Apartment living is here to stay but so is urban farming- grow your own balcony vegetable garden

 home-grown vegetables in metal containers in apartment
Container vegetable gardens are very productive and rewarding

The balcony vegetable garden- world of health and self-sufficiency

Growing up I imagined being able to grow my own food, just like my grandparents. Our lives are very different now though. We live in an apartment in medium density housing, yet we discovered our balcony vegetable garden can supply our family with most of our fresh vegetables, all our fresh herbs and even many fruits.

Suburban farming- the conventional way

I grew up on a big suburban block with a sprawling garden. My grandpa had a large vegetable garden where he grew most of the family vegetables. My grandma sustained and nurtured a citrus orchard and they had various other fruit trees including bananas, persimmons and figs. They also ate seasonally which meant their food always tasted better as it was completely fresh and hadn’t travelled hundreds of kilometres to get here. 

The gardening journey grows from childhood

My grandparents garden was an incredible oasis that inspired me as a toddler as I played and things seemed to grow before my eyes. As a child I helped my grandparents and watched as they organically composted and succession planted out rows and rows of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes and corn. It was the most wonderful and exciting adventure to explore their garden.

Watching as my grandpa pulled back the big leaves wrapped around the head of a giant cauliflower was so exciting. I recall him taking his knife and with neat sweeps, hacking away the leaves and passing me the fresh cauliflower head. Boy did I want to eat those vegetables and they tasted sensational.

Roll on 30 years. I have a family of my own. Property prices are ever increasing as is density of living. We have to live in the Sydney metropolitan area because of family responsibilities and affordability. Will we always? Hopefully not.

Is it such a bad thing? No. However, such a formative part of my childhood was growing up with the experience of suburban farming. Suburban farming taught me about planning as a child. It taught me about planning because I saw the process involved in growing food. I learned about planting seeds at the right time, preparing the soil, nurturing the soil as the plant grows and ultimately harvesting and all the wonderful things that can come from that planning ahead of time.

What suburban gardening taught me as a child

Suburban farming taught me the value of hard work and how resourceful and sustainable one can be by putting in the right effort at the right time. It also taught me how absolutely wonderful fruit, vegetables and herbs are and how much flavour they bring to a meal. In fact I became a vegetarian at the age of eight. Would I have done this if I didn’t have such access to fresh produce? Who knows. But it certainly helped having such an abundance of zero carbon footprint fresh produce growing on the same property that I lived on.

Gardening from a young age led us to a healthy lifestyle

I am not here to preach about being vegetarian but what I will say is having a lifestyle with the amount of fresh produce in it as I had, I experience the benefits of good health on a daily basis. My inflammatory markers are extremely low. Substantially below those of somebody who eats meat. My one challenge is maintaining an adequate iron balance but that’s another story.

I am a farmer at heart. My happiness is nurtured by the plants around me and my wellbeing is sustained by fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs. Yet, I live in an apartment. I am 25 minutes away from the Sydney CBD. I am also raising a toddler who is showing all the signs of loving the garden and its wonders just as much as my partner and I do. We wanted to raise our son with the same connection to nature that we both grew up with. Although we can’t maintain the same scale of food production we grew up with, we are incredibly resourceful and self-sufficient even though we live in an apartment.

We are balcony vegetable garden farmers

When the current health crisis hit, we wanted to be as far away from people, supermarkets and mainstream food production as we could. COVID-19, how gardening has helped my family survive social isolation in a unit with a toddler and we set ourselves a challenge, to grow at least half of all our own fresh food.

We upgraded our then current gardening model of two tower gardens to also include two long tubs and four window ledge planters. We also planted two more passionfruit’s and squeezed a few more things in here and there. Read more about How to start a balcony garden.

We enjoy the challenge of growing all of our herbs, most of our vegetables and many of our fruits in our organic balcony food garden. We grow approximately 80% of our vegetables in our balcony vegetable garden. Read more about Our strategy for growing most of our vegetables and herbs in our balcony garden

Guerrilla vegetable gardeningreclaim some space

We also decided to bite the bullet and reclaim a bunch of land on our common property and in some other local areas that we could see was not being utilised and we planted some plants there that would not ever become pests.

What plants are appropriate for guerrilla gardening?

There are a lot of plants that we would not even consider planting in guerrilla gardening style due to the risk of them becoming pests, but we plant tomatoes, beans, peas and spinach. Basically, anything that grows via taproot or root runners is not appropriate to plant. Things that are good to grow in a guerrilla gardening context are plants that produce via a long period of showing flowers that turn into bulbous fruit or by producing seedpods that then must mature and fall to the ground. This means that they will never become out of hand and spread as noxious weeds as there is a long period of time where people can catch them before they spread.

Join a local community garden

We recently visited the most incredible and flourishing community garden growing close by and I was astonished by the volume of food growing in this small lot beside a railway station. It was $50 to join but you take home much more than that monthly following enjoyable working bees with likeminded locals. What better way to get to know other locals.

We wish more local governments would adopt community gardens in high density areas. Especially when in countries like Australia, we do not have allotments. I’ve genuinely considered moving to the UK over this alone…

We are raising our toddler as an apartment gardener and he loves it

Our son’s world looks remarkably similar to our own upbringings. He is daily watching plants bloom and grow around him. He is harvesting his own vegetables and even some fruits from the plants. Our boy can name most things growing in the garden yet he is two and a half. He gets his hands dirty in the soil and we have to scrub his nails carefully several times a week to get the dirt out.

Our son helps us with every aspect of the gardening journey and is adept at planting seeds. He also loves eating his vegetables and even herbs, as long as he saw them grow in the garden. He likes them even more if he gets to pick them from his balcony vegetable garden. Yet, we live in an apartment.

Are you a farmer at heart but live in an apartment?

If you are like us and love the outdoors, greenery and the joys of growing your own food but live in an apartment, you have so many options for still enjoying growing your own. See How to grow a balcony garden here.

We would love you to join our balcony gardening community on Facebook

Follow us on Instagram @balcony_self_sufficiency to see more of our balcony vegetable garden journey.

Subscribe to our blog for your chance to win a free copy of our children’s gardening book, coming later in 2022.

Tower garden growing vegetables

Our strategy for growing most of our vegetables and herbs in our balcony garden

I would like to share with you our strategy for having a perpetually producing organic balcony garden that grows most of our vegetables and all of our herbs.

A lot of people are surprised that we live in a unit and that we grow so much of our own fresh food right

Growing food on our balcony is a journey

Hitting this point of self-sufficiency has been a journey. We have had just as many successes as failures. With lost crops that looked like they were going to be bumper successful only to have them wither, be eaten by caterpillars or affected by something like powdery mildew. Every challenge inspires us to learn more about gardening and has contributed to our respect for gardening and gardeners. We have wonderful respect for our farmers who sustain us, and contribute to our quality of life and wellness.

We began gardening as toddlers

Our growing journey began when Tony and I were each little babies gardening with our families. Separately we both grew up gardening and enjoying growing some of our own fruits and vegetables for our families. When we met, part of the bond that we formed was because we shared this passion in gardening.

Gardening and growing our own produce organically on our balcony garden became the cornerstone of our relationship. When COVID-19 hit, we wanted to develop independence from the big supermarket chains. As we watched the news and saw new COVID-19 cases every day, even just a couple of hundred metres from where we live in the big supermarket. We couldn’t have wanted to be further away from the shops. The thought of going in there to get fresh food was not at all appealing. So, I am a perfectionist and a little bit of a scientist. I was curious about how self-sufficient it’s possible to be by using a balcony garden space. 

My aim in the beginning was to be 30% self-sufficient from the greengrocer.

While my aim in the beginning was to be 30% self-sufficient from the greengrocer, we have achieved about 80% self-sufficiency from the greengrocer, all by growing really creatively in a 3×4 metre balcony garden. Read more here about How to start a balcony garden

Tower gardens and vertical gardens are the best way to grow food in a balcony

We have two tower gardens like these. Each tower garden has a blueberry, and the following plants respectively between the two gardens:

One cherry falls tomato, spinach, chilli, climbing spinach, parsley, basil, oregano and coriander as the mainstays.

Over the last four months we have also grown the following seasonal crops in the tower Gardens:

Potatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and squash.

What foods grow best in a small garden

We have a smaller grow-wall, vertical garden beside our door way to the balcony and in that we grow lots of leafy greens as well as spring onions, chives and shallots. It’s very rare that we actually use onions in our home. We have found onions inefficient to grow in our balcony garden as they take too long. Using the garlic chives, shallots and spring onions, you can reach a level of flavour just as intense and delicious as that of onion and they grow extremely well in small spaces. They are also perpetual in their growth so you able to keep the plants in the ground, cut off the shoots and away you go.

The vertical garden beside our door is in part-shade yet we have found it extremely efficient at growing the Chinese veggies and our greens in general including:

Rocket, baby spinach, bok choy, perpetual lettuce.

Grow sunflowers!

We also have a long planter, almost 2 m. In that planter we have grown a couple of sunflowers which have given us the most rejoicingly beautiful happy smiling faces that have shone down at our neighbours bringing happiness to what could be otherwise just another apartment block balcony. We were very strategic in planting our sunflowers. Sunflowers are recognised for their beautiful large flower faces but they also have a range of benefits including, the seeds are edible. Sunflowers actually purify the soil by sucking up toxins like no other plant, they can actually remove metals from the soil by doing this. Sunflowers attract so many bees and beneficial pollinating insects.

Zucchinis, a watermelon and two large tomato plants, both have hit over 6 feet tall in that garden. I will be honest, as I write this I am trying to figure out who to move as space has become at a premium and we are now at a point where we have lost productivity of some of the vegetables in this bed. The zucchini is nearing the end of its productive life so it may have to go.

Around the base of the big vegetables in that container, we have baby carrots and radishes. We have a continual supply of both and I scatter seeds every other week so we never run out.

Our weekly vegetable shop from the supermarket usually consists of three things that I just cannot grow adequately at home:

1. cauliflower

2. Broccoli

3. Sweet potato

If we can’t grow it now, then we think, maybe we are not meant to eat it at the moment. Eating for seasonality is very important for the carbon footprint of our food and means we eat food tasting better and that is fresher because it didn’t travel as far and hasn’t been in deep freeze…

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How to start a balcony garden

Planning is key

Are you looking to start growing a balcony food garden? Balcony and small space gardens are a labour of love capable of providing you with a huge range of ever ready fresh, zero-carbon footprint, foods, available whenever you need them.

8-10 week balcony gardening food harvest

Whether you are looking for a continual supply of fresh herbs that can be adapted into each and every meal or whether you love your fresh garden salads, Mediterranean cooking or Asian stirfries, the layout and structure of your balcony garden depends on your culinary tastes.

No matter what gardening experience you bring, or the size or shape of your balcony, courtyard or small garden, you can live a more sustainable life by growing food at home.

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Work backwards, from plate to garden

I broadly categorise six different types of balcony food garden plant choices:

  • Container herb garden; thyme, basil, coriander, parsley, oregano, chives
  • Mediterranean garden; basil, tomatoes, cucumber, garlic and onion chives
  • Asian garden; shallots, bok Choi, Chinese celery, water spinach, Chinese broccoli
  • Climbers; watermelon, cucumbers, zucchini, rockmelon, squash, pumpkin, yes, pumpkin
  • Salad Central; continual picking lettuce, cherry tomatoes, capsicum, chives, parsley, rocket
  • The soup kitchen; peas, beans, carrots, potatoes

Choose your pots

Although I do recommend trying a small pot garden for a couple of months before making a big purchase, if you have gardening experience and know what’s involved in maintaining your garden then I recommend using a stackable solution like a vertical garden. This decreases the footprint but increases the amount of produce that you can grow tremendously.

Choosing the right vertical garden

We have grown two flourishing tower gardens for three years now and are absolute converts to this style of gardening. In fact we were discussing recently our bucket dream of one day having a massive property and we still feel that we would have two tower gardens by the entrance to our home because visually they are spectacular and practically, they are the most efficient use of space within a small garden like a balcony.

Tower gardens are amazing for starting a balcony food garden. You can produce a lot of fresh, organic food, with a very small footprint.

Tower Gardens also offer other benefits like they save on water and I have found the highest proportion of earthworms out of all our planters seem to live in the tower garden. Compost breaks down the fastest in the tower gardens and the plants seem to thrive the most in those gardens.

Nutrients are able to flow through the different levels of the tower gardens, so when you do you something like a liquid feed, nutrients will go further which saves you money.

Choosing the right tower garden

Our two tower gardens are from IKEA and they have been very good. There are more sophisticated options available now though and if we were buying today, we would be choosing an option that was heavy duty and already on wheels such as the Large 5 Tier Stacking Planter Vertical Garden with Heavy Duty Trolley Wheels (Terracotta)

We have put wheels on all our planters except the tower gardens as we are worried about destabilising them. However, we need to turn the gardens frequently which causes us more manual work. We strongly recommend a tower garden that is very heavy duty and sturdy and that does have wheels so that it is movable.

Planting up your tower garden

We recommend adding some good quality potting mix with light weight Perlite potting mix and compost. By investing in good quality soil at the start, you give your plants a helping hand to begin their growing journey.

Growing from seed

Growing from seed saves money and effort in the Longrun. If you have ever struggled in the past with growing from seed do not give up. Seeds germinate very well in a warm environment like a windowsill or you can use a Mini greenhouse seed raising tray to help the process along.

Seeds can be costly in the beginning and there are many seeds in the packet. However, a packet of seeds usually lasts us about three years. To save storage space, we like buying Vegetable and herb multipacks and find these the best value for money

Caring for your tower garden

We find we tend to spend about 5 to 10 minutes a day caring for our balcony garden through, pest control, pruning, watering and weeding and the fun bit, planting and harvesting. Nowadays, the garden is so well-established we tend to spend about five minutes a day harvesting food. We tend to spend at least an hour a day outside, just enjoying the garden with a nice glass of wine, home-made dips and home-grown nibbles.

You will need to water your tower gardens every other day with a small amount of water into the top container. The water will infiltrate down and should collect in the bottom tray reservoir. You can tell if your garden needs to be watered by putting your finger about an inch into the soil. If it feels dry or if you notice any of your plants wilting, give them a drink.

Feeding your garden

There is no better plant food than compost. we petitioned our Owners Corporation to install compost bins on common property. They are working brilliantly and many residents are contributing. Compost is available to everyone to use and it is also serving to decrease the smell in our bin area and to feed the gardens on common property.

If you are unable to have a compost area on common property, we recommend a small composting unit, such as the Maze Indoor Kitchen Composter with 500ml Liquid Bokashi unit. This is an odour free, indoor composting unit that works quickly to break down all the food, including meats and fish, that you put in there. They are compact and very user-friendly and appropriate for apartment living. Another option is using a worm farm directly on your balcony to directly improve the soil. We also recommend a high-quality liquid fertiliser every two weeks such as Maxi crop organic seaweed liquid fertiliser

Next step is to plan your meals

Nothing beats the taste of home-grown food.

There is wonderful joy in harvesting food that you have grown from your balcony and plating it up into an amazing delicacy. It is this process that keeps us going and inspires us to grow more in the space that we have. It’s also this joy that inspires us to promote balcony gardening to others.

Please join us in our balcony gardening journey by following us on Instagram at balcony_self_sufficiency and follow this blog for more balcony gardening tips and tricks.

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White cabbage moth butterfly caterpillar organic pest control

How to beat pests naturally and grow an organic balcony food garden

Pest control in balcony and small space food gardens is a massive topic and a series of blog posts will deep dive into some practical tips and tricks for conquering the pests.

Our biggest predators have been caterpillars and slugs, although the Summer months have also brought their share of aphids and the dreaded mealybugs. Allowing the natural eco-system to evolve has supported the garden to manage pests naturally. We have several small spiders living on our balcony. Flowers are interspersed through our garden and these attract birds which eat the caterpillars and slugs.

We believe in organic gardening as a long-term solution

We garden organically so do not use snail or slug pellets or chemicals to deter any of our pests for several reasons:
  • Chemical pesticides are a short-term solution- They work by killing the pest but often kill beneficial insects too which can lead to more of the original pest with less beneficial pests
  • Birds, cats, dogs and even children can accidently ingest harmful snail and slug pellets which can be lethal.
  • Spraying pesticides on plants that are for human consumption means ultimately you too end up ingesting the pesticide
  • The pesticide can end up in the soil, leading to microbiome imbalance in the soil which leads to further problems down the track and inhibiting plant growth
  • Birds, cats and dogs sometimes end up eating slugs, snails or caterpillars that have died from pesticide. This can then harm or even kill them.
  • We see the health of our balcony food garden as intrinsically linked to our families health. It is too important to use harmful chemicals.
  • In small space gardening, if you spray chemicals there is a high chance that spray could enter your home.

What are organic solutions to pesticide for a balcony food garden

  1. Plant flowers- We used to have a big problem with mealybugs and aphids but we planted a beneficial insect mix of seeds and we have had this incredible increase in the activity of ladybugs and even birds in our garden. These feed on the pests in our balcony garden and help the natural balance of our garden stay in check. We are now visited daily by birds in the local area.
  2. Try a snail and slug beer trap- place some beer in a saucer, big enough for the snails and slugs to fall into and leave overnight. Be sure to cover it so the poor birds don’t get more than they bargain for with their breakfast…
  3. Manual removal- The benefit of small space gardens in that it is actually not that difficult to spend 5 minutes a day checking for snails and slugs by torch light in the evening, and caterpillars during the day. You can relocate them to bush land or parks nearby and the birds will thank you for the feast! Tony and I laugh that before we started a family, we would bond late at night over a glass of wine in a candlelit room. Now, we have just as much fun bonding, still often with a glass of wine but now while on a slug and caterpillar hunt! We still find it just as fun though!
  4. Install a bee hotel- We are planning on installing a bee hotel for the native stingless bees. We have a lot of them in our area so why not give them somewhere to stay. There is a wonderful range on the market. Eco-Friendly Bug House Hotel – Insect Nest Box for Gardens and Yards
  5. Focus on the health of your soil rather than on the problem at hand- often pests are opportunistic. Aphids for instance tend to thrive when a plant is not very healthy. By ensuring your plants have enough light, air-flow and well nourished soil, your plants health can improve and that can prevent pest problems.
  6. Try a milk bath for powdery mildew
  7. Decoy butterflies- Believe it or not, the white cabbage butterfly moth is very territorial. We had a great time erecting our stunt double butterflies and have noticed a decrease although not total elimination, in our caterpillars. See video of the process below. Decoy butterfly video- numbers decreased initially but some have been reappearing
  8. Order beneficial bugs to destroy pests- We ordered Cryptolaemus larvae, the natural predator, of the mealy bug. Mealy bugs are incredibly destructive and infestations take off very quickly and spread from plant to plant. They will kill a plant if not dealt with. Only the females are visible to the naked eye. They feed on plant juices. Cryptolaemus for mealy bugs

Your balcony garden is its own micro-ecosystem

When you start seeing your balcony or small space garden as an ecosystem just like any other, you realise that by making slight changes you can actually maximise its ability to work symbiotically and the amount of work that you need to do decreases.

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How to start a balcony garden

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How to grow an organic balcony food garden

We are small kitchen garden experts specialising in self sufficient, organic food gardens. We believe anyone can grow their food no matter the size of your home. Balconies, patios, decks, pergolas, sunrooms, sunny rooms and windowsills all offer opportunities for growing.

No matter what your challenge, we’ve probably encountered it and enjoy offering solutions. We aim to be a one stop shop resource for balcony and small space food gardens. We believe in wellbeing and positive mental health through gardening and believe it’s never too early to get gardening which is why our toddler is our head gardener…

Showcasing an 8-10 week balcony garden crop.
The sky is the limit. Give it a go…

Our balcony garden is 3×4 metres. We enjoy a NorEast corner position and have a green oasis wrapping around our space.

We have always enjoyed gardening but when the COVID-19 pandemic took off we were particularly mindful of our isolation but also not wanting to be dependant on the supermarket for our food.

Best Productive plants to grow for a kitchen garden

Anything that produces a high yield and has a small footprint is generally pretty good for a kitchen garden. If it happens to be hardy then that is even better.

Companion planting for pest control and happy crops

Companion planting is very important, especially for a food garden in a small space like a balcony. A lot of companion planting is intuitive. By thinking about cuisines, you are halfway towards successful companion planting. I grow tomatoes, capsicum and marigolds together to repel pests naturally.

I also grow salad greens together, runner beans together and a stirfry garden bed. The one consistency though is every garden bed has a mix of beneficial insect flowers growing scattered among the other plants.

How to create natural privacy in an apartment

We rely a lot on climbing plants so anything that produces a vine is well loved in our balcony garden because that also creates natural privacy and shade and utilises height. We plant seeds weekly, replacing what we harvest and always direct where they are to grow. Bringing plants in from a nursery raises the possibility of introducing parasites or unwanted microbes into the ecosystem. Planting seeds virtually eliminates this possibility, is cheaper and is extremely easy, especially once it becomes routine.

Love a good garden harvest. Everyone of them carries surprises.

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