the sizes of the pots will help add dimension to your garden as well as save on room. Another thing to keep in mind when designing your garden layout is if you want to relax there or just grow there. A chic bistro table and chairs will give you a cute area to eat brunch or read on a sunny day. And while you’re at it you can add a few little decorations to make it unique. You can also line your railing with hanging window boxes but be sure they are facing in and not hanging over the street so they don’t get blown off and hit someone below. Climbing/clinging plants like ivy would also love the railing on a balcony as well as give you a little privacy.
Many plants attract insects so if you are allergic to bees or ants then make sure to look up what plants to avoid. On the other hand there are also plants that repel insects so if you want to grow veggies and fruits then consider planting marigolds with them to ward off other insects. Even in the city you are going to get a few bugs so if you can live with a bug then let them be and worry about the more harmful ones instead. You may not always like them but bees are important to gardening and life in general. They help pollinate more than just flowers, they play an important roll in all agriculture so consider putting a shallow dish of water with a few rocks poking out so the bees can have a drink after pollinating your garden. You might also get a few feathered visitors so a home made bird feeder would be a fun touch.
Plan, plan, plan!
I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan what you are going to buy. It doesn’t have to be all work though, have fun with it and make a Pinterest board for inspiration and to gather info on the best plants for container gardens and maybe even come up with a color pallet for the flowers you plan to buy. Time of year is also important when planning when to start your garden. You can buy things like pots and tools during winter that way you can buy the plants in spring. You can try to start it in the dog days of summer but the wise gardener waits until the seasons are working with them.
Don’t buy patio furniture without looking at the dimensions and thinking about how much space it will take up. You don’t want to feel crowded by your plants or worry about not having room for new plants you come across. Same thing applies to pots, the big colorful ones might make a statement but do you really need something that big? Floor space is limited to choose wisely to avoid cluttering up your oasis.
Start small and work your way up, just like most things you aren’t going to be perfect the first time and you will likely kill a few plants along the way (its easy to forget to water them). It will help you get used to remembering to take care of your plants and will allow you to slowly buy them so you don’t drain your wallet all at once.
Have fun with it!
Make it unique and perfect for you. Water Feature? Fairy Garden? Maybe a Lawn gnome or two? Go to a flea market or something to find unique pots and decorations. There are even a few medium sized artificial waterfalls that you simply fill with water and plug it in. Its your space so you can add whatever suits your mood and maybe even paint those terra cotta pots for a rainy day craft. The only thing limiting you is your imagination.
Suggested Garden Centers
There are several garden centers in Charlotte that have top quality plants and knowledgeable staff so consider buying local. Southern Style Nursery and Garden Center has a wide selection of perennials and pottery and a top rated staff if you have questions. Or if you want plants that you wont find at home depot then head over to Rountree Plantation to browse their selection of hard to find plants. Campbell’s Greenhouses is one of the larger garden centers here in Charlotte with a wide selection of everything you could need. And for the serious gardeners there is American Beauty Garden Centers organic fertilizers and high tech gardening kits with plant charts and feeding instructions.