“I wish I had more space for plants,” is a complaint I hear from friends who live in apartments. Their gardening seems limited to windowsills, but they lack the vision of gardening on the concrete patio right outside the living room door. Granted the space is small, usually 8’x10’, but that is plenty of space to raise plants. A small space is not a gardening death sentence, but rather an invitation to become creative.
When you are limited to a concrete pad and a small space, the obvious choice is to raise plants in containers. Anything that holds soil will typically suffice. Plain plastic containers or elegant ceramic flowerpots work well, as do milk jugs and cooking colanders. The key to success is drainage.
Whatever you plant a flower in; the container needs to be able to drain water. There are countless beautiful ceramic flowerpots on clearance racks at chain stores, but they usually lack a drainage hole. Unless you have a special drill bit that will not break a ceramic container, do not buy this flowerpot. You need to walk away, no matter how affordable it is because the soil will become waterlogged, and your plants will die. This becomes especially true when you are trying to grow a root crop like potatoes or carrots. The container needs to be deep enough for the plant to grow and also needs proper drainage, so the vegetable does not rot.
The first inclination of most gardeners is to put the containers flat on the patio’s concrete flooring. But if you want to grow more plants, vertical space needs to be used. To do this, the plants need to be staggered at different levels. Start with your containers on the concrete slab and then add plant stands. This gives you another tier of height. A compact plant can be grown under the stand and another one on top of the stand. Some balconies even have hooks for hanging baskets which provides a third tier. Baker’s racks are an excellent feature for a patio because it allows for multiple shelves brimming with plants.
A lot of apartments, especially ones in the city, have balconies with a railing and posts. These structural features make excellent options for vining plants. Cucumbers, pole beans and climbing flowers like morning glories and hyacinth bean vines will cling to the posts. The top of a railing is another option for growing plants. Every garden show I have attended in the last year or two has a vendor selling flowerpots made for railings. I have seen plastic and felt options where a “pouch” hangs on both sides of a railing. Annuals are particularly attractive in these types of containers, but small vegetables like lettuce and radishes can also be raised on a railing. The top of a soda bottle can be cut off and holes punched in the bottom for drainage and then filled with soil and a plant, strung with string, and attached to a railing for a less expensive railing garden.
What Plants Should be Grown in Containers
Small compact plants are usually a safe bet. Plants that grow either tall, bushy or have a long spread are not ideal for a small space. Watermelon and pumpkins will take over your patio, as will squash and tomatillos. If you want to grow vegetables stick to smaller statures like peppers, lettuce, spinach, and specialty tomatoes. There are many vegetable varieties bred for container gardening which are labeled on the seedling’s tag or on a seed packet.
Almost any annual flower can be grown in a container. There are your typical geraniums, coleus, petunias, and snap dragons. A lesser known is that hostas will grow year-round in containers when they brought inside over winter. House plants can come out to the balcony for summer to receive fresh air. Wandering Jew, begonias, purple heart, succulents, pregnant onions and so many others will appreciate the natural sunlight. Tropical plants are another flower option for summer color. Hawaiian Ti, bromeliads and orchids will look great on your porch.
You can also try growing a tree. Most garden stores seem to carry dwarf citrus trees. Limes, lemons, and orange trees abound with the benefit of being a low maintenance plant for your small space garden. There are also miniature figs and apple trees that remain at a small scale. Palm and Ficus trees come in sizes suitable to a balcony. All these options need fertilized around three times a year, with consistent watering, but are forgiving if you forget every now and again.
Keep in mind that whatever plants that are grown on the patio they need to have correct sunlight requirements. If the balcony is particularly deep or features an overhang there will be shade. Low light plants like the begonias, orchids and hostas will do well in this environment. Patios with virtually no shade need bright light plants such as geraniums, petunias, and citrus trees.
All plants, rather they are grown on a country estate or an urban balcony, need water. Plants in a container need more water than plants grown in the ground and are also easier to over water. Remember that the water from a container will leak onto the patio’s flooring, down the wall and can enter your neighbor’s balcony. To prevent water run-off problems simply place a saucer under the container.
Water when the soil in the container seems dry and give it just enough to where a little water seeps into the saucer. If the saucer is filled with water, there is too much. Every 1-2 weeks add a little fertilizer to the water. Plants in a container do not receive food from Mother Nature so they need you to feed them. Almost any general-purpose fertilizer will work.
The easiest place to begin is at a garden store. Buy a container, a bag of potting soil, 1-2 plants and a saucer. Pot the plants on your balcony and see how they grow. Not every plant will take, and some plants will die but do not be discouraged. Check to see if you are watering them enough and if the plants are receiving an appropriate amount of light. When the plant starts to grow you will be abundantly rewarded for successfully growing where no grass exists.
Lyndsey Roth is an experienced gardener and greenhouse grower.